Someone pointed me towards this Wall Street Journal article about owning books. It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about recently, especially as we are moving house soon: I estimate I’ve got about five or six hundred books to move in my current flat, and another couple of hundred back at my parents’ place. It’s a source of mild friction between myself and my cohabitant: he doesn’t believe in owning books, but gets them from the library. I also use the library (I am a member of eight libraries, at least five of which I don’t owe massive fines to) but I like to own books. I think he feels mildly oppressed by the sheer number of books I own, and they do tend to get everywhere.
I’m actually much less of a book hoarder and compulsive book buyer than I used to be: I almost never buy new books these days, but I still find it difficult to pass a second hand bookshop without acquiring one or two. I had a massive clearout a couple of years ago when I got rid of around three hundred books, discarding the ones that I was never likely to read again, the ones which would be freely available in the library if I did want to read them again and the duplicate copies. Since then I try to limit my library to books I definitely do want to read or reread, and try and keep books that are freely available in the library to a minimum. I like this passage from Luc Sante’s article:
It occurred to me that I had little need for most of the shrubbery surrounding the works of major authors: the letters (with one or two significant exceptions), the critical approaches (unless they are worth reading on their own terms), and any biography over 500 pages long (except maybe those by Richard Ellmann and Leon Edel). I also had no need for books with funny titles, books acquired only because everybody else was reading them, books with no value except as objects, and books that inspired a vague sense of dread whenever they caught my eye — possible cornerstones of culture that nevertheless only solitary confinement would ever compel me to read.
I still have a lot of books. I like having them, I like being around them, I like the fact that I can go to the shelf and look up a half-remembered passage whenever I want to. It sometimes seems to me, though, that owning books is not recognised as the materialist act it actually is. Because having a library is seen as a cultural, educated thing to have, it’s as though it’s somehow morally superior to owning a lot of clothes, say. In some ways I’d like to be more like my partner, with his half dozen books and his library card.