Books and Clutter

The Halifax Examiner recently claimed “It’s OK to get rid of books.” Apart from being bothered by the use of OK instead of okay, which would be acceptable in a print headline but is hardly necessary for an online headline, I was troubled by some points in the article.

The article begins with the problems of disposing of a parent’s books after their death, and suggests not dealing with one’s excessive book collection is leaving the difficult decisions to other people. From there, it goes on point out that passing your unwanted books to thrift shops and libraries is also avoiding throwing out books that are best sent to trash.

I’m not in a position to claim books should never be set aside. Between my parents’ divorce, my divorce (pending—the application has been in the courts for thirteen years), and four cross-country moves (and many smaller moves), I’ve discarded huge quantities of books. I’ve lived in enough rooming houses to recognize that having and transporting a personal library, or even a stack of books, is a sign of privilege.

My collection these days is relatively modest. I have three bookcases overflowing with books in various conditions. I use the word bookcases loosely—two are small plastic shelving units, and one is a plastic coated ‘wood product’ storage rack. It’s not like I need to impress people with my large book collection—nowadays, I can do that online. (“All is vanity,” as one of my books notes.)

Photograph of book shelf, with many paperbacks visible. Some are stacked on top of the shelved books and others are stacked in front.

Still, as I contemplate my own mortality, due to a chronic illness diagnosis, deaths of friends’ parents, and deaths of friends, am I avoiding responsibility and denying the inevitable because I won’t through out more books? Is is fair to leave that to whoever cleans up after me? Aware that denial is a powerful thing, I’m going to say it’s okay for me to hang on to my books and let someone else deal with them.

I keep books for various reasons. A few are tools I use routinely. Some I acquired in the course of academic studies, and I still have papers in mind, so they may be required again. Others I keep because that specific book has some meaning—a gift from a friend or other pleasant association. And a few I have simply because I like decorating my nest with literate objects. I’m not going to throw them out now for the sake of easing post-mortem clean-up. I know from experience that tossing books is much easier than cleaning out, say, the kitchen of a deceased.

I could leave a note in my will: “These were precious to me, but likely no one else. Feel free to toss.” Or, if you feel your descendants should at least glance at the books to see if there is anything they might like before they toss them, add the following: “PS. You can keep any you like. Some of them have a $100 bill tucked inside.”

What about libraries weeding their collections? This, I have a problem with. Books that are damaged should be tossed, and I understand why neither thrift shops nor libraries are interested in damaged or moldy books. On the other hand, books in good condition that are merely outdated or of little interest should be kept. I believe libraries should be a repository of old books.

I used to have an old set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. If memory serves, it was the 1939 revision of the 1929 (fourteenth) edition. Obviously, it contained much that was out of date, like the article on television: a device with no future for entertainment, but a possible improvement to telephones. The World War II article was updated with several additions in progressively smaller print. In short, while the articles were dated, they provided a valuable contemporary perspective on issues.

I am working on a romance novel that is set in the 1980s. While I can write much of it from memories of the time, I’d like to fact check things. Resources to consult include manuals on how to use the computer software of the time—the sort of material libraries and thrift shops promptly reject as outdated.

It’s not just reference books, or even non-fiction. Books go out of print, and while online ordering has made it possible to find used books anywhere in the world, the willingness of booksellers everywhere to throw out fifty-year-old nurse romance novels means they are no longer available to anyone who might want them. I don’t believe libraries should be in the position of judging which books are worth preserving—ideally, everything would be preserved. I recognize that has a cost, but, between scanning and the possibilities of sharing preservation among multiple libraries, it’s feasible to preserve books that might otherwise be tossed. An individual can get rid of books, but a society should not.

Meanwhile, a small but significant number of the books I own have no association other than being a good story, but I hang on to the physical copy because replacing it may be impossible. It may have been out of print for years, and for whatever reason, not considered worthy of reprinting. I have lost some of these books. Like absent friends, lost books are never forgotten, but it’s still more enjoyable to sit and spend time with them now and then.

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

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