Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bibliomania and its cure

A friend is moving from one state to another, the most recent of several such relocations. As she was preparing to put some of her books into boxes, she wondered: do I really need to take this particular item with me?

Her friends offered conflicting advice. One counseled getting rid of everything--just rely on the Internet. Another friend said keep everything. Wisely, she adopted a middle course, choosing to retain in particular aging copies of books that had meant much to her.

This experience caused me to wonder what criteria are appropriate for such a triage. Four years ago, faced with a substantial renovation of my apartment, I disposed of about 30% of these pesky items--no mean feat since I had about 20,000 volumes. The books, by the way, will not be pulped, as a friend has taken them, offering them for sale at his site

There is no magic recipe, or even set of recipes, for such exclusions. Here though are a few considerations I have come up with.

Except for big foreign language dictionaries, there is no further need for A-Z items. For years, I faithfully bought Leonard Maltin’s standard one-volume “Movie Guide” in its annual appearances. There is no need for that now, as all these films, and many more, are well covered at Wikipedia and other Internet sites. Sorry Leonard, but I expect that you have made your pile by now.

Similarly, there is no need for most sets of works by standard authors; increasingly these are available in toto on the ‘net at the Project Gutenberg and elsewhere. Thus I gave away my edition of Charles Dickens, retaining only one volume of “Hard Times” because it offers some astute interpretative essays of a novel important in the history of design.

In the case of Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha, though, I have no less than four editions. Why this exuberance? Since the novel is highly allusive and written in Siglo de Oro Spanish, I rely on an annotated edition of the original, authorized by the Spanish Academy (2004). My high school Spanish is in good repair, but not adequate for this task. In addition, I keep translations into English, French, and German, because they too offer guidance.

In this matter of the battle of the book bulge, there are also cautionary principles.

To be sure, I do acquire some new items for particular purposes (right now, for example, I am on a Dante kick). However, there are some temptations that must be sternly repressed. One is stockpiling. “Hmm, I don’t have a good book on medieval Tibetan poetry; one day I may need this, so I’ll snap it up now.” Another problem is the completeness fetish. I once owned seven volumes of a twelve-volume set on the Old Testament. I kept getting the new ones as they came out. Then I realized that the premises of the enterprise were wrong--applying Christian principles to the Hebrew Bible--and I just gave away what I had, refusing any further increments.

Remainders offer a special lure. Picking up a fifty-dollar book for $14.95 seems like a real bargain, but one is still putting $14.95 on the credit card. A useful question (though often a hard one) is “do I need this NOW?”

In fact the existing stock requires constant pruning, if only to make way for new acquisitions. One can nickel and dime the task, choosing one victim at a time. Far better is to slenderize and reshape a whole category. For some twenty years I taught a course in ancient Egyptian art at Hunter College. I was always on the lookout for new items, some rather specialized. A few weeks ago I examined this motley assemblage and saw that a major reduction was necessary. I culled about half the collection. Now I gaze lovingly at the select group of 190 Egyptian items: they seem almost resplendent in their integrity. I am confident that these are all I will ever need in this field.

My library contains some thirty such categories, from American literature and China to political theory and science. Addressing these sections with an equivalent ruthlessness will be a challenge, best undertaken piecemeal, but it can be done. My mother used to say that if a deposit of dust gathers on top of a book it is no longer needed. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but there are some topics that I will never return to. Realisically, though, it can take time fully to realize this obsolescence on an item-by-item basis. If all else fails, one can reacquire something that one had discarded, as I did recently with two Dante books.

My eyesight is relatively good, but not what it once was. So some books, especially old mass-market paperbacks, must go because the print is too small.

In general I tend to cling to the art books, because leafing through their illustrations allows me to recreate in my mind’s eye many of the trips I have made.

There are also books, unillustrated, that are simply very well printed. Since economy was always a consideration in my acquisition policies, I do not have too many of these, alas. I also have not bought many antiquarian books: I have only two volumes (which I treasure) printed in the 18th century.

UPDATE. For those curious about the scope of my library, here are the categories:


ancient Egypt
ancient Greece
ancient Rome


Portuguese and Brazilian


Folklore and linguistics
Gay studies
Medieval history
History of science
Political theory (incl. economics)
Religion, Abrahamic




Architecture (incl. city planning)
Illuminated MSS
Painting and sculpture



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