Why I no longer collect books
UPDATE: I recently wrote a companion piece to this post, entitled “why libraries should collect books.”
Apologies in advance to the length of this post. The thoughts and ideas expressed below have been percolating in my head for the last dozen years or so, and it’s time to begin letting them out. Some recent breakfast reading–James Woods’s excellent New Yorker essay on his deceased father-in-law’s library–set the wheels in motion.
Let me begin by making a simple statement: I am a librarian who has no particular affection for the object commonly known as the book. The emphasis here is on ‘object,’ since as texts I have great affection for any number of books. What I am saying is that I do not hold the object to be precious just because it is a book, nor do I believe as do Nicholson Baker and Ranganathan that every book necessarily has its reader. Yes, they are likely correct in a narrow sense, but not to the point to which we librarians often carry the argument in defense of our collections and arcane practices.
Backing up, I need to stress that although I am generally known by my immediate colleagues and in my limited professional circles as a technically oriented librarian who runs systems and now manages IT operations, my educational background is entirely in the humanities, specifically German language and literature. Both my BA and first MA are in German, and when I entered grad school, it was in a PhD program in German with the intent to seek my way into the professoriate. At some point I lost interest in that ethereal pursuit, largely for practical rather than intellectual reasons, but that is another topic. My point here is that as much as anyone who seeks a PhD in literature, I bathed and swam in the textual world for years, and have built my intellectual house on a foundation of textual analysis, close reading, and an endless desire to debate the merit of pretty much any position.
As with many on that path, I once fetishized books and considered their acquisition and display to be essential. One of the strongest memories from both my undergraduate and graduate experiences is the omnipresence of walls of books. Every faculty office had dangerously overloaded shelves, seminar rooms had shelves of elegant hardcovers, and the defining decor element in every grad student’s abode was the book collection chock full of Derrida, Foucault, Habermas et al. When my now wife’s path and mine converged in graduate school, two daunting collections collided, as often happens in academic pairings. We shed some obvious duplicates, but kept others, because of course her marginalia said nothing to me and vice versa.
My entry into what has now become my career came while I was still a grad student at Washington University. In the second semester of what would be my last year in the program, I took a part-time job at the reference desk to supplement my TA earnings, stocking printers with paper and answering questions. Somehow, the librarian who ran the storage library on the West Campus discovered that I spoke German and could at least transcribe most Cyrillic languages, and quickly grabbed me to help with the processing of some massive book donations that the university had received and sat boxed on pallets in the depths of the storage library.
There’s something about going through a departed person’s books that feels more than slightly voyeuristic, perhaps even invasive. As I opened case after case of books from men (all men, alas) who had bequeathed their tomes to the library, I felt that I was peering through a window into their lives. Books, and our choices we make with them, reveal a great deal about a person, not least after tossed in boxes so that we as the owners can no longer control who sees what nor in what order or context. We can no longer explain why we have that distasteful or low-brow (oh the horror!) title, such as a copy of a Danielle Steele novel or the anti-German screed Germany Must Perish!, the latter being part of my own personal collection for reasons I’ll let someone ponder when I’m gone.
The gift processing we did at Wash U was by far the most disciplined and consistent I have encountered in my career, largely due to the management skills of the aforementioned West Campus librarian. We sorted the books into two general categories–duplicates of titles in the collection, and non-duplicates–adding contextual notes where relevant, such as noting new or variant editions, special features such as dedications, etc. After this sorting, the subject librarians were invited to the sorting area to select what they wanted for the collection. Everything that remained after that cull was placed in a storage area until we had a critical mass, typically several ranges or around 7-8,000 volumes, at which point we would put out a call for bids to regional used book dealers. We often netted bids that more than covered my paltry wages, not least because we had a run of utterly fabulous collections full of hardbound titles of interest in excellent condition. After the dealers took what they wanted, we ran a public book sale for the campus which was always popular since we sold books for a flat rate around 50 cents for paperbacks and a buck for a hardback. One sharp-eyed buyer nabbed a Dickens first edition, while I once scored a first edition of Ulysses, albeit the 11th printing and in terrible shape. Anything that remained after that went into a donation bin for the public library, until we realized that putting thrice-culled dregs into a donation bin was just pushing off the burden of disposal to others and wasting their time, so we started putting them in boxes (we didn’t want our own Nicholson Baker exposé moment), sealing them with epic amounts of duct tape, and chucking them in the dumpster.
Wait, what? A future librarian hucking books into a dumpster?
Yes, exactly that, and I felt no guilt. This was right around the time that Baker was barking about libraries discarding books and card catalogs, which means many cultured people were watching libraries for signs of anti-book tendencies, hence the duct tape to keep the boxes intact and thwart snooping. Reading Baker’s jeremiads, I understood some of his anxieties, but unless you’ve ever worked in libraries and been overwhelmed by the sheer mass and absurdity of the printed text, you don’t know anything about managing mass amounts of books. Those of us in the crew that did this dirty work occasionally referred to ourselves as the book executioners. That’s a morbid moniker, but the point was that we did something that others had been too weak willed to do, namely, to look at a book, shrug one’s shoulders, and chuck it in the trash. After all, destroying books is something that Nazis and other totalitarian types do, right?
The inability to discard even the most pointless book appears to be some universal human problem. No normal person has problems throwing out cracked dishes, old shoes, cassette tapes, dead plants, and so on. But old books, no matter how moldy, battered, or pointless, just never get the treatment they deserve, which is sometimes a trash bin. Ask any librarian how many people have tried to donate their lovingly boxed and preserved National Geographic magazines, their basic and battered Shakespeare sets, and so forth, and you’ll get epic tales of pointless gifts that just put an expensive burden on libraries. Who hasn’t seen a garage sale where someone isn’t trying to sell a Gideon’s Bible or a Book of Mormon (the point being that they are given away freely)? How many people still have their college textbooks on their shelves with those little yellow USED stickers intact? People, throw away your own trash!
Back when I was doing this gift processing work, I still fancied myself a book collector, because as I said I love texts, and collecting books was just what literary and intellectual types do. Not to do so seemed morally suspect, or at the very least evidence of a lack of commitment to the life of the mind, which I equated with my chances for landing a professorial job. While still in graduate school, I entered my collection of Czech literary translations into a contest, and later was inspired by my first and only reading of Ulysses to start accumulating Joyce texts. This meant I acquired texts that I have since declared that I have no intention of ever reading, such as Finnegan’s Wake. Over the past ten years or so, I’ve spent a not insignificant amount of time divesting myself of those books, in some cases successfully, in others letting things go for prices about which my miserly side still grumbles.
Lest anyone reading this think that I have chosen to become a semi-illiterate boob, I can assure you that I still read enormous amounts of text. My main pleasure reading is The New Yorker, with which I’ve had a long love affair, and I read a fair amount of professional writing in my field, both in journals as well as on blogs. Books still find their way onto my nightstand and desk, too, although it’s a good year if I make it through more than 10. I’ve always been a multi-thread reader, i.e.- incapable of reading only one book at a time. Currently, I’m reading:
- First, Break All the Rules by Buckingham and Coffman
- Der Turm by Uwe Tellkamp
The latter title is a dense thicket of German prose, so dense as to make Thomas Mann seem like light reading by comparison, so it’s not exactly a quick read. I mention this only to demonstrate that I haven’t entirely lost the ability to read nor the taste for more esoteric literature.
No, my purpose here was merely to sketch the path from bibliophile to biblio-ambivalent. As a librarian, I’ve often been consulted by friends or acquaintances when they have book-related questions or issues. One of the more interesting issues that arises in life is what to do with the massive amounts of books that passionate collectors accumulate, not least after they have died. Nothing can weigh more heavily on heirs than having to deal with someone’s library. On the one hand, they respect the intellectual and perhaps financial investment made by the collector. That person’s library likely represents one of the most intimate personal legacies left behind, and as such it has sentimental and emotional baggage aplenty.
On the other hand, they certainly don’t want the books in their homes, and have literally no idea what to do with them. Unless the deceased was a serious collector–most aren’t, and I mean serious about value and provenance, not the content–the collection has little financial value. Most of the few remaining used book dealers have become quite selective about what they will take, simply because the market for used books is evaporating as younger generations socialized in a hypermedialized world enter adulthood. And yet, despite the lack of value, few have the strength simply to discard the vast majority of the books, as they might do with old bath towels or bed linens, even if that’s the most viable option. So they dutifully box them up, take them to the library, and assume that they’ll find a good home there, much like taking a stray cat to the shelter. We know how that often ends.
I have no desire to put anyone through that particular emotionally charged experience, so part of my book divestment urge, both in the physical and intellectual sense, is simply an attempt to make the problem mine, not my childrens’. Sure, I’m likely decades away from that scenario, but why not get an early start? In the meantime, I can enjoy more room in my home, make moves that much simpler (and cheaper!), and use libraries for what they do best, namely checking out books to me, rather than asking them to do my dirty work.