Existentialist Library Management

For one brief, shining moment, after several weekends of culling and two trunkloads of donations to the library, the books that I own fit within the space allotted for them.

Which of course means that this weekend I'm going to go to library sales and acquire dozens, if not hundreds, of books, which will end up piled on the floor, because there is no room for them on the shelves.

Every sortie against the never-flagging onslaught of "new" books pouring into my apartment is a confrontation with my mortality.

I don't really get it that I am going to die someday. I'm still in utter and complete denial that my parents will ever die. My great-grandmother lived to 100. I have enough historical perspective to know that that's just a blink of an eye, but for a 29-year-old, that's forever. And I figure what with ongoing medical advancements, I can outlast her by 10-20 years, easy. (I try not to think about that when I consider the non-existence of my retirement savings account. I guess I'll just work into my 90s. Or marry rich.)

When I was little, I just assumed that Jesus would come back before I ever had to die. Then I learned that pretty much every generation since Jesus ascended has thought this, and all of them so far have been wrong. Not that I've stopped believing that Jesus is coming back, but I recognize that the odds of this happening in my lifetime are not as high as I used to think.

But when I face my bulging library, my own mortality stares me in the face.

I already own more books than I will ever read.

Some of the books I own with no expectation of reading them. Some of them are just passing through my possession, on their way to a place where they will be more appreciated (and where someone is willing to spend more money on them than I did). Some of them are here for reference, and if I ever read 10% of them, it will be more than worth having them on my shelf.

But most of the books I acquire, I acquire at least in part because they look interesting. Because they look like something I would like to learn about or experience, if time were no object. And since all sorts of things are interesting to me, I easily and quickly acquire a vast assortment of bibliotectic oddities.

But of course, time is an object. So a major part of the task of culling my library involves coming to terms with the fact that life is too short to read every printed word that comes across my path. So I have to be selective. And the books that are just not going to get read by me might as well go somewhere where they might be read by someone.

So on my last cull, I passed along a substantial number of perfectly respectable books that I still thought would be interesting to read, but, to be honest, I just wasn't that into. One book had survived several previous culls because the title exactly addressed an area of life that I would like to learn more about, and it was from a creditable publisher. This time through, though, I realized that I just couldn't trust the contents of a book with such an ugly lavender dust jacket. (Sometimes -- often -- you can judge a book by it's cover.) There are many books on the subject, and I reserve the right to hold out for one that does not insult my aesthetic sensibilities.

I get rid of books that I realize I would listen to, but not read. There is a lot of literature that is worthy of some fraction of my attention while I am cleaning my apartment, driving my car, composing my blog, but not of the full attention that it takes to read the old-fashioned way. Of course, a lot more books are easily available in print format than in audio, so for a lot of these books, deciding that I would hear but not read them amounts to deciding that I will never absorb their contents at all. So be it. Life is too short.

One might note that I could get off the treadmill of cycling books into and out of my home by just putting an end to the buying of new books, certainly to the random browsing of booksales for whatever catches my fancy. Indeed. But if life is too short for the reading of many books, it is not too short for the discovery of books. There is a certain delight in just encountering a clever premise, in marveling at the vast variety of human knowledge and experience. And there is the joy of the hunt, the tantalizing possibility that one will discover a pearl of great price in the dusty library bins.

Shopping for books may lack the virtue of actually reading them and seriously engaging the ideas within. (Okay, maybe not across the board -- some books, make that many books, don't deserve serious attention.) But it is not, for that matter, without value. And so I will keep on looking at books, with the mercenary, the scholar, and the dilettante parts of my personality all firmly engaged. And I will keep on bringing books home with me, many of which I will never read. And I will consider it time and money well-spent.


St. Casserole said...

I buy books. I cull books from the shelves in our home (five rooms with bookshelves). I buy more books. I cull books. I read often but if I give away a book I haven't read, I think it's the book's fault that I wasn't interested in picking it up and beginning.
Buying books is a pleasure.

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