How Do Literary Scholars and Adventurers Cull Their Beloved Libraries?

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This is a matter in which I am an expert. I am in possession of a gargantuan library, lodged in an itty-bitty house full of children. Since for work I'm always receiving semi-interesting books by the boxload, I face almost daily dilemmas like: Do I want to get rid of this fascinating-looking history of the Russo-Finnish war (which I really ought to know more about) and this book on how undemocratic the Italian constitution is (which looks like it might be interesting) and this novel that has rocked the Moroccan literary world? Or do I convert the girls' bedroom into a new wing of the library and tell them they'll have to sleep in the hallway from now on?

My library can be kept to a semi-manageable three or four thousand volumes simply by culling the crap. But Joe has it tougher. First, he's a few decades older than I, he's a real literary man and he's a sentimentalist?so all his books have deep meaning to him. "I have books that I've lugged around since before marriage," he writes. "I can remember the impetus for buying almost all of them." Meanwhile, he is powerless to send his favorites off to the pulp mill. "I would be willing to devote a day or two to cataloguing and packing. But I know what will happen. I will see a book I haven't looked at in years, start reading it to see why I liked it at one time, and lose myself for the next three hours."

So I thought I would lay out for Joe (and for humanity) my guidelines for culling books.

A literary person has first to decide how many books he needs. That depends on the era he was born in (or, since we're in post-postmodern times, on the era he wishes he had been born in). A literary person is always part-scholar/part-adventurer, and different ages have different conceptions of which side should predominate. If you're a mid-18th-century person, like Samuel Johnson comparing his different Shakespeare folios, or a mid-19th-century one, like Longfellow, who lived in Cambridge but studied Dante like an Italian, you're a scholar, and likely to want to accumulate a mammoth library. Longfellow couldn't simply walk next door and borrow the neighbor's Guicciardini for the afternoon.

If you're a Romantic, like Byron heading off to the wars in Greece or Rimbaud moving to Abyssinia, or a Modernist, like Scott Fitzgerald bumming around the South of France, you're an adventurer. (Modernism also produced its share of involuntary adventurers, in the form of war refugees.) You need to travel light, and however much you love books, you may not even want to have a big library. There are exceptions to this rule?Hemingway, than whom no literary person was more adventurous, piled up thousands of volumes in many languages.

Adventurers, of course, rely on libraries?their local ones, and the private collections of other people. My French friend, the psychologist and political scientist Ali Magoudi, recently collaborated on a book with the bibliophilic Chirac adviser Jerome Monod, and did a lot of writing at his co-author's country house. I asked him if it bothered him to have to work in a library that was bigger than his own apartment. "Oh, my library is bigger than his," Ali replied. "It's called the Bibliotheque Nationale."

The age we live in favors, de facto, the adventurer type. In an information age, there's no real desperate need to have a library for information's sake. If Longfellow were alive today, he still couldn't get a copy of Guicciardini from his next-door neighbor, but he could get on the Internet and have one sent by next-day air from Rome. Slate editor Michael Kinsley has famously claimed he has stopped reading books. I don't exactly believe he's kept to his word, but he's certainly stopped buying books, and his conversation does not betray any waning acquaintance with printed matter.

The upshot of the information age is that, except in rare cases, one no longer needs books for information. If you want them in your house, it's not to serve any research need but to create a kind of cultural climate control. That makes throwing out books much easier, in one sense: no mistake you make will cost you much in a utilitarian way. If you wind up wishing you hadn't thrown out Lucky Jim, it's no big loss. You can go out and buy another copy for $7.95. My friend Joe, for instance, has complete sets of John le Carré and Dorothy Sayers, and worries about throwing them out. These worries are completely misplaced. Those books ought to have been thrown out yesterday. If they're cheap editions, give them to some wino to sell off a blanket in the Village, next to used CDs by the incredible Jimmy Smith. If they're nice editions, donate them to the public library in the town you grew up in, and hope they can fit them in between the computer consoles and television screens and all the other non-library-like stuff that fills libraries nowadays.

But the information-age superfluity of books also makes throwing them out harder, in a way. Your library, henceforth, is not so much an appliance as a means of self-expression. It says something about you as a person, in a pure way. As such, one should keep one's library shipshape for the same reason old ladies recommend wearing good underpants?you'd hate to drop dead and be found looking slovenly. But what's slovenly? And do I want my corpse to look fussy? Punctilious? Prissy? Once you take that attitude that your library is you, the task of throwing out books can get unbearably hard.

There's no firm rule here, except that, since a library is a personal effect, and a valuable one, you should treat it as a trust. Save books you'd like your kids to have. That doesn't mean bullshitting with it, or putting up a false front. Don't think, "My kids will like me better if they come in after the funeral and find Advanced Conversational Russian instead of Coping with Depression." Save the books that will remind people of you after you're gone. (You'll note that le Carré and Sayers will not fulfill this function in the slightest.) I know I'll never read half the books in my own library, but it does make me swell with pride to think that one of my children will someday own that dog-eared copy of Auden I spilled at least eight pints of Guinness on in the course of my college career.

Exceptions to hair-trigger jettisoning must also be made where a book that's important to you for a highly personal reason has sunk so completely out of the public view that it's the last copy of it you'll ever see. For me, the novel Higher Education, by my college classmate Lisa Pliscou, fits this criterion. For Joe, it's his Jerome Weidman novels. ("I am one of the few people who remembers who Jerome Weidman was," he writes.) Similar exceptions must be made for books with dedications from old girlfriends. Even if they mean nothing to you, you ought to spare used-book-store customers the lost faith in humanity that results when one comes across a message professing undying love on the frontispiece of a superb book, and reflects that the previous owner was probably willing to unload the both of them?the irreplaceable book and the irreplaceable message of love?for about two dollars and 50 cents.

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