Given this journal's increasing role as a forum for me to preach to myself, what a futility it would be if I neglected to practice said preachings. (Hypocrisy has its uses, but not in a population of one.) In my argument for less, I quoted from Paul Graham's essay "Stuff", in which he makes kind-of-but-not-really the same point I do: the less stuff you've got, up to a point, the better. His distaste for miscellaneous objects is well laid-out — as, I hope, is my raw hatred for same — but he does utter a caveat:
I've now stopped accumulating stuff. Except books — but books are different. Books are more like a fluid than individual objects. It's not especially inconvenient to own several thousand books, whereas if you owned several thousand random possessions you'd be a local celebrity.
At first, I clung to this point, perhaps assuming it excused my ludicrous overspill of bound volumes from their shelves. But now, having come to the less-is-more conclusion on my terms as well as on Graham's, my grip has loosened. While I'm all for the maintenance of a well-stocked home library — who could live without the knowledge that, no matter what, there will be an interesting book nearby? — I'm growing increasingly dubious about the necessity of my own's size and composition. Books take up physical, visual and mental space, they're a pain to pack and move, and each one added to the total diffuses attention that should be focused only on the best of them. As I must constantly justify my own existence, it seems that each of my books should face no less a test.
Really, in our modern world of libraries — I have access to at least two separate systems — and free-flowing information on the net, what books do I need to own? Some essentials are obvious. Art and architecture tomes, which are more like design objects in and of themselves, and are the closest thing to useful "reference books" surviving today. Anything Tom Stoppard, Kobo Abe, David Sedaris, Edward Tufte, Brian Eno or David Foster Wallace-related stays, because I've already demonstrated that I pick those guys up again and again. (Generally speaking, anything I repeatedly look to specifically as an example of what to achieve should, I think, remain in my possession.) Certain works, like Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, George Pólya's How to Solve It or Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, exert some sort of mystical undecaying draw, so those stay.
Similarly, some nonessentials are obvious. Old galleys? Gone. Duplicates? Gone. Research books for completed projects? Gone. Anything a syllabus instructed me to buy? Gone. But, as ever, it's the border points that pose the greatest challenges, and in this case those would be the volumes I can't quite determine whether or not I'm likely to return to. Especially nice or rare editions have some protection — I'm not much of a Sherlock Holmes buff, but that 1930s collection I picked up in antique store isn't going anywhere soon — but Penguin classics? Flimsy, pamphlet-like Dovers? Mass-market paperback sci-fi? When, exactly, am I going to pick those things up a second time? (Why, for that matter, did I pick them up the first time?) What absolutely doesn't matter here is (a) how much I paid for the book in the first place, since it's a sunk cost and I'm paying mental bandwidth for just having the thing around and (b) how "good" I think the book is. If I dispose of it and one day yearn for it, I can simply buy it again. If I don't think a repurchase is worth it, then how much could I have liked the book in the first place?
And what of the books still unread, purchased up to a decade ago with the vague intention of one day probably maybe reading them? While I firmly advocate a well-stocked Strategic Literature Reserve, how valuable is one comprised of a bunch of books acquired on hunches? I've got seven or eight Robertson Davies novels sitting around, all recommended by respected friends and thus almost certainly excellent, that I've spent years and years not reading. At this point they've blended into the background, become part of the furniture. My brain has tuned out their presence, all but erasing them from my perception like it erases an object that's stationary within one's field of vision. Wouldn't having borrowed a library's copies of these books, with their attendant due-date deadlines and attention-drawing foreign-object-ness, been more effective? The action of purchasing a book seems to defer the reading, since it feels as if you've already done it.
Which may actually be the point, come to think of it. My newly zealous book-purging mood is driven in part by the fear of becoming one of those pathetic book fetishists who roams from sale to sale, snowballing acquisition after impulsive acquisition into a gigantic Katamari of dusty, obscure ink and paper. (These, in case you're wondering, are the people who rail against the Kindle by launching into incoherent raptures about the smell of dust jackets and taking books into the tub and whatnot.) I find myself more irritated than ever when someone goes on and on about the books they've recently bought, because buying and owning books means nothing; books are for reading, period. This sounds like a simple point, but it's one that I've failed to understand before, to my detriment. All forms of culture are simply tools to program your brain, and filling the shed accomplishes nothing by itself. Failing to keep the trivial you-bookstore transaction absolutely separate from the vital brain-book transaction brings about an ugly slippage between altering your mind and — shudder — signaling your bookishness.
There are at least two positive consequences to the mindset that treats books as objects more or less like any other. First — and this generalizes widely — constant weeding is an aid to the iterative process. Outing the old and inning the new washes away the clinging junk that obscures your view of who, exactly, your current iteration of yourself is; it's like not having to look past your lingering racecar bed and Linkin Park posters to get a clear view of the adult you. Second, the need to clear space and minimize clutter, when applied to books, provides a pretty damn forceful incentive to read the things, because when you finish them, you can get rid of them! While I don't desire a book-free existence, I do desire to possess far fewer books that I do, and those of a much higher standard of quality. Getting comfortable with mercilessly tossing them and prioritizing the reading far above the owning should, given sufficient iterative cycles, lead right to it.