Culling the stack…

Before I fell ill with whatever crud wore me down after Christmas, one of the major items I managed to knock off my to do list was culling the to-be-read shelves. You can count on one hand the number of times I’ve willingly let things fall out of the collection. Buy enough books over enough years, though, and things have a way of accumulating. Despite your best efforts, some of those things turn out to be real dogs. 

I’ve never been shy about buying a nicer volume to replace something I already have on the shelf, so some of them were duplicates I was happy to move elsewhere. Occasionally I’ll look at something occupying shelf space and realize no matter how much time I have, I’m never going to read it. I hate to admit it, but when you start approaching 2000 volumes in your average home, space starts to become something of a premium. That’s all a way of saying that even for me there are good reasons to sometimes get rid of books.

I filled the back seat of the truck with my culls and cast offs. I’d waited until the volume justified taking a minor road trip. The local shop might have offered a few dollars for the lot – hardly worth going there versus just donating the bunch to Goodwill. I don’t blame the local shop owner. He knows his business and that he’s the only game in town when it comes to buying used books. Judging from the unopened boxes sitting in his aisles and stacked in every foot of space the fire marshal will let him get away with, getting inventory is never a problem.

The trade off with taking my batch on the road is that I’m sure to spend far more filling the gas tank than I’ll recoup from selling everything I’m hauling with me. There was nothing special or rare in the mix and the return on most used books is pennies on the dollar. It’s just part of the obsession that you accept when you’re into it deeply enough.

Knowing I wouldn’t even recoup my travel cost was worth it though, to hand them off to a proper bookman at one of the great east coast used book shops. They’ll get most of these good reading copies placed into the hands of someone who will appreciate them. Better that than dropping them somewhere where they’ll inevitably end up turned to pulp in the hands of a paper recycler.At my level of collecting, it’s not about turning a profit. With the exception of a few high points, all I’ll manage to do is make sure most of the books here are able to survive another generation or two into the future. If I’m lucky, one or two of them might survive to have a bicentennial and find their way into the hands of someone who loves them like I have. That’s not bad compensation for the time, effort, and expense. 

The only reasonable thing…

I make no apologies for the length and breadth of my to be read pile. Admittedly, my “pile” occupies a 7×14 foot wall now… with the nonfiction section bleeding over into another room, but seriously, no apologies at all. I like having options from the kings of Wessex to Buffy at my fingertips.

I’ve posted before about the ever-expanding need for shelf space. More is never quite enough. Knowing that, I’m going to do the only reasonable thing I could think of.

Over the next week or so, as I’ve been threatening for months, I’ll be culling the shelves. Every book in the pile is one I looked at least once and thought would be an interesting read. Time passes and other, more interesting books arrive. Some book is always lingering at the very bottom of the pile – a book that standing on its own I’d likely find entertaining or informative, but that as part of the wall of text will probably never be the next book I actually read. It’s a regrettable side effect of time being a finite and regularly diminishing resource.

Some of those titles, though, are still things I’d very much like to read, even if it’s at some ill-defined point in the deep future… like sometime after 2035. Other things in the pile won’t even make that cut. Those, I’ll shuffle off to Goodwill or maybe sell off to Wonderbooks for pennies on the dollar. Either way, some of the collection will work its way back into circulation next week.

For the rest, maybe four or five individual shelves worth, I’ve ordered up a bundle of banker’s boxes and acid free packing paper. Those will be going into long-term storage. It may be decades before they see the light of day again… but having spent no more than a dollar or two on any one of them, keeping them around doesn’t cause me any particular heartburn aside from needing to free up some floor space in one of the closets. That’s not too high a price to pay to make a bit more prime space available for new additions of more immediate interest.

It’s times like this I deeply regret not buying the house with a finished basement or a 4th bedroom.

A non-fiction problem…

I’ve got a problem with non-fiction. Well, technically that’s not true. I’ve been devouring non-fiction since I was a kid. What I have a problem with is my own non-fiction section. Aside from the decided focus on Western Civilization that’s sure to mark me out as an unenlightened, un-woke heretic of the modern era, titles are wildly wide-ranging. I have books in the to be read stacks ranging from the Greeks and Romans to biographies of Thomas Wolsey to volumes on the western water crisis to sweeping door stops covering Imperial Russia. It’s an embarrassment of riches at my fingertips. 

I wonder, though, if it’s not time to close the aperture a bit and pick a few periods on which to concentration my interest. Is it time to shift gears from being a generalist consumer of history to something more focused?

If so, what periods? Republican Rome though the fall of the western empire surely make the cut. Britain from the age of Victoria back to the dawn of time for sure. America from colonization through the Federalist era. The age of fighting sail. World War II. The American presidency. I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed at first blush. I know that doesn’t feel particularly focused, but all things are by comparison. 

I’m sure this is just a revisiting of the minor panic attack I had a few months ago about the fiction section being too wide ranging. Still, I think it’s worth considering if and how I should reevaluate what I’m reading. Time, by definition, is limited… and unless we stay in plague mode indefinitely, I won’t have a year to match the reading I did in 2020 and 2021 until 2035 at the earliest. That’s a depressing thought – oddly more depressing in my mind than the idea of quarantines and lockdowns continuing into the future.

I suppose all this is just another reminder that I need to do another round of curation, free some titles back into the marketplace, and relegate others to deep storage in anticipation of the day when I won’t have to be quite so selective about what book comes off the shelf next. 

What I’d rather be doing…

I’m not working this week. It’s the first time in this plague year I’ve taken a block of days off in sequence. I’ve spent the last couple of them knocking around the house, cleaning, and running errands. It’s nothing spectacular, but all things that needed doing. Here on Tuesday, we’ve arrived at the point in time where I have nothing particularly pressing to do.

What I’d like to spend this new-found free time doing, is digging around some of my favored used book shops and carrying home untold treasure. What I am doing, as you can see, is sitting here at the keyboard writing about what I’d rather be doing. 

There are, of course, reasons for this. Perhaps I should say there’s one main reason that’s not happening at the moment… but to tell that story, I have to first tell you a bit about my general philosophy of acquisition. 

Some collectors focus on a particular author, a genre, a time period, or topic. They might want signed copies or first editions. Me, well, I want nice copies, firsts if I can get them, but ultimately, my focus is on bringing in books I actually want to read. That goal has been achieved in spades. There’s literally nothing on my “to be read” shelves that I don’t want to read. 

With 500+ volumes now lingering on those to be read shelves, though, I’m beginning to feel like a victim of my own success. Based on my average yearly reading rate, I’ve built up a slightly less than eight-year backlog… and because I keep the to be read anti-library separate from the ones I have read, space is becoming something of an issue… again. I’ve lost track of how many times this has been the case already. This time, though, I’m running up against a physical limit on available wall space for more shelving in that particular room.

With all that being the case, it seems that I have a couple of possible courses of action: 1) Dramatically reduce the number of books being brought in until I’ve freed up space; 2) Viciously cull the to be read list with a goal of jettisoning somewhere between 25-50% of titles that are “below the line”; 3) Let the to be read pile bleed out into new space; 4) Box up titles I’m not likely to get to any time soon and allocate them to deep storage in an under-utilized closet; or 5) Accept that this is just life now and buy a warehouse.

So, I’ve got some decisions to make. I like the idea of bringing some discipline to the collection – of focusing in my reading on whatever I decide are the highest priority books. I absolutely hate the idea of conducting a great cull. It’s an admission of defeat – that no matter how interesting, I’m accepting that I’ll never, ever get to it. It’s even worse knowing that a year or two from now I’m likely to be in the same position… although it guarantees that after a few cycles of binge and purge, I’d have a heavily curated reading list with every title intensely focused on what appeals to me in a book. There’s an appeal there, to be sure.

Right now, at this minute as I’m writing, I fully intend to drastically slow down the number of books arriving until I’ve made some decisions. That’s not saying tomorrow I won’t be schlepping through a used book shop fondling a new box of books I just couldn’t live without. Still, I feel like I deserve some credit for even considering the issue in depth.