Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Drowning in Books

by Sandra Parshall

Books on my desk.

Books on tables.

Books piled in front of other books on shelves. On virtually every shelf.

Boxes of books stacked in corners.

Books on chairs, books on the floor.


I am drowning in books, and if I hope to ever have room for... well, more books... I have to get rid of some of these tomes that currently overwhelm me.

Rather than grabbing an armful at a time and tossing them into boxes, which might precipitate a total psychological breakdown, I thought a careful pruning, a selective weeding out of unwanted volumes would be painless. And maybe it would be, if I knew the meaning of "unwanted" in connection with books. I would like to keep all of them and perhaps build new additions to the house when we run out of space.

But I must be realistic. The selection process must begin.

Every room except one in our house has bookshelves, so I have a big job. I can, at least, ignore the books in my husband’s study, which are entirely his problem. Instead of going at the rest from a negative starting point – What can I toss? – I will first mark as off-limits the books that must stay, the ones that have earned a permanent home in the Parshall manse.

First, my reference collection, all my books on crime and crime-solving, are staying put. I’ll hang onto my how-to writing books, because every time I finish writing a novel I forget how to do it and become convinced I’ll never do it again. I wouldn’t part with Donald Maass’s inspiring Fire in Fiction, in particular. 

Family room
Family room
My gardening books, my cookbooks (which are mostly stashed in cabinets and not on view), my photography books, my birding books, my plant and animal reference books, most shelved in the family room: definitely keepers. We can probably throw away the older editions of movie references – except that they might contain entries that have been purged from later editions to save space. Best to check and make sure – some other time. (I don’t care if all that information is available online. I want to be able to grab a book and look it up, not go to my computer or iPad and launch an internet search.)

Living room nonfiction shelves
I really do need all the books on history,
especially those about the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Europe, the kings and queens of England, the Borgias, the Tudors, et al. You would be amazed how often I look things up in them (such as when I want to refresh my memory of the facts after some TV drama has presented a fanciful version). I’m also reluctant to dispose of any biographies, even if I doubt I’ll ever open them again. I may doubt it, but I can’t know for sure, so best hold onto them. Again, online is no substitute. In any case, the nonfiction shelves in the living room, at least, always look reasonably tidy, probably because the bulk of our history and biography volumes are in my husband's study.

Poetry collections, books on literature – they stay.

And now we’ve arrived at the crux of my book population problem: fiction. Realistically, how many of these novels will I ever read again, or even dip into? I can name some with certainty: all of Isak Dinesen’s Gothic tales (as well as her marvelous memoirs of Africa); all of Flannery O’Connor; all of Carson McCullers; several of Thomas H. Cook’s novels, which refresh my pleasure in the crafting of evocative prose; and my old, worn hardcover copy of To Kill a Mockingbird

Living room fiction shelves after a major purge

I also won’t part with any Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine novels, or my copy of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, and a few other works of crime fiction that soar above the ordinary. I love Louise Erdrich and Edna O’Brien too much to let go of anything of theirs. I used to feel that way about a few other writers, particularly southern authors, but those bonds have loosened and I haven’t glanced at their old work or read their new in years.

What you see in these pictures is a fraction of the books in our house. The worst problem is in my study, where I write and where the majority of books coming into the house end up. The bookcase at the top of this blog is one of several in my study. The picture is a tight shot because just beyond the camera's range is a mess of such proportions that I'm ashamed to let you see it. The other shelves in the room are equally crowded, and I have boxes of books and stacks of books that haven't found space on shelves. I have books in the closet and books on the floor. My study is a disaster area, but FEMA is busy elsewhere just now, and responsibility for the cleanup is mine alone.

Will I make serious progress in purging this overgrown collection? Or will I stop the minute I’ve cleared just enough space to get all the loose books neatly lined up on the shelves (without so much as an inch left for the next new book that makes it through the door)? Anybody want to lay bets, or this one too easy to call?

When was the last time you cleaned out your book collection? Have you ever tossed something you later wished you’d kept?


Linda Pendleton said...

So many books! Ten years ago I sold and gave away about 1,000 books, keeping my favorites. Now my bookshelves are full again, although I have two less bookshelves. It is so difficult to let go of books. I do agree with you that we seldom read fiction a second time. It is the nonfiction books that are so difficult to let go. Some do become outdated, making that a little easier.

Good luck with your cleaning out. :-)

Anonymous said...

I am relieved to see someone else has the kinds of shelves that I have! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Sheila Connolly said...

Now, why does this sound familiar to me? Maybe you sneaked in and took pictures of my house.

I have books I read in high school. I have a couple of the books that my mother put in a plastic cover and thought she hid from me. I have my original copy of The Hobbit and the Ring Trilogy. And so much more...

You're right--the odds of rereading all of these are dwindling by the day, but being surrounded by them comforts me in some small way. (And every now and then I need one for a crossword puzzle!)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

My last time was right before Xmas. I didn't touch my Keeper fiction--I read Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series frequently and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander books all the way through whenever a new one is coming out. I cleared a couple of shelves of very old books about feminism, alcoholism, and codependency and a shelf of other people's poetry. And I can't believe how much your bookshelves look like mine, including the occasional shelf of objets and the line of little chachkes in front of the books. And yes, I've regretted and replaced certain books I've let go of over the years.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

With you on this.. SO difficult..but great job!

ANd hey--FABULOUS review of your new book in Crimespree! Congratulations!

Sandra Parshall said...

One danger of having too many books is that you forget what you have and buy more than one copy. In going through my books over the last week, I discovered I had two copies of several books.

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, my Outlander books are in danger of going to the Friends of the Library sale. I won't read them again, and I know somebody will want them and will put a little money into the Friends coffers.

C.L. Phillips said...

Finally, pictures of bookshelves that look like mine. I'm sending this blog post to my Mother, with the caption, "See, I'm not the only one."

I go forth today with deep gratitude that I can no longer be considered a hoarder by my family. :))

Terry Parrish said...

Like you Sandra, I won't take pictures of my shelves because they are such a mess. At least 3 deep. That also does'nt include the books in 2 piles in the living room. I also have all the books from High School that will be leaving this Spring. The chair beside my computer is stacked and won't hold anymore. But come Spring is when I plan to downsize. A lot of them have to go so I can make room for all the new ones.

Peg Brantley said...

Can I just say I find your bookcases strangely beautiful?

Anonymous said...

I bit the bullet and did a major purge. I donated the books to a local library by my house. If I'm in need of a book I gave away, I just pop into the library and check it out.

Marni said...

Oh, this was way too familiar. I kept all singed and first editions, of course, then research and most NF. It was fiction where I whittled down some space, be case that is where the books pile up. I parted with those I thought I wouldn't re-read, but were just keeping from fondness. I sent some boxes to two shut-ins I know who read voraciously, a few cartons went to a local prison library, and the rest to my library for their Friends sale. Everyone was happy, the shelves were still laden but not groaning. Now my resolution is to quickly pass on reading copies and not let them end up on the shelf at all!

steven k brown said...

First thing to do is stack all of the books either flat or stand them straight up and down. Those that are leaning will acquire "spine lean" and will be severely devalued.

Leslie Budewitz said...

What is it about January that makes us want to clean out?

I keep some fiction because it inspires me--I can go to the shelves when I'm stumped and get an idea, even if the idea differs from what I've just read.

But I have very little fiction in my study -- only a couple dozen recent cozies that I'm using to help me understand the genre. It feels too overwhelming to me to be immediately surrounded by other writers' stories. Poetry, some Montana history, my writing how-tos, references, and books on literature, yes; novels, downstairs.

LD Masterson said...

I found a new method for clearing out the old (including books). Instead of asking myself if I'll ever use/wear/read/etc. this again, I ask, "If someone broke into the house and stole this, would I run right out and replace it?" The follow up question, of course, is, "If I wouldn't need a replacement, why do I need to keep this one?"

It works for me.

Harvee Lau said...

I have two books I'm taking to donate to the library as they are not the genres I read and I'll never read them. I take a book or two at a time. That's the only way to do it. I can never give away a box of books at one time!

Marilyn Levinson said...

That's what my house looks like. There are books I've read and want to keep and books I've yet to read. Sometimes I wonder if I ever will get to read them. This, of course, doesn't include the over 300 books on my Kindle.

My husband died eleven days ago. I need to decide what to do with his large collection of mostly historical books. I welcome all suggestions.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Marilyn, my condolences on Bernie's death. If his books had a theme, is there a local library that would be interested? A school or college library? Libraries often accept donations and put memorial bookplates inside. Or if you think the books have appreciated in value, you may want to call an antiquarian book dealer -- one who makes house calls!