The Weeder

It's crunch time in my household: too many books, not enough space. Several bookcases are double-shelved; most have books on the very top; and even some cupboards hold books rather than food or crockery. One of these days -- no, make that pretty damn soon -- I've got to cull. One possible way is to discard a whole category: say, books in German. I took two years of the language about 30 years ago. I hoped to become proficient enough to read Goethe and Fontane, Kafka and Grass, in the original, but that hasn't happened. It's not nothing to have a nodding acquaintance with a language, as I do with German, but why hang on to a couple of dozen books that I will probably never master the skills to get through? I guess I'm reluctant to cop to that "never"; it's not out of the question that, if I still have the marbles for it, I will go back to German after retiring. And I'm not sure I want to all but foreclose the possibility-- which is, of course, a bit of rationalization on behalf of something I simply like doing: surrounding myself with good books.
Since I suspect that similar objections would materialize for any other category on the shelves, I'm left with the other route: going through my library one book at a time, scanning each title, pulling out the ones that no longer clutch me by the lapel and say, "Hang on to me." This is labor-intensive, but that's all right because each book in my possession has a story behind it: a gift from somebody I can think about; or a selection of the book group I used to belong to; or a throwback to a period when I was intensely interested in a certain author (Julian Green, for example, the son of parents from the American South who moved to France, where their son grew up bilingual and wrote several novels set in the "old" country from which he was an expatriate); or background about a place I've been but to which I will probably not return (my one trip to Malaysia, for example, will last me the rest of my days). Each title that I exile from my realm will cost me a pang (I donate them to the Stone Ridge book sale), but I've got to make the effort. The alternative -- floundering in books like a hoarder whose residence gets so choked with old stuff that it becomes hazardous -- is looking more and more untenable.
-- Dennis Drabelle

By Denny Drabelle |  May 14, 2009; 7:00 AM ET Dennis Drabelle
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Several years ago, when I was faced with critical mass in the book room, I culled literary theory, non-classic mysteries and the badly disintegrating sets of red Moroccan leather bound classics (gave those to an altered books artist). I am back to critical mass. I've begun pulling the psychology and sociology books that were popular in the 70s. Really, I don't think I'll ever care about encounter groups. And I know I have way too many dictionaries and redundant reference books.

Posted by: cebeling | May 14, 2009 9:03 AM

My fiancee and I bought our townhouse based on evaluating where we could put bookshelves; properties with oddly angled ceilings, too many windows, etc. simply got cut off the list. Even so, we're already dealing with piles of books here and there, and despite the clutter, we find ourselves always with MORE books that catch our eye or sound good or.... Well, you can imagine where that gets us. Still, maybe too many good books is a "problem" one shouldn't really complain too much about. Yes, occasionally, we have to clear the decks, but that helps to clarify which books really really mean a lot to us, and then we always try to find the cast-offs some good homes, good readers, someone to appreciate them the way we have. Thanks for sharing some words on something all dedicated readers struggle with!

Posted by: arttaylor | May 14, 2009 9:25 AM

Wow, thanks for starting this discussion! It will help me get started figuring out what to do with my own situation!

Posted by: marymorris | May 14, 2009 1:15 PM

Another thing: I've begun using the public library more often, to bring the book population under control. Back in the day I amassed without discretion because our local library was only good for current bestsellers and not much of my taste. Its collection has grown more varied and sophisticated, so I keep my purchases to titles it does not acquire or classics I'll always want on hand. I've been giving all the books I've pulled to the library for its annual sale; unfortunately, so do hundreds of people and the selection is terrific. I always come home with something.

Posted by: cebeling | May 14, 2009 3:52 PM

Just learn to be more discriminating. If your standards are just little bit higher about the books you want and want to read, then you'll eliminate a numbers of books from each category - then, voila! More space.

Posted by: cmecyclist | May 15, 2009 5:45 PM

Serendipitous posting, if only because misery loves company. I've been thinking about all my books and wondering how on earth to cull them. Another of those situations where "Just say no" just doesn't hack it. I *want* to read all these books, and I *don't* want to get rid of the memories and associations attached to each of them!

Posted by: ericajs | May 17, 2009 8:17 PM

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