A common task during the months of being stuck at home because of Covid has been sorting and culling books. I have attempted this very difficult job recently, dusting my books and trying to weed some out so as to create room for recent purchases. It is NOT easy! I am never going to follow the advice of Marie Kondo, who thinks 30 books is plenty in a house (she is clearly not a reader!), but I did feel the time had come to be a little more ruthless (don’t worry – I didn’t throw them in the bin).
So … what ‘rules’ should be followed when culling books? These days so many classics are available for free on Project Gutenberg, or a good library, but I teach the classics and refer to my much-loved copies often, so they all had to stay. Crime novels and thrillers are usually easy to ditch, as are popular novels that I know I will never teach or read again, but after that it gets so tricky.
Marie Kondo insists you should get rid of books you know you will never read again, but how do I know that in 15 years’ time I might not be hit with a strong urge to reread Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth or Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line? And what about books given to you by friends, which you enjoyed but not enough for a second reading? Do you share the pleasure by passing them on, or will your friend be upset to find her gift in a second-hand bookshop or a Little Free Library? George Bernard Shaw, browsing in a used bookstore, was annoyed to find a presentation copy of one of his own works, inscribed “with compliments” to a friend. He bought the copy, wrote “with renewed compliments” on the title page, and posted the book back to that friend. One can be pretty sure that from that moment on, the book was kept! And does one keep a book simply because the signature of someone you loved is inscribed in it, even if you know you’ll never read it (my husband insists such books should be kept)? There are just so many dilemmas when culling books and I find the whole process emotionally exhausting.
But it’s not over yet! You put the discarded books into a pile. If you don’t get rid of them quickly, some books make their way from the pile back onto the shelf, as you re-think your decisions. Getting rid of used books is not easy – charity shops are groaning under discarded paperbacks, my Little Free Library is fully stocked (with a reserve bag of books waiting), and most charities do not seem to want more books.
And if we think the problem is tough when culling our personal libraries, think of institutional ones. Recently the National Library of New Zealand announced it was taking 600,000 books out of its collection, all of them ‘foreign’ books. The library needed the space to store books about New Zealand, its history, peoples, etc and didn’t have room to house English classics or books about the holocaust. Critics have attacked their cull as “cultural vandalism”, arguing that the definition of NZ and what makes up its stories and history has been too narrowly defined.
The books seem to be finding a variety of homes, including in prison libraries and charity shops, but I feel so sad that my home country’s National Library is ditching a lovely 1912 copy of Sense and Sensibility. A library simply cannot be a proper library if it lacks the novels of Jane Austen.
Have you been culling books during Covid? Do you have rules for keeping books on the shelves? Do you share my agonies over getting rid of books to make room for more? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.