Pruning the Personal Library

by syaffolee

Is anyone really ever excited about moving? The process itself, I mean. The prospect of living in a new place can be exciting, but all the mundane and stressful details that need to be overseen in order to make that happen? I could live without those.

For an inveterate bookworm like myself, pruning my personal physical library is one of those details. I would not be exaggerating if I said that my library is one of my treasured possessions. I couldn’t care less about furniture or clothes–those things don’t hold any sentimental value for me (it might be different if I had any antiques). Books are a lifestyle, a philosophy, a way of being. If I had any choice or had an impractical personality streak, I wouldn’t get rid of any of my books. I like the thought of having a sprawling collection of books, of books that I have read, have yet to read, and maybe will never read. I have slight book hoarder tendencies because I like the possibility a gigantic pile of books presents. Once in a while, I organize the book collection by author or by subject or by genre but they soon shuffle around, getting mixed up and piled up into a mini-labyrinth of words. Maybe that’s why I often dream of mazes. I’ve inadvertently created one of my own at home.

But I must prune that library as it would just be a pain to lug all those boxes across the country (from north to south, that is, not west to east). There are several types of books which I find fairly easy to get rid of–books that I’m pretty sure I will have no interest in, books I’m sure I’ll never read, books that I have read (or partially read) and did not like, novels that I sort of like but also already have an ebook copy. The books I have no problem putting in the “keep” pile include favorite authors, favorite books, book series I have been meticulously collecting, and any non-fiction and reference books I currently or will be using.

Where it gets angsty is my to-be-read pile. What should I prune? Should I keep all of them since I’ve planned to read them all at one point or another? Or should I donate/sell them all off with the philosophy that if I didn’t read them right away, they might not be interesting in the first place? My to-be-read pile isn’t just a handful of books. It’s huge. At the moment, part of my to-be-read pile is literally a pile, but before I started pruning, all these books were on the shelves adding mystery to my library–adventures waiting to be discovered. But now I’m stuck deciding which of these unknown adventures to take with me to my new real life adventure.

Due to genre or author or plot synopsis, some of the books in my to-be-read pile I suspect I will enjoy greatly once I get around to reading them. For those, I’ll probably pack away with the rest of my core keepers. There’s a subset of books I feel guilty about because someone had recommended the book to me or it was an advance reader copy from eons ago which I have yet to get to. Those I’ll also keep because eventually the guilt will become so great that I will read them after all (and possibly write a review for the trouble). And then there are those to-be-read books that I know I would have no trouble getting rid of once I’ve read them once. For this third group of books, I’ve set myself a goal of trying to get through as many as them as I can before I have to leave. And for the ones I don’t get through, I’d have no trouble giving them away. The remaining books make me feel ambivalent. They could be great books, but I simply don’t have enough information to know for sure.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been converting to ebooks for the past year. I have no doubt that if I had not started to do so, my book pruning situation would be even worse. In some ways, ebooks have enabled my book hoarding tendencies. Thousands of books could be stored in almost no physical room at all. Now, I don’t have to throw away any of those books. Instead, I can make backups of those books and have access to them whenever I wish.

If all of my books were in electronic form, I wouldn’t be having this angsty pruning process ahead of me. Then again, I doubt I would be having all these stronger feelings about these books either. There’s something intangible and unreplicable that comes with the physicality of books which ebooks lack. Of course, I feel that a novel can be fantastic in either physical or electronic form–when I read, it’s for the story, not the container that holds those words. And if I were a pure reader, I wouldn’t care about the paper and the pulp, I’d just ditch them all in favor of the electrons. But I’m not just a reader. I’m also a writer, a thinker, someone who has a significant internal life. The intangible thing that physical books possess is a state of mind, an atmosphere where I can just reach out and find something fascinating at random. It’s discovery. There’s not so much of that when you’re just pushing buttons on a device.

I’m not a die hard advocate of either side of the physical books and ebooks debate. I think there are merits to both sides and I suppose I will continue to keep both physical and electronic libraries. But unlike my electronic library which is bloated with everything and anything, the items in the physical library are deliberately curated. If the library is like an external brain, I would say that the electronic version archives the facts while the physical stores the emotions and the heart. That choice–of what I keep and what I give away–would become a conscious act of deciding what to remember and what to forget. And while the forgetting might not precisely hurt, there is the uneasy feeling that I’ve let go of something–an intangible creative spirit, perhaps–that could have been important.