Why own a book collection and what does a personal library mean in the e-book era?
Cliché image of intellect: the book collection that features unmarred, leather-bound books with gold-stamped type, militarily symmetrical spines, and a musty aura of snobbery. Join me in the library for a brandy, the well-read intellectual says to his guest.
60 Minutes interviews conducted in front of a professorial bookshelf give interview subjects a subtle boost of credibility. Someone needs to figure out how these people can show off their e-book libraries.
Most everyday readers own a more personal type of book collection, an orderly or disorderly mix of hardback and paperbacks. Their bookshelves expose the essence and foibles of the reader as no other belonging does. At a party, I can’t help tilting my head to read the spines and judging what my friend or acquaintance is really about. My friend L. refuses to keep finished books in her house for this very reason.
Why is it so hard to get rid of books?
My books have been with me forever. I move them with me from apartment to apartment and they reproduce like rabbits. Each new book-bunny becomes a part of the family.
Now our apartment is overflowing—four full-size This End Up bookcases crammed with books and vinyl records. Each shelf contains a combination of upright and sideways stacks so I can fit more in. Our 750-square foot New York City apartment hasn’t an inch of space to spare.
How can I ditch my old friends? Each book could cry out to be re-read at any time, or to be finally read for the first time. I have never finished Anna Karenina or Bleak House, books a reader is supposed to love and cherish, books I may have bought because they were on some must-read list. Ironically, How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler is another book I have that I’ve never been able to get through.
There they all sit untouched, with familiar spines that I find oddly comforting.
I pull a few books off the shelves. Honestly, I hardly ever re-read fiction books. So I start with fiction that I read once 20 years ago. Goodbye Anne Tyler, goodbye John Irving and Margaret Atwood.
I become more energetic. Goodbye biographies of Jane Fonda and Frank Sinatra. Goodbye to both Willie Nelson biographies.
Hidden in a closed cabinet with VHS tapes are too many small old-time paperbacks I bought in college. The pages are beyond yellow—almost brown. Paperbacks must reach a higher threshold before they make the cut. Out they all go: Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, Rules for Radicals.
Reference books and coffee table books have a lower threshold. I’ll keep The Story of English, Webster’s Dictionary of American Women and the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, published in 1988, a dictionary of a ancient history.
I think we’re done—with the first pass anyway.
More interesting than what I tossed might be what I kept: A Fan’s Notes (paperback), A Confederacy of Dunces (well-worn paperback), everything written by people we know, every book about chimpanzees, every book about writing and editing, Stork Club, America’s Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Café Society (hardback), every book by and about Willie Morris, Paul Auster, Tom Robbins and Eugene O’Neill.
I have also kept How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler.