Keeping books, and learning to let go

Posted: November 4, 2013 in cultural commentary, reading
Tags: , ,

I find our relationship with books as physical objects a little odd. Almost everyone I know, myself included, is in the habit of hanging on to them, accumulating them on shelves around their house. Getting rid of books becomes a big step, unthinkable to some, even though we know we’ll probably never read most of them again. It’s a little odd.

As a habit, I can see how it made sense at one time. Books used to be rare. They used to be things of fairly high value. They used to be hard to replace. These days, between libraries, Amazon, charity shops and e-readers, you can replace almost any book for a couple of quid, assuming all you care about is the writing inside.

Just the books I can reach  from bed

Just the books I can reach from bed

Of course, that’s quite a big assumption, and not true for some people. I know someone who collects signed August Derleth originals. For him, it’s as much about the collection, about the physical objects and the joy of discovering them, as it is about the contents. But most of us haven’t consciously turned book collection into a hobby, it’s more just a habit that spreads across our homes until every corner is full of paper.

I think this is one of those cases where our habits and emotional attachments haven’t caught up with our changing society. I suspect that, if I ditched most of my books, then the time and money I saved not keeping them in order, not moving them every time I moved house, being able to easily find the few I kept, would vastly outweigh the cost of buying one or two again when, years later, I decided that I wanted to re-read them. But can I bring myself to do that? Not quite. Not yet.

What about you? Do you keep all your books? Are some throw-aways? Are your habits changing? Leave a comment, let me know.

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Comments
  1. skudssister says:

    I am Jane and I am a book addict……
    I am an Alice collector (sitting here by my full bookcase of Wonderland related titles) and also an arranger. Our books are shelved by category, and then alphabetically, as it seems hard to not be a bookseller even after hours.
    I wouldn’t have it any other way but have had to resort to getting proofs to review as e-books – we were starting to drown under all the paper and the walls of the house were beginning to bulge outwards…..

    • I like that you have a theme to your collecting, especially such a wonderfully whimsical one as Alice. But then, you’re sort of a professional hoarder of books, so I guess it’s to be expected!

  2. Ben Burston says:

    This is a really personal issue for me. I assume that I’m your August Derleth collector – unless you know another (and if you do I need to meet them!) – I suspect that my background in History/Archaeology is as much to blame for my views on my book collection as it is down to my love of Fiction. The books themselves are historical objects. They have belonged to previous owners – who in many cases for old hard back quality books, especially small press stuff – are identifiable and significant individuals in genre fiction. For example – (and seeing as you cite me as a Derleth collector I shall stick with him for the example) – this weekend I bought a Signed collection “Colonel Markesan and Less Pleasant People” by Derleth, 1965 I think,. Signed & inscribed to Brian Lumley. Lumley is now a successful author himself in the same genre as Derleth (really terrible pulp Horror fiction). He was pretty much discovered by Derleth – who first published him, around the time that this book came out. This was a great find, all the more so because when I went to pick up the book from the dealer at WFC – Lumley was there browsing the bookshelf. Really made my day. Thing is though. after Lumley had wandered on tot he next stall, the Book Dealer says to me; “This is a great book, I’m sorry to see it go.” I agree with him, really is an excellent find for an Arkham House collector. Then he says “You aren’t going to read it though are you? It’s absolutely awful”. I smile and agree – leaving happily because I have just had a conversation with someone who thinks like I do about books. The Book is the artifact – It really is a beautifully made book. The inscriptions lend it significance as an individual copy. The stories are not necessarily the be all and end all of the book. It makes more sense to me that collecting ornaments or any kind (though books are an ornament in themselves I suppose). Happily – it does work both ways. There are just as many classic, beautiful, but very well written, gripping, amazing stories that are bound as quality hardback books. I just view the pulpy predictable, dated stuff that I wade through as a guilty pleasure which is happily interspersed with wonderful; writing of extremely high quality; Ramsey Campbell for example, or T.E.D. Klein, or Ray Bradbury. Anyway – I have waffled on enough. I hope it sort of makes sense. I haven’t slept much recently due to WFC at Brighton! I bloody well will read Colonel Markesan though. Bet I love it.

    • Thanks Ben. Yes, you were the collector I was referring to – given my circle of acquaintances, I can’t completely rule out knowing another Derleth collector, but if I do then they haven’t told me. Thanks for the perspective on collecting – having spent some time in archives I can totally understand the appeal of old books as artefacts. And well done on the Lumley find – that’s an awesome little fragment of literary history.

  3. James Osborn says:

    I’m definitely finding it easier to pass on books once I’ve read them as much as I’m likely to. It’s liberating to clear some of the shelf space and to give the stories a chance to be read again.

    There are very few books I’ve read twice, I’m always looking out for the next new thing or interesting series. As such, I’ve got a massive stack of paperbacks that are in near perfect condition, and are just sat on a shelf.

    I’ve given away a couple of large boxes of books recently, and more will no doubt follow. I like the idea that the books I’m giving away will be read again, it’s got to be adding more to the world than to just have them filling a shelf in a spare room.

    Anyway, I’m sure that someone famous once said ‘never lend a book’. It seems like a good maxim to me.

    • Ben Burston says:

      James – I offloaded about half of the ones you gave me – some to very grateful people, some to surprised people who seemed genuine about actually reading them and a couple to some scumbag viper types who really didnt want them but didnt know that I had put them in their car. The Robin Hobbs ones just got signed at world fantasy convention, courtesy of Liss.

    • I’m not sure who the someone famous was, but the person I remember saying it was Admiral Adama on BSG. So maybe keep an eye out for cylons eyeing up your paperbacks.

  4. tenabreme says:

    A couple of years ago, I began a habit of buying secondhand copies of books I remembered reading as a child, some no longer in print. I think my record was 2 boxes in 2 months. In a way, I think it’s more rewarding than buying new releases. It’s very nostalgic, and there’s something magical about only remembering the dregs of a book through a fuzzy plot or half-characters or strange images, and then reading it again years later and having it come back to life. It’s funny noticing things now I didn’t notice then, or correcting some detail I misread as a kid because I used to read too fast and would confuse myself. The feeling is similar to hearing an old song from the 80s played on the radio, or finding an old favourite stuffed toy in the attic. I feel so attached to it, and at the same time curious as to why it appealed to my younger self so much in the first place.

    I have to be careful not to go crazy and hunt down every interesting story I can’t remember the title of. Some of the best books I’ve ever read were young adult/youth fiction novels that didn’t become bestsellers and probably faded into obscurity on the shelves of some libraries only to be discarded years later at book sales because no one was loaning it. And they’re the sort of stories I don’t think will necessarily resonate with the youth of today (not that my youth was SO long ago). Though it’s somewhat materialistic of me, I do feel proud of my little collection, because even though it does sit in the dark gathering dust most of the time, I feel like they’re “safe “with me, and aren’t going to get lost or go unappreciated. It’s a bit silly, I know.

    • That’s a really nice idea. I don’t know if I’d dare go back to the stories I have warm, fuzzy memories of from childhood – there’s a risk of disappointment. But it’s a great basis for a collection.

  5. […] Keeping books, and learning to let go […]

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