Books have me cornered. I thought I had them cornered, in the sense that those for which there wasn’t room in any of my six bookcases were relegated to steadily growing stacks in every available corner of the apartment. But when a new air conditioner arrived a couple of weeks ago, it robbed me of one of these corners, and what I have now is six stacks of books in the environs of the middle of my dining room. And I’m taking refuge in…a corner. So the tables have turned. I’m cool, but I’m cornered.
It’s too much. Some books have to go. One hundred books will not make a ding, let alone a dent. Realizing this, I decided that I would make it my mission to excise a neat 200 and grab back some of the air in here. But if I can rid myself of 200, the train of thought chugged along, then surely 300 is within reach? Just imagine all the lovely unfilled space! I always have believed that books do decorate a room, but towering stacks of them, I now see, do something else entirely to it. I must be getting old: for the first time in my life, I’m actually feeling a little abashed about the number of books in here and the space they–frankly, not all that attractively–take up. When did I get like this?
No matter when the new aesthetic took root or what it says about me. It’s here, and 300 books must go. I condemned 42 already today. So far it has been easy enough to say goodbye; what’s slowing me down are the keepers. Books I haven’t looked at, let alone looked into, in years. Books I forgot I owned. Books that not only aren’t going anywhere but that I just have to read right away, dropping everything. A lot of these books are going to figure in my posting in the near future as I ease my way back into blogging regularly. Some of the discards will no doubt make appearances as well.
For now, a general observation. I was a graduate student in English for many years but have not been for a little more than a year now. When you’re a graduate student–especially if you’re me–you buy books very nearly indiscriminately from new and used bookstores. You pick up free books from the box outside Powell’s or a box left outside a faculty office. You go to the annual library sale and go a little nuts. You must have books. Wanting to read a book is not a necessary condition for buying it; merely anticipating wanting to read it at some undesignated time in the future will do.
For one thing, having the right books gives you a sense of belonging and being in the know. More substantially, there’s almost nothing you can’t imagine possibly, somehow, at some point, helping you with your research, if you only have it at hand at the right time. (Actually, this outlook explains a lot about why my dissertation was doomed. There’s never not something else you can and should read, there’s always important stuff you don’t know.) Buying books added hope and subtracted anxiety. I hadn’t read a certain Raymond Williams book? That was bad. But merely buying the book, I discovered, made me feel halfway better. When my unfamiliarity with the material became a real roadblock, there it would be, readable on the spot. This, folks, is the way to amass a truly unmanageable and largely unread library.
It is also the way to amass a library that is eminently shrinkable. At this point I feel ready to part with many of the books I acquired as a striving graduate student, laughing rather than crying inside. There are many I’m keeping, as well: for instance, anything to do with Henry James, who was the subject of just one of my dissertation chapters–but the only one I was really interested in. Other schoolish volumes making the cut today were critical books on poetry and on the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and books by T. Jackson Lears, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Michael McKeon. Leading the rolls of the evictees were journal issues and edited volumes. Trust me, nothing says “throw me out the window quick” quite like an academic edited volume, especially one whose title involves the prefix “re-“.
Today’s keepable? A little book that is the antithesis of all the revisioning, remaking, and rethinking books. A model of economy, clarity, and immediacy. I only regret that I can’t include the pictures as I leave you with a few highlights from this classic for all time.
C D B!
D B S A B-Z B.
O, S N-D!
K-T S X-M-N-N D N-6.
I M N D L-F-8-R
For random CDB! pages complete with Steig’s wonderful drawings, go here and click on “Surprise Me!” on the left-hand side. You will be all delight.