Too many damn books
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As a corporate commodity creating a sizeable carbon footprint, books are also a horribly outdated technology.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.
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