If this is the answer, what is the question?

Decluttering, discarding, downsizing… You may well be fed up to the metaphorical back teeth with my ongoing saga of denuding my bookshelves in preparation for a move. And yet, if you’re a booklover — I’m assuming you are one if you’re following a blog dedicated to exploring the world of ideas through books — such talk may induce a frisson of fear. It does for me. But confessional posts like this help me come to terms with the trauma of parting with books, and may even help you when your time comes!

I’ve shunted off several bags and boxes of books to charity shops, and a tiny handful of novels to relatives. I couldn’t bring myself to decimate my collection any more at this stage, though I am being good at letting go of some books as I review them. But, out of interest I thought I would do an inventory, or at least make a rough count of how many books remain. And the total comes to — and I want to make clear there’s absolutely no bragging involved here — one and a half thousand. Well, 1471 to be … imprecise. Give or take a few that I either missed by mistake or miscounted.

Mind you, I’m not including periodicals or journals, of which I’ve already ditched a large number. Nor do I include a number of books, mostly reference, that my long-suffering spouse and I own in common — dictionaries, travel guides and so on. But that’s still an awfully large number. Even if I read at the impossible rate of one a day it would take four years to get through them.

To put it in visual terms, I have approximately 150 feet of shelving (50 yards, or 45 metres if you prefer) which works out at well over twenty-five times my height. You don’t need a maths degree to work out that this works out at an average of ten books to a foot. That’s books ranging from hardback non-fiction to slim paperbacks, but not pamphlets and the like, arranged in a mixed system of types and genres that appeals to me but which would appal a professional librarian. From Celsus (“a library architecture resource”) I see that this comes somewhere in the middle of calculations for volumes per linear foot of library shelf:

Volume Type

Volumes per Linear Foot of Shelf
Encyclopedias 6
Fiction 8
Large Print 8
Non-Fiction 10
Paperbacks 16
Young Adult 12
Children’s Picture Books 20
Juvenile Fiction 13
Juvenile Non-Fiction

13

Fifteen hundred books. That may well be more volumes than the average British mobile library (though I can’t vouch for the larger North American bookmobiles). It’s as many books as, say, a British school of 150 pupils is likely to house in its library.

Inside a mobile library http://www.hillingdon.gov.uk/mobilelibrary
Inside a mobile library
http://www.hillingdon.gov.uk/mobilelibrary

Now here’s the question that all right-thinking persons (and quite a few others) are asking: how can one person possibly require that many books?

That’s a question I keep asking myself. And failing to come up with a definitive answer.

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38 thoughts on “If this is the answer, what is the question?

    1. “Impossible to quantify…”
      Here’s my problem, Thom: these are all books I want, but can I truly put my hand on heart and say they are books I need?

      And then I think of how much of me I’ve invested in most of them, and that heart gives a lurch…

      1. Yes. Books weight is much more than a physical matter. Books are part of my identity and have shaped my outlook on everything. But, some books have done their work and should be passed on!

        That said I’m never going to give away or not re read Moby Dick, Sons And Lovers. Etc etc!!

  1. I, too, am attached (well, not literally!) to books….and ask myself the same question. And I have been attempting to get rid of a large number, but never manage to bring myself to get rid of more than a few at a time. But I shall have to, as I won’t have the space….

  2. There is no stopping the accumulation for me. I have passed the gene down to my four children who now scour charity shops in the hope of finding gems in the midst of the unwanted items. We once left a charity shop that was closing down with nearly half their stock of books! Unfortunately I am working my way towards convincing the Hubble (my husband) that we require a study to house these books and I stuff every available shelf in the house with our treasures! I dread to think of moving or parting with any of the books. Don’t know how you find the strength to say good-bye!

    1. It’s difficult, Eloise, it’s difficult! Though some are there because of my sheer acquisitiveness, not because I treasure the, and these I find less hard to discard once I recognise how ignoble that motive is!

      I don’t know how guilty you feel about buying from charity shops, but I sometimes feel a pang about buying ‘nearly new’ books. But never when they’re out of print!

      1. Oh yes, the out of print finds! You’re right, sometimes I do think it is more of a pull to have books, a different form of hoarding! To be honest I don’t feel bad about buying nearly new books. I love the fact that I can save them from a skip or landfill. I could cry when I see wasted print thrown out when there are so many schools in need of books for children. It’s so good we have book banks to redistribute old books. No excuse for wasting words and knowledge.

  3. I wish I could give you some useful advice, but I have none. I can only commend you for sorting this out pre-move rather than post-move — where the boxes of books stand in a garage or its equivalent for months that turn into years.

    1. I suppose, Lizzie, this kind of dilemma is one we all have to deal with in our own way. I’ve chosen to share my modus operandi in the hope that others will both empathise and sympathise, and luckily my internet chums have come up trumps!

      And yes, having boxes of surplus books becoming so mildewed that they all have to be dumped anyway — as happened to a friend of mine — is a scenario I’m hoping to avoid!

    1. Thanks, Julie — I’ve come to a temporary halt now with bookweeding, but am grateful for your willingness to cross the Atlantic to help! I’ve only once in the last few weeks succumbed to acquiring books but, serves me right, one of the two I bought was one I already had but hadn’t got round to reading… So that’s just one book really, and I’ve lined up some books to read in the next little while that will definitely be recycled!

      1. I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one. I ordered a book just recently whose title seemed oh so familiar–I checked my shelves—and thought I was safe—but once it came, I knew better. . .I had the hard back copy but had ordered the soft back—I shall give it away—it was one of my many Churchill books—I wish I read as fast as I discover new books!!!
        Press on calmgrove, press on…hugs from acoss the pond—Julie

        1. Thanks, Julie! You know, I’m not too disappointed when I find I’ve doubled up on hardback and paperback editions: I studiously compare the two (what’s the same, what’s different) and then weigh up, sometimes literally, which one I prefer to hang on to (not always the hardback). Occasionally they both go…

  4. I think it would be quite easy for an inquisitive mind to amass that many books. It shows that your passion for any given subject is deep and your interests are varied. Asking how can one person require that many books is asking, how much knowledge or pleasure can one person require? It depends on how deep your “well” is. Yours, my friend is very, very deep.

  5. I find this business of you dumping your books fascinating and for me it is sort of comforting, because I think, by your calculations, you may have more books than I have (OK! perhaps one more). I am at the moment in the process of what I call filing (without actually moving) and so I am trying to learn what to do with my books!

    We had one move about ten years ago where I did do a serious redistribution thing but it was surprising how many books arrived here on the same day as me and still live on what were new shelves then. Soon newer books were cluttering my life because I had more shelf space to start all over again. Surprising how many more have been acquired since that time and unfortunately the new comers seem more precious than ever simply because I kid myself they have been chosen with extra care….

    So I am grateful to see and learn how you are managing to get a thinner, finer more efficient collection of books (rather than an immobile, mobile library). How- ever I still think I may be able to offer you one (and a half) bit(s) of advice you may need later; when all is done and dusted and you are in your new space. Presumably one way or another, you will have a little more room; because you have got rid of so many books; it’s your new start. But you will be vulnerable. Be warned. You are likely to fill up again.

    Resolve, never to buy another book again!…….

    Just delight in the emptiness of your new space ; where the books are not. (just yet)…… and resolve never to put anything in the extra space however small……. not even a penny or a pen or an old battery or a pair of shoes and don’t even start putting a pile of hard to place books near or on the stairs…… or anywhere else a book might be thinking of sitting. This takes courage and perhaps a cold heart.

    Of course could always try a Kindle and download your entire library and keep it in your pocket. Many of the classics like Dickens, as entire works, are free. You may hate giving up the idea of reading print on real paper and actually find reading on a screen painful but this single act of going Kindle makes you realize what you won’t be reading (ever again) especially the heavy weights (usually beautifully bound and hard to throw). I know I won’t be reading the entire works of Dickens ( and such like) on Kindle, or for that matter in book form again. Any references worth checking or quoting are easily found on the internet any way. Deciding on which paperbacks to keep or throw become much easier to deal with when you look at it like that!

    ………..Or you can start buying books all over again as soon as you arrive in your new space… and make plans now to move to a bigger space in about 10 years, or less.
    (Praying for you!)

    1. Yes, your past experience and your future fears strike a huge resonating chord with me, Gill! Still, I hope not to get into this state again, especially when I come across books I haven’t looked since we too moved about ten years ago…

      Three things about Kindle make it hard to fall in love with it.

      1. I love all the academic paraphernalia that comes with the editions of classics I have which I can’t get with the free-to-download Kindle editions.

      2. I’ve written elsewhere about the ephemeral quality that electronic media like e-readers have: it compounds the anxiety that one gets when online that one may be missing out on a conversation or breaking news if not switching between the various social media. With a physical book I can easily get lost in the world created, but with electronic media I am too easily distracted.

      3. One of the attractions of a range of books is the variety of sensual experiences you can get, visual, tactile, even olfactory. I don’t get that with the Kindle I was given, with its standard typeface, format and size reducing every text to a bland, uniform sameness.

      Those points are just for starters!

  6. Now here’s the question that all right-thinking persons (and quite a few others) are asking: how can one person possibly require that many books?

    For me, the answer is “I don’t”, and I only keep the ones I have a particular connection with and am likely to read again. Otherwise, they go to my local library to be shared (which is a benefit for me; most libraries won’t take donations, but ours is privately owned so we can).

    1. Your ability to process the many books you acquire both quickly and in depth and maintain and active online presence awes and amazes me, Nikki! But I know you also confess to hoping for library-type rolling bookshelves built for you when you get a place of your own, for the books you treasure and/or will re-read, so I’m guessing your present library is pretty substantial already!

      For me at the moment, living in rural West Wales, opportunities to pass a perhaps eclectic range of books on to like-minded or appreciative readers is a little problematic; maybe a planned move to a small town on the borders of Powys and Monmouthshire could make that a little easier…

      1. Heh, if only I could get through them faster! I used to be faster — I don’t know what’s up with me now. My present library is reasonably substantial, but it sort of rotates — I’d probably keep more if I had a proper set of shelves, but then I’d still only keep important books/books I’m likely to want to lend.

        If only I could raid the books you’re done with for our library. Not that we’ve got much room left.

  7. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    I did a major downsizing of my library when I moved from the West to East coast. I didn’t count, but what I gave away might have been in the hundreds. I regret a few of my lost volumes, but mostly my slimmer shelves feel good. I now try hard not to acquire or keep books that I don’t truly love. Being selective makes your library more meaningful. That said, if you have 1471 volumes that are meaningful to you, so be it!

  8. I encouraged my husband to “be ruthless” on his latest trawl through our shelves, and he managed to get rid of one novel. I am still prevaricating over some outdated guide books. I can’t even face the full extent of our library, which is in boxes at my mother-in-law’s house – but the day will come. In the meantime, good luck to you!

    1. One novel!

      We have some old guide books — those lovely Dorling Kindersley illustrated guides in particular — that are hard to get rid of because of their attractiveness and because heritage doesn’t change as fast as other fashions. I’m determined not to have books hanging around in boxes after moving though, so good luck with tackling yours!

      But — one novel?

  9. I feel your pain Chris! I cannot deny I have kept many of my late father’s books in the full knowledge I will never get round to reading them, but the alternative…to give them away…well it’s not, an alternative!

    1. You hear of horror stories of relatives of the lately deceased putting whole libraries into skips, which seems not only disrespectful of their lives but also to show a woeful disregard of accumulated knowledge and an ignorance of their inherent value. I’m sure you wouldn’t dump books of any description but I’m wondering why you value them — a valued material link with your father I assume rather than inherent value.

      1. I cannot deny I miss my father terribly and it’s a comfort to have something of his that was such an important part of his life; but there is also a desire to acquire or better still, absorb some of the thoughts and ideas that are now stuffed into my cupboards and I feel that simply having them there, I am minutely closer to gleaning some of that literary wealth…or it could be I’m a belligerent book hoarder! Either way, I will take my time to reduce the collection!

  10. Carol S

    One of my sisters and I cleared her books after our mother died. She found it easy to chuck boxes full away and was surprised when the auctioneer she’d invited to view other stuff took boxes full of unread new looking popular paperbacks away and sold them successfully. I kept a few treasures but otherwise carted boxes AND black bags full away to a local Oxfam. They soon got used to me there and told me horror stories: eg finding medieval tomes in a book bank. Worse they knew the history of them – bought for a school library by the librarian who wanted the best for the pupils… This means that they were thrown away by a teacher!!!! However Oxfam know their market and sold them to an academic for a very respectable price. I could have nightmares about the potential fate of those volumes and the state of mind of the educationist unable to value and use them.

    1. You do hear these kinds of horror stories, Carol, and not just about books, where individuals ignorant of the value of items left by a deceased relative just treat them as worthless junk and bin them in a skip. ‘Worthless’ stuff is always of worth to someone, and in any case its worth is not solely in its monetary value.

      I suppose it’s a reminder that we all may need not only to make a will but also to stipulate who gets things like books where surviving relatives are uninterested in their intrinsic worth.

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