Last week I climbed up my bookshelf to take down Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran for a friend whose book group is reading the controversial Nabokov novel Lolita. Last weekend I located a well annotated copy of the Tom Stoppard play Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead for my daughter to study in school. Yesterday I searched for a home for my newest, In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi, finally squeezing it into place with other interesting non-fiction memoirs. Today I’m looking for space to store new material I need for work. There is no more room on the shelves so some of my books must go. I’m making piles to be rehoused, sent away, gifted.
Bookshops are an almost erotic space of guilty pleasure. The satisfaction of purchasing a new book whose world is still a mystery is like meeting a new friend. There is the same unguarded openness and excitement, a desire to be together all the time, the compulsion for physical contact. The unknown realms of a new novel entice and I am without restraint and reckless. The glossy covers tempt me and turning the title page for the first time I enter a universe with endless possibilities. Leaving the bookshop with a crinkly brown bag I am full of hope and new horizons.
After the rush of first reading, I keep books which I think I will read again. I keep books which record my reading history, books I’m likely to lend and books that mark my identity. I have novels I read as a child that started me on my enthusiasm, academic books from being a university lecturer, classics from university reading lists, theory from the 80s critical theory and cultural studies, history from working as a curator, books by friends, reference books just in case, encyclopaedias, Jewish books, novels from all periods, short story collections that I love.
When it comes time to cull I follow Marie Kondo’s advice and keep only those which give me joy. Yet, selecting my favourites requires deslecting others. Today I made a pile for the Opp shop: a 30 year old art book, encyclopaedia of The Jewish World, Modern Researcher, Buddhism for Mothers, a faded French dictionary . . . Releasing books means letting go of selves. Books are the sliding doors to alternative selves and culling them means reconciling myself to the roads not travelled.
With the ambition to save space I tried an electronic book reader just once, but gave it up because I could not remember the book I read or its author. I recently repurchased it in paperback and had a strange feeling of deja vu as I turned the volume in my hands and admired the cover. The number of e readers being purchased (and presumably used) is increasing as the number of books read goes down. But the figures for book use are still high. 72% of Americans read one book in the last 12 months. 15% read a digital book. (This week’s census might give us figure for Australian use. If I could only access the website.)
A digital innovation that I have embraced and wish to share is the Library Thing catalogue with its QR code reader. Having set up my own library catalogue I simply scan my books with my phone and through the ISBN the book is catalogued. It’s a magic way to keep track of your reading. No longer do I struggle to recall the book I read last week and summarise its plot. I search my Library Thing catalogue and this anxiety of forgetting is averted. Neat lines of book covers appear before me on my device to remind me of my reading.
So I am freer in my culling, boldly give away books knowing that they are not lost forever. A record remains, even when my memory of them has faded. Library Thing has changed my life. Some people keep a diary, some store memories on Facebook, I have Library Thing.
Having failed at the digital book reader, I continue to buy books and to cull them with new confidence gained from Library Thing. I can happily remove a second hand volume of the works of Alexander Pope from my bookshelf and place it on the recycle pile. It did not give me joy even when I bought it in 1989. But I will never throw away the dog eared large print edition of Pride And Prejudice that I have read every year since I was 12.
What book could you never cull?