Thursday, May 13, 2021

Dismantling the library - if only for the delight it would have given me to get rid of them

Wuthering Expectations is not moving, despite its recent transformation from a blog to a newsletter, but the Amateur Reader, the actual human, meaning me, is.  From the prairie to the sea, perhaps.  What will happen to my books?  I am moving every one of them, but maybe not more than once.

In other words, I am deaccessioning.  Lightening the load.  Getting rid of a lot of books.  My current mindset is ruthless and brutal.

Lately I have been reading exclusively from my shelves, evaluating, often saying farewell.  Enjoy your new home, book.

Joseph Epstein wrote, in 2000 or so, about his own purge of his library, from around 2,000 books to 400, in “Books Won’t Furnish a Room” (collected in In a Cardboard Belt!, 2007).  The essay is really a way to play with his collection one last time, to wander around the shelves.  A last chance for nostalgia, or jokes.  “I wish I had owned some of the French literary theorists, if only for the delight it would have given me to get rid of them,” (102).  He keeps all of his Henry James, Proust, Santayana, and Beerbohm.  “I would love to tell you what the deeper meaning of my love for them is, but I cannot because I gave away my six volumes of the Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud” (105).

Epstein was influenced by his experience as an estate executor for sociologist Edward Shils, whose Hyde Park apartment, including the spare bathroom, was packed with 15,000 books.  “I hated to see [the collection] broken up, for it was in itself a work of art,” and Shils had “put them to the highest use” (98).  But they seemed “inert, cumbersome, almost grotesque” without Shils.  I was reminded of Epstein’s essay when James Wood published “Shelf Life” in the New Yorker in 2011, the account of his difficult struggle with his father-in-law’s mass of books.  He vowed not to leave the problem of his own library to anyone else.  I wonder how that has gone.  Patrick Kurp has a nice post about some similar essays as well as Epstein’s, on the job of what Kurp calls “you, the free-lance librarian.”  That is how it feels now, certainly.

My principles of deaccession, all of which are subsets of “know thyself”:

1.  Travellin’ light.  My “giant personal library” fantasy has been gradually replaced by a “divides his time” fantasy.  You know, in author bios, the writer who “divides his time between Paris, Florence, and Schenectady,” like a Henry James character?  Aren’t those writers the worst?  I want to be one of them, except in cheaper cities.  Store the remaining books in Schenectady, I guess.

2.  My library is more of a working library than most people’s, although less than yours, of course, but after fifteen years of internet literary criticism I have a good idea of which books do the work and which are never opened.  The slackers can go.

3.  Time has passed.  I pulled Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments (1987) off the shelves recently.  I had last read it 28 years ago, when the 1993 movie came out.  It’s almost a unique book in its energetic, meaningful use of pop music, and I was thrilled to read it again.  Love it. Out the door!  Farewell, book!  If I want to read it again 28 years from now – when I will be 79 years old – I bet I can find a copy, perhaps in a

4.  Library.  Epstein is not sure he wants to live in a library.  I agree – I want to live next to a library.  The Lyon Public Library was my home away from home away from home when I was in France.  I have become comfortable with the idea that professional librarians can manage and store my books for me.  Austen, Dickens, Faulkner, Nabokov, Morrison – you know, I tell myself, good libraries have those.  And a good public university library has more than that.

If I were moving away from libraries, I would be tempted to bring every single dang book with me.  But I would not because of

5. The internet.  It has changed everything.  I would never have guessed, in the 1990s, how easy it would become to search for images.  So most of my art books, gone.  Ordinary paperbacks of public domain books, gone.  In 28 years, the American public domain will have reached 1953.  Before I went to France, I trained myself to read books online, and it did take some training.  But now I have books on my computer, books on my phone, books everywhere.

In an ironic, aggravating footnote, I was not able to find my copy of Joseph Epstein’s In a Cardboard Belt!, which must be in the house somewhere, but is not with all of Epstein’s other books, presumably because I had it out for something else I wrote who knows when.  But the book is, yes, available on the internet, and I used the scanned copy to find the quotations I wanted.

I’m keeping my Epstein books.  Anything I bought in France.  Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four, yes, but Kirby and Lee’s Thor has already been sent to my nephews.  Library of America Henry James stays, but those beat up old Penguins, I don’t know.  The battered paperback Bleak House I bought for 18 cents (!) in 1990, which I have read twice and my wife has read once, that goes.  Got my money’s worth there.  I just pulled my old Penguin Balzacs, since I’m not allowed to read those in English anymore.  Maybe all of the translated French should go.  No, the Richard Howard Racines and Molières, those I’ll keep.

Maybe I’ll write updates like this all summer long.  I doubt this is so interesting, but it is sure taking up a lot of my mental energy.  “Sometimes reading supplies the most cunning of all means of avoiding thought,” Epstein worries (107).  Too true.  And now much of my thought boils down to “Yes or no?”  Mostly, no, no, no.


  1. i don't know... i'm 78 and still accumulating; i have bad dreams about books i know i had once but don't any longer... fraught with danger, that is...

  2. I thought you mostly read public domain electronic books?

    Those lost books might be available somewhere, in some form. Unless they are purely dream books, in which case the only way to read them is to write them.

    Epstein recycles his essay in a short story, "Felix Emeritus" in Fabulous Small Jews (2003), where the 80 year-old professor of Central European literature liquidates his library before moving into a retirement home. He keeps Kraus, Mann, and Musil, but "The 143 volumes of his great Weimar edition of Goethe would have to go, of course."

    1. i just misspelled something... i had about 2500 books at last count altho i do read electronic publications. what can i say, i have a warped curiousity gene, haha...

    2. No, what! Reading public domain electronic books is good! Not warped, but true, if we're using lumber language.

  3. Most interesting, so I vote for ongoing updates. (Thoughts of downsizing arising over here, and I am dreading the library purging that would ensue. All tips needed.)

  4. Not boring at all, I'm interested in your thought process. Though I don't have any immediate plans to move, I am still looking to create some space so am also evaluating what I have in my personal library. I have a stack that I kept for years thinking I would re-read them. But I never did and I decided I could always get them from the library if I had an urge to read again

  5. Perhaps I will update when the pain threshold becomes too high. Or perhaps I will crack, and begin frantically buying books.

    A luxury of age and income is that I sometimes now buy a book - novels, especially - assuming I will give it away after I read it. I do, though, have to read it for the plan to work.

  6. //recent transformation from a blog to a newsletter//
    I would like to subscribe to the newsletter and need information about subscribing to it.

  7. You're subscribed! This is it! All I had to do was say it's a newsletter, and there we are.

    There is an email subscription gadget in the upper right, if for some reason that is useful. I read all of my so-called newsletters in an RSS reader, though, so they are all in one place, and archived. I use Feedly, but there are others.

    The email gadget is changing in July, but that is my problem to fix, not yours.

  8. Joseph Epstein only had 2000 books! Piker. (Seriously I would have guessed more.)

    If you're dividing your time between places, you need books in each of them, I'd say...

    I'm not getting rid of any books at the moment. I'm just happy when the rate of increase slows--the pandemic has been good for that at least.

  9. I wondered about that number. He was editor of a literary magazine for a long time. The flow of books must have been preposterous.

    I will note that the places where I would likely divide my time have libraries, wonderful, wonderful libraries. They have many, many books.

    1. Yeah, I subscribed to The American Scholar for a while so I could read his column as soon as possible. (And then still went out & bought the book.) I have to imagine books (and publicists) were beating at the door to be let in. Perhaps a number of them were French theorists, though.

    2. He wrote some beauties during that time. Models of their type.

  10. What a lot is going on here! First of all, congratulations, if that's the right word, on the move - to the sea, if that's indeed the direction. I grew up by one ocean and now live by another, and I think I would feel bereft if I had to live without the sea. All those cliches about the perspective it gives are true, if not always consoling.

    A newsletter: ha. I am baffled at the rebranding going on around us. Is it the word "blog" that seems outdated? As we've discussed, you could always get posts sent to you by email if you wanted. The main result of the shift to the newsletter mentality (or perhaps it is the cause) is the decline of comments as more readers receive updates in isolation. I miss the way blogging encouraged us to congregate and wander.

    Steve Donoghue (the most voracious reader and book collector I've ever known) helped me see clearing out my books the way you suggest here - handing them off to other readers. My judgment of what I can "deaccession" has not been perfect--I regret some losses--but you are right that it has never been easier to track down replacements or alternatives. Godspeed to all of these efforts!

  11. Thanks! I have never lived by the ocean, really. Lake Michigan has certain sea-like features, but no, it is not the ocean. This is all a good, new adventure.

    I have yet to see a defense of the "newsletter-is-different" concept that makes any sense. And any differences I do see, like worse commenting, are to the detriment of the newsletter.

    When I first saw Donoghue offer to send anyone any book he wrote about, I thought he was joking. It was instructive to figure out that, no, he really meant it, he would send a stranger his copy of whatever book (and, when it showed up in Brattle, buy a new one). I thought about doing something like that this summer, but I do not want to fuss with the logistics.

  12. its recent transformation from a blog to a newsletter

    I had no idea what this meant, but it made me grumpy. Now that I've read the comments, I see it's a riff on some "newsletter" fad that has happily escaped my notice; as long as nothing will change here and I don't have to do anything about anything, it's fine with me, whatever it is. (*waves cane, yells at cloud*)

    Thinking about deaccessioning also makes me grumpy; the only time I did it on a large scale, when we moved from Pittsfield, I got rid of a few books that I still miss (along with scores that I don't, but that's irrelevant). I'm still acquiring books unrepentantly. But then, I am not planning a future as a city-hopper. Fortunately, there is an excellent used-book store nearby that buys the collections of deceased book people, so my heirs and assigns will not have to wring their hands too wretchedly.

  13. Yes, I am afraid I am mocking newslettrism, which I think is a bad thing. Robert Minto lays it out in this transition-to-newsletter post. #1 is sad, but #4 is worse. "When someone emails me about a blog post, I am always so much happier than when someone comments on it." I have argued with him about this, by email, as he wants.

    How wonderful that the internet has made it so easy for intellectual discussion, argument, process, mistakes, you name it, to be as public and participatory as possible. (Like, for example, languagehat). Let's not undo that.

    In some important sense, I am planning on having more books, just stored in various libraries. "Better libraries" is actually one of the parameters of this move. Ocean + better libraries.

  14. How wonderful that the internet has made it so easy for intellectual discussion, argument, process, mistakes, you name it, to be as public and participatory as possible.


    I can understand the library thing for those who merely read their books; why not borrow them, free for nothin', return them when you're done, and save space and hassle? But it won't work for me; when I read, I make marginal notes and endnotes, and when I go back to the book I want to see them and perhaps add to them. And I need the book right there in case I suddenly want to turn to it at 10 PM; the fact that there is or might be a copy in a library I can get to by car is not a help. And speaking of "might be": many of my books are obscure enough it would take a major research library to get them, and then I might not be allowed to take them out. Not to mention that a lot of my Russian books are even harder to find than that in this part of the world. No sir, I'm not giving up my dusty, absurdly heavy (we had to have a couple of jacks installed in the cellar so the study floor wouldn't collapse) collection. (Should I go like Leonard Bast, it would be a painful but appropriate demise.)

  15. The method matters, yes. I take notes outside of the book, electronically. I was never able - or never trained myself - to use or find notes I made inside books.

    And, yes, a lot of the deaccessioning attention has been to novels, mere novels, books to read (and re-read, but likely not for decades).

    A luxury of studying French, compared to many other languages, is that books are easier to get than ever. Still, any book I hauled over from France is getting hauled again.

    Poor Leonard! And they were not even his own books!

  16. 15 years ago I moved from Florida to The Phillipines. I had a very large accumulation of books, far to much to Ship. I did Ship about 200, I am sure I am The only owner of The 16 volume set of The Diary of Pepy’s for a first edition Gravity’s Rainbow. As many as I could I sold on Amazon. Others i gave to my local library. I enjoy having a Core real books but I mostly E Read now.

  17. You, mel, have been something of a model to me about how to use the internet as a reader. I Know your public library situation is not good, so the substitutes are so important.

    The idea of the "core" library is quite appealing.

  18. Yes sadly ws have no Public librsry. And for now Under lock down hard to get to malls, before I left i also bought at garage sales a few hundred Children’s books for my then very Young daughters. My youngest now 23 says The science books motivated her to study biology and now she has a full scholwrship to top medical School. Our Middle daughter now 25 loves to read. I have seen in several places having books in their home helps children develop mentally.

  19. I have no doubt that is true, about books in the house, and making reading a normal activity, not something purely associated with school and homework.

  20. I grew up in a house with a lot of books, and so I'm suspicious of people who don't own a lot of them. The last time I visited him, I found that one of my brothers owns only about a dozen books, all trashy thrillers in paperback. I always suspected that he was a changeling, and now I have proof.

    By my estimate, MR and I have about 2800 books in the house, and we keep buying more all the time. When will we find time to read all these new books? I don't know. I have vague dreams of retirement someday, and settling down to do the work of clearing up my TBR list. We also have no plans to leave this house, so as long as we can figure out where to put more shelves, there's no problem. I find walls of books to be reassuring, because apparently my dream home is in fact a library with a full kitchen and a bar.

    Once in a while I am struck by the thought that I might outlive my wife, and will likely be unwilling to stay here. That will present a problem in terms of books, but I am also unsentimental and could probably rid myself of all of them in order to lighten my load enough to move into a remote yurt or whatever.

    Anyway, do please keep us up to date on this.

  21. Never moving, being content with one's lot, learning to sit quietly in a room - these are all good solutions to many problems.

    I have no clue how many books we own. Best not to know. We already have many fewer than we did two months ago.

  22. Thinking of a comment up above...

    I always thought Michigan should count. If you couldn't see the other side... 'Anything bigger than that, like Michigan or Baikal,/Though potable, is an "estranging sea".

    My wife never bought that argument either.

  23. The smell is so non-oceanic, and the certain aspects of the movement of the water, especially the lack of tides, do it in for me. Plus the absence of seafood. How I loved Shaw's Crab House, but little of what they served was local.

    Not estranging enough, and, back to Arnold, not salt.