Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, January 4, 2010

culling the tomes

Good advice here, largely from writers, about how to figure out which books in your personal library to get rid of. Aside from Joshua Ferris, who vehemently rejects the idea of eliminating any books from his personal library, the contributors acknowledge that sometimes people run out of room, or are moving somewhere where space will be at a premium, and therefore must cull their tomes. (“Cull the Tomes” — isn't that an old Scots folk song?)

So what should be the guidelines? The most common suggestions are that you eliminate (a) books you know you’ll never read and (b) books you have read but know you’ll never read again. These are good recommendations, but it must be noted that they require honest self-examination, which is something that not all of us are good at. And they also require predicting the future, which, again, is not a universally acquired skill.

When I was in college I acquired almost every book in the series of Latin American fiction published by Avon Books: Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch and 62: A Model Kit, Jorge Amado’s Gabriela, Clove, and Cinnamon, everything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis — I could go on. I can still remember the cover designs quite vividly. But when I got to grad school and knew that I would be specializing in seventeenth-century literature, I traded in the whole collection so I could acquire more books in my chosen field. (I didn't have enough money to buy them outright, and there wasn’t room in the grad-student-sized apartment my wife and I shared.)

That made sense at the time. But what I didn't realize was that in the very last class I took in graduate school I would discover the poetry and prose of W. H. Auden, and would end up gradually shifting my scholarly interests to the twentieth century — which in turn led, some years later, to my being asked to teach a course in contemporary Latin American literature in translation. So I had to go out and buy most of those books again — the ones that were still in print, anyway.

So when it comes to getting rid of books, remember this: you never know what you’re going to need somewhere down the line.

(All that said, I'm headed out with a friend later this morning to sell some books. Or, more likely, to trade them. I always plan to come come with cash in my pocket, but oddly, it rarely works that way. . . .)


  • "Culling the tomes" sounds better than "weeding," the term used in my library science classes.
    I have had many later regrets over books given away. But the advantages of discarding outweigh the disadvantages. Space!
    My husband factors the cost of shelving into the cost of a book, and recommends the library--which is where I think C.S. Lewis ended up, but he had the Bodleian.

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