Too Many Books

Edward Porter

Nov 04, 2011

I have too many books. In an age when many people don't own any books at all, as far as I can tell, I have more books than anyone I know--more than any of my friends and fellow students, more than any of the professors whose homes I have visited. I'm not suggesting this is any kind of victory: clearly it's a problem. I'm not going to make an argument here about the tactile nature of books versus the convenience of electrons. I'm not interested in even discussing it. I briefly hoped that my book problem might have a clinical significance I could write about, but a little research reveals that no, I am neither a book hoarder nor a bibliomane. My books are all either directly useful to me, or of obvious sentimental value. I do not have multiple copies of any one book. On the rare occasion that I end up with a duplicate, I give it away with ease. Most importantly, my books are not stacked on their sides on the floor , or at least only a few of them are. They are either displayed in bookcases or stored in boxes stacked in the spare room. I briefly knew the famous film historian and undoubted cinemane William K. Everson: his apartment was entirely filled with cans of film, stacked floor to ceiling, and you had to edge through them sideways to get to the bathroom. My home, on the other hand, is reasonably livable. Ergo, I do not have a psychological disorder. I am not the Smaug of books. This is slightly disappointing: certainly this blog post would be more dramatic if it limned my struggle with mental illness. Once, I took a long solo backpacking trip, and found that in the course of my day I had to periodically put my pack down and take inventory, to check that I had not left some vital item at my last campsite, even though I'd checked it already a couple of hours ago. When I got home, I asked my shrink if this meant I had some genuine condition, perhaps obsessive compulsive disorder, for which she could prescribe drugs. "No," she said. "You're just uptight. I'm not going to give you drugs for that." Sadly, my book condition is likewise not a pathology. I just have a lot of books. I'm not sure exactly how many books I have, but it's well north of two thousand. That's not an epic number--nothing remarkable by any serious standard. Not many compared to Hemingway (seven thousand) or Umberto Eco (thirty thousand). Of course those guys had more means and more space than I do. It's a lot of books for a regular guy though--a lot of books for someone who has sawn as many boards and pounded as many nails as I have. In a sense, I have always had too many books, at least compared to my fellows. I grew up with an attic full of them. My parents were not bibliomanes either. They just had a lot of books. I still have their hardback copies of A Century of Charades, James Gould Cozzens' Castaway, the collected plays of Ferenc Molnar, The Flying Yorkshireman, Eleanor of Aquitane, and similar titles that I will certainly need to reread before long. My books only really became my books, when I went away to college. Unlike many other students, I did not immediately sell my schedule's worth of books back to the college bookstore at the end of the semester. That seemed insane to me, which explains why I still have all those books on Renaissance diplomacy and Egyptology (it was still an -ology then, instead of a Studies). By my junior year, I had three five foot shelves on brackets and standards filled with books. Girls seemed impressed. What started as a substitute for adult life became a means for pursuing it. Since then, all I have had to do is to keep living, and the books have found me of their own accord. A few years ago I got rid of a bevy of ragtag bookcases picked up from the street and made three floor to ceiling cherry bookcases. Then, in a painful loss of dignity, I had to buy some hulking black Ikea thing to supplement them. Then another two of those, and still, I have six or seven boxes of unshelved books. They hunt me down and catch me at my weakest. For example, I had to kill some time in Montrose a couple of weeks ago, so I went into Half Price Books, just to browse, and found a complete set of that silver-covered Moncrieff translation of Remembrance of Things Past for around thirty bucks. How was I supposed to pass that up? I'm just a Proust dilettante who has only read Swann's Way, but I will certainly read the rest of it someday. Won't I? Not this year, or next year, maybe not even the year after, but very soon. Possibly even before I get back to finishing Gibbon's The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, which again, I got about ten years ago for such a reasonable price that it would have been idiocy not to buy it. The first two hundred pages at least were quite good, so I'm sure I'll get to the other thirteen hundred in the almost immediate future. I only have so many books because of so many moments in the past in which I would have to been barking mad not to have taken advantage of such favorable circumstances. Of course, this would not be a problem were I living in the spacious manor of my ancestors. Instead, I am an academic transient who will have to leave his home within a year or two and go somewhere else, probably far away. At which point, my books will become a serious encumbrance. I personally carried every one of my books up four flights of stairs a few years ago. I have moved them three times in the last six years. When I think about the prospect of moving them again, I have deep concerns about my knees and my wallet. So, I should slowly get rid of all of those except the ones the really matter, yes? But of course, this is the essence problem: so many of them really matter. I have known most of my books longer than I have known my wife. Having taken the trouble to acquire a copy of Sara Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs, do you really think I'm going to just get rid of it once I've read it? I'm not going to jettison my Bill James Baseball Abstracts from the eighties even though I have them more or less memorized: that's my youth you're talking about. I have a very good friend, who reads quite a bit. We share a taste for science fiction. A few years ago I found a massive copy of all eleven or so of Roger Zelazny's Amber novels in one volume. After I'd finished it, I mailed it to Jeff, who also read it, enjoyed it, and then literally threw it away. He was shocked when I objected. He pointed out that we had both gotten as much good as could be had from it. The fact that it could still be read again didn't matter to him. His thinking was based on the mercenary needs of humans--he just wasn't seeing the universe from the book's point of view. He didn't care about its enduring capacity to keep fulfilling its nature. That book could have done so much. Even in that cheap, yellowing, pulpy edition with the bad glue, it had plenty to look forward to. But no, it was just an exploitable resource to him. Jeff and I are still friends, but I will never lend him a book again.