On bookshelves, book lice and book hoarding

From the "Dude, I wish I had your problems" files:

Martin Wisse: On bookshelves: It’s that perennial middle class literary question: should your bookshelves accurately reflect what you read, or should it have the books read by the kind of person you would like to, as Ezra suggests:

Bookshelves are not for displaying books you’ve read — those books go in your office, or near your bed, or on your Facebook profile. Rather, the books on your shelves are there to convey the type of person you would like to be. I am the type of person who would read long biographies of Lyndon Johnson, despite not being the type of person who has read any long biographies of Lyndon Johnson. I am the type of person who is very interested in a history of the Reformation, but am not, as it happens, the type of person with the time to read 900 pages on the subject.

I can sort of understand this, in that there are always books you want to have read but are less keen on to be actually reading, but buying books with no real intention of ever reading them? That’s wankerish, only one step removed from something like George Bush’s reading list, where you know the person and see the books they supposedly read and think “naaah”. These tricks never work, because when people pull them they always get the same sort of Generically Erudite Library , with the Joyces and the Nabakovs and the 900 page Charo biographies and all that, but without the real sort of esoteric interests a proper bibliophile develops.

Me, I think the whole question just reeks of privilege. For the past decade or so, I’ve simply crammed books where I could cram them, meaning that the decision of which books go to the bedroom is an ad-hoc one based on whether they will fit in the space between the books that are already there. This has lead to a de facto sorting by size, because the desk drawers will only allow space for smallish books, but that’s about the only form of organisation my bookshelves have.

Going back to Ezra’s original post and the admittedly very misguided post that Ezra responded to, the most intelligent and bravest comment has to be that of one Jason Todd, who stands up among a crowd of smart, bookloving people and proclaims,

I hate books.

Hey, now, don’t look like that. He says more:

They’re big stupid space-wasters. They are usually ugly and are very heavy when you have to move.

But people insist on hoarding them. Books should only be kept around if there’s a reasonably good chance you’re going to read them again, or if you’ll need them for reference. But most books aren’t like that. You read them once and then never again. But you still keep it on your bookshelf for some reason. It’s like keeping old magazines.

“But,” people say, “I never know which books I’m going to want to read again.”

You’re not going to re-read 95% of them. If for some reason you unexpectedly decide to re-read a book ten years later, it’s not like some giant tragedy that you got rid of it. Just go to Borders and shell out the $15 or whatever.

Damn right. I’ve been a bookworm all my life, but having gone through the house cleaning process over the past few weeks (and finally having had some success with it in that my apartment is now within a normal range of messiness as opposed to being in Stage 1 Squalour), I have found once again that books are in fact among the most harmful things that a person can hoard, because
1). They collect dust, book lice, book worms (the insect) and moulds;
2) They are impossible to clean unless you sort them by size and stick them in closed cases (and even then, they will collect dust, book lice and moulds);
3) It is socially acceptable to hoard them, and it is in fact frowned upon to treat them as what they are: more stuff.

Like all stuff, books that just sit on your shelves not getting read, are worth less than nothing, and you’re better off getting rid of them. The only value a book has is from its content, and you’ve already read and absorbed that. So with that in mind, let’s come up with some better rules than the ones Matt Selman started this conversation with:

RULE ONE: Don’t display your books – it won’t impress anyone
Put your books in closed cases where they won’t give you allergies. If you want to impress a guest with your learning, bring up books in conversation and pull them out on request. Otherwise don’t bother.
RULE TWO: The time to buy a book is when you want to sit down and read it right now.
Do not buy any books you don’t have any concrete and urgent desire to read. Do not buy books to read later. They won’t run out of the bookstore, and if they do, they’ll be reprinted. Exception: School textbooks which may only be seasonally available.
RULE THREE: Book borrowing should be encouraged, without any deadline for the book’s return.
If one of your friends has borrowed a book and you want it back, ask the person who borrowed it. Secondary borrowing (i.e. the borrowing of books from someone who’s borrowed it) is still a no-no unless you and your borrower have a great tracking system, but if the thought of not getting your book back bothers you, get some perspective. I know you have fond memories of reading it, but it’s still a stack of paper stuck together with glue, and the odds are it’s becoming a bit smelly. It’s packaging. Get it out of your house. Exception: truely rare or valuable books. These make up a tiny fraction of your collection. And they probably stink of mould.
Every few years, you should look at your books and determine which of them should go. Take the ones you know you’re not going to re-read and sell them, give them away, or even, if they’re the kind of books whose content has become worthless, throw them out. This year, I got rid of nearly all my programming/web design/software books from the 1990s. They’re obsolete and I arguably shouldn’t have wasted my time and money on them in the first place. If they were from the 1950s, they might have had some value to computer historians, but I know the shelves of De Slegte are overflowing with worthless computer books, so I wasn’t even going to bother taking them there.

Treating your books (the hardware) unsentimentally won’t turn you into a Filistine. It will result in a leaner, more valuable book collection that you won’t have to schlep around when you move house, it will allow other people cheap and easy access to the content you enjoyed before them, and it will be second only to ventilating around the clock in improving the air quality in your home. And if you make a mistake, get rid of a book you get the urge to re-read, it will be available through used bookstores, online or even as a reprint.