One of the more basic family traits I inherited is to be an inveterate pile-maker of books. When working on a project, I take the books I will need to directly reference and make them into a pile, then a second pile of books that might be useful. I make a pile when attempting to pick out a new novel to read, and keep the pile around in case I change my mind. They multiply, get rearranged and re-sorted. I refer to this as an "organic" organizational style. I'm not Jean Piaget-level, but it gives the general idea:
Consequently, it can be difficult to judge when the books I own have exceeded the shelf space that I have. Thus approximately every year, things get re-sorted.
The good news from this year was that, after removing one banker's box of books I was unlikely to read, I seem to have fewer books now than I did last year. That I managed this seems impossible as I did not remove very many books and seem to have new ones coming in all the time, but so it seems to be.
Leaving aside non-fiction, which is curated under different rules, I finally disgorged a large portion of fiction. Historically I have been reluctant to do this under the general principle that I can hardly predict what I will want to read at some point in the future, and following my rule of taking a flier on any under $1 used book on Amazon that I have some other reason to be potentially interested in. Thus went a few novels I have been unsuccessfully attempting to get myself to read since college--Saul Bellow probably never going to happen--some false starts in grad school--other people might like Coetzee a lot, but not me--and people for whom my affection waned--Ian McEwan, whose Saturday
I liked when I first read, but which I came to view as less humanistic and more cynically formulaic (full of belief in one's own fearless truth-telling and hopelessly sentimental: the worst of all possible combinations).
None of this was surprising, exactly. I last attempted Herzog
in college, and regularly passed it over in favor of anything else, and so on down the line. What interested me was why I insisted on carrying around books through many moves even after I knew I was never going to read them. The obvious explanations can be discounted: I am not a hoarder by nature (see adding approximately one shelf's worth of books in a year), I try to only speculate on books I might read in the near future, the percentage of books I've completed on any given shelf is never less than 50% and sometimes as high as 80%. I am also quite comfortable with the fact that there are given genres, authors, etc to whom I do not respond, and for which it is not worth making the effort involved in attempting to read.
To buy a book, for a book person, is to speculate about the sort of person you would like to be, are going to be. Sometimes this process is lazy and unfocused, but there are also times when the project of being a reader takes on quite definitive purposes and zeal. Sometimes one tries on different personalities, attempts recommendations given by others, or (a common failing of the young and conservative) attempts to cultivate tastes one believes one should have. Time passes and many of these goals are unfulfilled, as with the making of reading lists. There is yet nothing definitively tragic here.
To give up those books is to admit of a kind of failure, perhaps the worst: failing at a task you decided you didn't want to finish in the first place. It's a renunciation of one set of possibilities. It is an admission of a certain kind of mortality: vita brevis longa ars
. Robert Nozick, somewhere I cannot locate at the moment, talks about aging as the closing off of life's possibilities, and that each closed possibility comes to have a cumulative effect greater than its original importance. Maybe it'll be different in ten years and I'll make a go of Bellow, or McEwan, or Coetzee, but I am also forced to concede that it may never happen.