Too many damn books


Some booksA mere 15 years after moving into the current Byrne Towers, my office/study is being niced up. New doors, windows, carpets, fancy bookshelves, the lot.

Lots of the old stuff is going out. The filing cabinet, most of the contents of the filing cabinet, the tatty old chair, most of the crap in the desk drawers, and the desk have already gone.

Then there’s the books. I reckon there’s about 5,000 of them. Many are double-parked in new rows on the shelves in front of the old rows, some are in piles on the floor. About 40% of them have never been read, and may never be.

The bastards are taking over the house and the unread ones are making me feel guilty and inadequate.

Books, in the educated, liberal worldview, are virtuous in and of themselves, though in reality they’re just ink and paper. And nor are publishers tweedy intellectuals of infinite goodwill. Most are actually vicious corporate opportunists who assume we’re stupid. Yes, they bring out new editions of Dostoevsky and Proust and whatever’s being bigged up in the posh papers this week. But they also bring us biographies of footballers’ wives, TV cash-in books that people buy as Christmas presents but which no-one actually reads, Jeffrey Archer and the collected works of Jordan.

They’ve got you suckered even more if you like to think you’re clever … A publishing marketing bloke explained it to me once: “We don’t sell books to be read. We sell books to people who want to possess the knowledge that’s in them.” He doesn’t care if you read it or not; his job’s done when you hand over the money. The classic example would be Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’. Sold by the lorry-load, read by the handful, but either way it’s there on the shelf telling you – and your visitors – what a serious, intellectually-curious person you is.

As a corporate commodity creating a sizeable carbon footprint, books are also a horribly outdated technology. They were perfectly appropriate in the 15th century, but nowadays having a load of books like treating bubonic plague with leeches or giving the Catholic Church money to speed your progress to heaven.

My own hard-won reference library, which I used to use daily, hasn’t been used for years. There’s no need. Despite what certain vested academic and business interests claim, Wikipedia is usually brilliant. It’s updated more frequently than more established reference works. With a bit of horse-sense you can usually tell when a Wikipedia entry is unreliable. It’s much harder to tell when the Encyclopedia Britannica, or the Dictionary of National Biography are wrong.

There’s loads of other amazing reference material available online if you know where you’re looking, or have a library card, or know a friendly academic.

When I’ve a week to spare, two thirds of the books are going. I’ll keep some because they are beautiful (Chambers Book of Days, 1864), some because they’ll be difficult or expensive to find again if ever needed (The Pencil: A History) and some because you’re supposed to have them (King James Bible, Complete Shakespeare, The Avocado Pip Grower’s Handbook, etc.)

Sooner or later we’ll all be reading off electronic devices. Meanwhile, if you need anything specific, there are online bookshops and online secondhand dealers, where you can find almost anything. Then there’s the library, which can order anything you want AND which relieves you of any books cluttering your house after four weeks. And it’s free. Using your library feels a whole lot better than giving money to the same people who brought you several autobiographies of Jordan.

Just because the Nazis gave book-burning a bad name doesn’t mean it cannot or should not be done sometimes. Just look at half the stuff your local Waterstone’s was promoting for the Christmas market.

What matters is the stories and information in them. Not the fact that they’re wodges of printed paper in cardboard covers.


7 Responses to “Too many damn books”

  1. 1 Jon Turney

    If you really are shedding all those books, do remember us in the Amnesty bookshop in Gloucester Rd. You’ll get a tidy office and warm feeelings from helping the cause.

    We can even collect, though sounds like we might need a van!

  2. Jon, Amnesty Bookshop is one of my favouritest 2nd hand bookshops in the SW. Moderately priced and browsing always turns up interesting stuff. Obviously I don’t actually own any books which deserve burning or shredding; they’ll all go to good homes, I promise.

  3. 5 Christina Marie

    Hi, disguising my name lightly only so that everything i type here doesn’t come up on Google for evermore!!
    have been giving away and sorting out books for half a year now – hundreds of em. What once seemed like valuable property now just seems surplus to requirements.
    I am keeping just the books I come back to again and again.
    Stefek dying kicked me in the teeth. So ridiculous. Here he is, dead, and the seven-volume Handbook of Applicable Mathematics is on the shelf unchanged.
    It’s an insult!! Out it goes. Along with a million others.
    So the question is – given that I will soon (give or take 40 years or so) be dead too, what do I really need for the next bit? and what will I never want again?
    easy when you look at it that way….
    resolution for 2010? Set up an ebay account! But will visit Jon as well…or ask them to come collect 🙂

  4. Hi Christina Marie,
    I’m still not quite sure in my head what the rules are, but it’s probably something like
    1. Keep everything you know you’ll want to read for the first or umpteenth time.
    2. Keep everything you think you might want to lend (which with books usually means “give”, actually) to a friend or relative.
    3. Keep everything you consider useful or beautiful. I adore my Victorian 2-vol Chambers Book of Days for all sorts of reasons. I’ll also keep the 2 bound volumes of a 1930s British part-work magazine about ships because my father used to own them and referred to them all the time for his paintings.
    Everything else is clutter. And if you find you need one of them back, they’re on eBay for next to nothing.
    A secondhand bookseller I know says that selling on the web’s only worth it if you have a lot of time. Every time a book dealer gets a new load, s/he goes online, checks the prices of each, then prices their own at 5p or 10p less, so there’s a constant process of undercutting. Might be best to give Jon a call!
    I hope you can find strength in your bereavement. That seven volume maths book would probably be better off in the hands of someone who can make use of it.
    Hopefully 2010 will get better for you.

  5. Double- and treble-shelved books make for excellent home insulation!

    My book collection is in constant flux; every so often I sell off dozens of box-fresh but unread tomes, then go out and get a stack of second-hand bargains to plug the gaps. Plus the temptation to spread the joy is always there – though you’re right about how ‘lend’ with books often ends up as ‘give’… Though I still hold out hope that I’ll get back those first editions of Maus and The Story Of O.

    The books which are safest on my shelves tend to be reference works. However new or old, however redundant in times of IMDb and Wikipedia and Google, they’re pretty much guaranteed a lifelong free ride. There are few pleasures greater than taking the biggest, fattest, oldest dictionary you can find into the toilet and discovering a word you’ve never before heard of.

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