The Incredible Shrinking Library

My family is in the process of moving from a big, mid-1850s Victorian to a smaller, older house in the country. One big reason is that we have fewer people–just four of us left at home. But there’s still quite a bit of furniture. Especially bookcases. Bookcases full of books. Rooms full of bookcases.

There’s no way around it. We’ve got to thin this literary thicket. So how do you make the decision, if you can only keep half your books? Or even a third?

Getting rid of multiple copies is a start. We had a surprising number of duplicates–and this isn’t some collectible copy vs. reading copy thing, either; in our house they’re all reading copies.

The next thing I ask is ‘will I ever read this again?’ It’s a tough question to answer, with some books, but if the answer was ‘Maybe, years from now’ then I rounded that down to a ‘No.’ (If the answer was ‘Hey, I forgot I even had this,’ then that translated mostly to a No also…I’d been getting by, in effect, without having that book.)

Reference books often get the benefit of the doubt, though. Nobody reads Saxo Grammaticus for fun, but when you want to put your finger on that particular passage you need to quote in your seminal essay on Loki, you want him standing by somewhere on your shelves. Likewise books that are just plain hard to get, like The Long Lost Friend, a treatise on hexes that turns up in Manly Wade Wellman’s stories. Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth, his expose of the fairy kingdom that came out just before he was reportedly abducted by those same fairies. Or my 1848 edition of The Maypole of Merrymount. (Looking at that one reminds me that time is kinder even to houses than it is to books.)

Fiction is tending to bear the brunt. I went through my ghost story collection and concluded I could spend the rest of my life, and even my afterlife, without most of them. M.R. James and Russell Kirk survived, but not much else. Science fiction was already scarce, and in the future it will be nonexistent (ironic, that). Even favorite authors are being sacrificed. Anything by John Dickson Carr that doesn’t feature his G.K. Chesterton-inspired detective, Dr. Fell, came off the shelves. Fritz Leiber shed a few books and Tim Powers is being reduced to just two (The Anubis Gates and On Stranger Tides).

The books that survive have a few things in common, whatever the genre. I need to like the characters. Or at least one. Why should you spend time with people you can’t stand? Also, there’s got to be some humor in there somewhere–it’s one of the biggest things that makes life bearable. I guess that proves I agree with Herman Hesse’s great insight in Steppenwolf.

Not that I’m probably going to read that one again.

If you take it the right way, this is a worthwhile exercise. Sort of like ‘what books would you take with you if you were stranded on a desert island?’

Because the truth is, we’re always stranded on a desert island. It’s just that some islands have more room than others.

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