I was intending to write a review today of Ali Smith’s newest novel, the very recently published There but for the, which I bought read and loved, all in the space of a few days. But my brain is sort of soggy after all the excitement we’ve had around here lately and that’s a novel I really want to do justice to. So instead I want to think about what happens to the books that don’t get read the moment they are brought home. I’ve been obliged to consider their fate this weekend as I’ve been having a cull of my bookshelves. I know! It’s so distressing, and I absolutely hate to let any book of mine go. And yet, there comes a point when books start to look accusingly at me from the shelves and I know I have no intention of reading them in the near future, or perhaps at all. That it will need some sort of coincidence or chance to re-ignite my interest and make me take them off the shelf. I use my bookshelves as a form of meditation; I sit in the armchair and let my eyes run over the titles, and my spirits perk up as I see books I have still to read and that I’m looking forward to, and books that I’ve loved that one day I’ll maybe read again. This is a lovely, lazy occupation, full of promise, but I don’t enjoy it so much when there are too many books that make me feel slightly uncomfortable, like we used to be friends but I haven’t been in contact for too long.

It all began this weekend with my French books. These I didn’t have any qualms about culling. Now I’m no longer teaching French literature, I was quite ready to get rid of the books that I wasn’t so fond of teaching, Boris Vian, Jean Genet, Jean Cocteau, André Breton, and some of the research books that I know I’ll never return to again. I don’t read enough French these days, so I wanted my shelves to look really tempting, with new books that I’m intrigued by, or old favourites I’d love to reread. Now I’m working at the secondhand bookstore, I have a great place to offload old copies (I’m manic about keeping my books really neat and smart), and their French language section is really good, so I don’t think they’ll languish there unloved.

Having started the cull, I was on a roll, and began to tackle the bookshelves in the study. (‘Are you feeling all right?’ Mister Litlove asked me, concerned). I began weeding out books I’d read and knew I’d never read again. That was the easy bit. Then there were difficult decisions. The last time I worked in a bookstore I had a third-off discount as staff, and I ran a bit wild with it. There were a lot of books dating from the early nineties which I’d bought for no better reason than that they sounded a bit interesting. I’ve always been a fairly indiscriminate reader (because you never know what’s going to turn out to be great) but I suppose I do have a better sense now of what I’ll really appreciate. It was funny revisiting this decade and realising just how much fashion there is in book publishing. There was a careful, wordy, literary style in vogue applied to sparsely-plotted family tales back then that you never see in the shops any more. There’s not so much of it on my bookshelves now, either.

But once I’d finished and had a crate full of books in front of me, I did feel sad. There are reasons why I need to have a mountainous TBR pile. One the one hand those books are a buffer between me and my mortality. I’m intending to have a lifetime of fantastic reading, and to have a significant chunk of it lined up and waiting is a sort of spiritual reassurance. On the other hand, books for me are a material form of hope. Between those covers, I hope to find enlightenment, entertainment, wisdom, escape, insight, solidarity, pleasure. The more hope I have banked up around me, the more positive I feel about the future. It feels like a little death of hope to have lost interest in some of those old books, as if I didn’t keep faith with them, as well as they offered to keep faith with me. But let’s not get too maudlin here – I promise you that I have plenty of unread books left! And it’s nice to see my shelves reinvigorated with some different titles. I can do this, just not often; once every twenty years or so seems about right to me.


21 thoughts on “Culling

  1. Yes, I like a mortality buffer too (just mistyped it as ‘bugger’, which made my mind wander a little …. a mortality bugger, how would that work?). I recently moved house and was able to shift a whole lot of books into boxes, but they are now decorating the attic and cellar rather than actually moved on to better homes, so I am going to have to come to a decision about them.

    Meanwhile, I am dying to read the new Ali Smith. Salivating in fact, especially after reading today’s Observer review. Can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

  2. I love this post. I really enjoyed imagining you sitting in front of your shelves, thinking about hope and mortality and literary fashions and how you don’t have to read or teach Genet ever again. The other day I found myself wondering what it would be like if I could only have four shelves for fiction, and an infinite number of choices of what to put there. I’d start at the A’s and read what I haven’t already and re-read what I know I once loved or just decide to forego. And I’d only leave on the shelf what I love or loved. Four shelves seems a little meager. Maybe five. That enterprise could take a lifetime, don’t you think?

    Like Charlotte, I think that Ali Smith sounds really interesting and I’m so looking forward to hearing what you have to say about it.

  3. Ah, you capture the craze to acquire and the guilt from not reading what you acquire so evocatively here, Litlove! I had a funny experience finally reading my copy of Matthew Lewis’ The Monk last year: after lugging the gothic chestnut around from home to home for what I think was the better part of two decades, I discovered that the glue in the spine had so deteriorated that the book was falling apart in my hands as I got a couple of chapters into the novel. I finally had to chuck my copy, a garish old purple covered edition at that, in favor of a library copy of Oxford’s handsome new edition that I’d half wanted to buy for the cover alone. Not sure there’s any moral to this story, but it was a fun read at least at last. Cheers!

  4. So, Charlotteotter mistyped it as bugger and I misread it as morality. Put the two together and you have something really ‘interesting’! I hat culling books and I’m hopeless at it, so I do it in easy stages. First they make there way from the shelves in my study to those in the garage. At least they are still available. As the garage shelves fill to overflowing I cull again. Somehow it’s easier when I haven’t been looking at the book for a couple of years or so. What I really need is a bigger study.

  5. Wow, I’m impressed at your culling efforts! When I did my big cull earlier in the year with the intention of getting rid of all the books that I could get at the library, I was saddened by how empty my shelves looked, so I put a bunch of the books back, just to fill the bookcase again. Now I’m committed to keeping them near full, but not overflowing. A good equilibrium for me!

  6. How do you manage to keep your books in good condition? Or do you just use them until they’re all torn up and then cast them aside like an old shoe?

    (I’m not criticizing. I’m curious because I don’t know anybody in the world who’s nearly as insanely anal about keeping books in good shape as I am. I cover my paperbacks with contact paper and put mylar dust jacket protectors on my hardbacks.)

  7. I love the idea of unread books as hope :):) We are moving to new offices in a few weeks and I’ve had to cull my shelves in my old office and classroom. The classroom was easiest bc many of my students asked if they could have certain titles and I was happy that they wanted to READ! Imagine that! It was cleansing to get rid of some of the lesser books I bought and read while working on my dissertation…I was afraid to leave any stone unturned. I also hadn’t realized how many publishers’ desk copies of textbooks I had…YUCK…I was glad to get rid of those. My office does look a little sad right now though and I’m anxious to get busy settling into the new office and make it cozy with my books again. I very seldom cull the books on my shelves at home. If I’m not going to keep a book, I go ahead and get rid of it as soon as I finish it.

  8. It’s very hard for me to cull these days, because, owing to space reasons, I’ve pared down to nearly all favorites and precious things. I may not be planning to re-read them soon, but I can’t give up books I love so much! Usually I am ruthless about giving away books I know I’ll never read again, though.

    Breton isn’t my favorite, either. Too humorless. I am fond of Aragon, though, in his Surrealist days.

  9. I don’t feel terribly sad about culling books from my shelves if I know they’re going to have another chance at being read..And then I enjoy having empty shelf room so I can buy some more 🙂

    I’ve never read any Ali Smith. But I should, shouldn’t I?

  10. Oh, I can absolutely relate! I worked in a bookstore in the late eighties, with a wonderful discount and went completely nuts with it (especially just before leaving). Some of those books are long since gone; others still look at me mournfully from the center of a pile, abject Bassett Hounds. Poor things; I really should make up my mind. As a buffer against mortality–that works for me!!

  11. I am feeling so crowded at the moment that your cull sounds like just the ticket, LL! I think change is healthy, as is giving up books that are or have become unsuitable for whatever reason – as you say, it gives them the opportunity to find a loving home elsewhere. A lovely post of rejuvenation!

  12. Looking forward to the Ali Smith review. I see the local library system here has 4 copies on order. Very envious of your clearing, but you could, like me, invest in a LARGE garage with LARGE metal cupboards and books in plastic bags, which I keep aiming [very low aim I’m afraid], to sort one day……

  13. Weeding the shelves is never fun and I dread doing it. But the pain and guilt go away pretty fast I find especially when the newly opened space gets filled with new books!

  14. Three of my favourite writers manage to get kicked out by you… That’s not saying I will re-read them and therefore might one day feel the urge to cull them.
    I should do the same but can’t do it yet. I used to believe that I was the only one in need of a huge TBR pile and blamed my mother for it (not everything is her fault it seems) because when I was about 10 she bought some 50 books of someone whose daughter had already turned 20. All excellent YA books. First she wanted to give me one at a time but I was a very persuasive kid and finally got all of them at once. I still think back to the magical moment of 50 brand new books and try to relive that moment ever since. (It’s a splendid excuse for compulsory book buying). I’m afraid your unfortunate candidates will be replaced very soon.

  15. I too love the bit about the buffer between you (and all serious readers) and mortality. Congratulations on your successful downsizing. If you donate the books to your public library or charity shop, they may just find themselves new homes where they will be read and perhaps loved and cherished.

  16. I am really awful at weeding my own book collection. Inevitably a book I get rid of will be the one book I am dying to read later. I also try and do like Teresa–avoid buying books that I can get from the library, but then I end up with a stack of fifteen books, which I can’t read in the three week check out time and after checking them out two or three times, slogging them about and not getting them read I end up buying them (to read at my leisure)–it’s truly a vicious cycle. And then there are the books I would borrow from the library but *they’ve* weeded them from their collection—best to have my own copy to be sure. I did, however, weed out a couple of big stacks of books that I am meant to be recycling (giving away or trying to sell) that are Spanish/Latin American fiction as I went through a huge phase years ago, and which for various reasons I don’t think I’ll be revisiting. Still, they sit there forlornly waiting for me to do something with them. I keep thinking someday I’ll have a proper reading room….a person can dream anyway! 🙂 Now that you have more room, you can buy more books, right?

  17. Charlotte – lol! I laughed at your typo. I normally just bore myself by continually typing ‘wiring’ for ‘writing’ and ‘univeristy’ for ‘university’. How nice to have a fresh one. Moving house is such a crunch time for ones hoarded possessions. I’ve kept all my son’s books from when he was young in storage units in the attic, and if we ever have to move they are just the sort of things that will go for the chop, and I will regret it. And I loved Ali Smith’s book – she is just so creative.

    Bloglily – what an intriguing philosophical dilemma you pose! I immediately imagine myself cheating and using the five shelves I used to have in college – they were each about six foot long. Even so, I could easily fill them with must-have books. And then again, if you really boiled it down to the essentials, would 50 or so titles do? Hmmm. And do read Ali Smith if you can; I think she’s something special.

    Richard – what a great story! It’s a good sneaky way to get a book you already possess, but in a nicer edition, although I don’t think that’s at all how it happened for you. Just serendipity that Oxfam had a better cover waiting for you. I hope you enjoyed it in the end – I have so many books that have been waiting years to be read. I still will! I promise!

    Annie – lol! there are all sorts of things that surely fall under the label of a morality-bugger. There’s a post for another day! I do like this idea of having stages in the process of culling – lots of opportunities for reprieve and fewer really difficult decisions. Now to tackle Mister Litlove about space in his garage – wish me luck for that one! 🙂

    Teresa – oh I completely understand! Nature abhors a vacuum. Of course you had to fill in the gaps again – I think you were rather good not to fill the gaps instantly with new books (which is what I want to do!). Finding an equibilirium sounds like a very very sensible idea. I should think on that.

    Jenny – I am impressed by your efforts to keep your books lovely! Wow! No, I don’t do anything special, just read them carefully so the spines don’t break (which isn’t always possible, if the book has been cheaply produced and cheaply glued). But I do always try to keep them looking as new as I can, and I am very anal about that! 🙂

    Patti – how wonderful to be able to give those books away to students who wanted to read them! I would love to be able to do that – only I know that most of the ones I’ve culled are too esoteric for most of the students. And I agree, getting rid of unwanted books is satisfyingly cleansing. I’ll bet your new office will look splendid in no time at all, once you’ve had a chance to settle in.

    Jenny – if you’ve already done your culling, then there is no need to worry! I ought to be better as I go along, but am not. There are books that will have to be prised out of my cold, dead hands, though. I’m right with you on the Aragon question. He’s one of my favourite writers from that period, and indeed one of my favourite, full stop.

    Becca – making space for lovely new books IS very nice! And a good perspective to hold whilst culling. I am a certified fan of Ali Smith (Mister Litlove would say I am definitely certifiable). If you fancy reading her, try Girl Meets Boy. It’s one of the Canongate myth series, and very quick to read, but very characteristic of her.

    ds – oh what did those bookstore discounts do to us? But oh boy it was fun, wasn’t it? Bassett Hounds is a wonderful description of the unread ones! I’m going to steal that. 🙂

    Doctordi – generally I am all for life laundries. It does feel cleansing to get rid of the stuff you don’t want, or don’t like anymore. Books it takes me a little longer to come around to culling, but it’s necessary in the end, and at least I’ve got somewhere to take them this time!

    Bookboxed – yay it’s nice to see you again! Yup, I am definitely being converted to this idea of ‘other’ storage spaces. I like the gentleness of that, and the possibility of getting back books you suddenly want very badly! Ali Smith’s novel was just fab, I thoughg – so playful, yet so profound. I’d love to know what you think of it if you read it.

    Stefanie – lol! That’s the ticket – don’t linger over the empty spaces where the old darlings used to be – fill ’em up quick with new ones. I like that philosophy. 🙂

    Caroline – oh the thought of 50 new books all at once! Yes, I can imagine I’d spend the rest of my life trying to reproduce that moment (well, I sort of do, on a smaller scale). But if you want any of my culled books, you only have to say the word. Sending them to a good home would be very pleasing to me!

    Ruthiella – oh I do hope so! I had no idea I was doing the buffer thing until I had them all in boxes ready to go. Then I suddenly felt really sad. But then I went and looked at the piles of new books I have no space for and felt better again. My biggest fear is that the house will burn down….

    Lilian – that is such a nice way of looking at it. I’m borrowing that attitude immediately.

    Danielle – now isn’t that exactly what happens? I would bet you good money that in a month or two I will suddenly have a pressing need for several of the books I’ve just got rid of. That’s typical! I hear you on the Spanish books – I clearly had a thing for intensely written small scale dramas from the nineties. It was hard to let them go, but really their time had passed, and I knew that. I’ve also been getting several books out of the library lately and it does mess with my reading schedule. But then again, I am still stockpiling against the ebook, or at least, that’s still my excuse and I’m sticking to it! 🙂

  18. Congratulations! I’m so used to getting rid of books (due to severe space constraints), that I don’t feel it so much, I’m ruthless. Those who survive in Smithereens-land are only the best!! How do you plan to get rid of them, oxfam, donations or bookmooch? Certainly you don’t throw them away, right??? I have moral qualms about throwing away anything printed, that’s the only excuse I have about my culling tendencies.

  19. Oh, I like to visit my bookshelves and stare at all that hope from time to time myself (who am I kidding? I do so all. the. time). I never thought of it till I read your wonderful take on it that it’s all about hope, but it most certainly is. I get such a thrill out of knowing I have so much to look forward to. Meanwhile, I couldn’t face culling bookshelves this year, so I culled clothing closets and drawers instead. Not nearly as difficult.

  20. I love that you look at your bookshelves and meditate on all of your future reads. I do the same and also feel a bit anxious when I have too many books waiting for me to read. By the same token I would feel completely lost if I had empty shelves. It is a fine balance for me between too many and not enough.

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