Too many books

by Charlie Huenemann

It is commonplace to observe just how marvelous books are. Some person, perhaps from long ago, makes inky marks onto processed pulp from old trees. The ensuing artifact is tossed from hand to hand, carrying its cargo of characters, plots, ideas, and poems across the rough seas of time, until it comes to you. And now you have the chance to share in a tradition of readers stretching back to the author, a transtemporal book club who communicate with one another only by terse comments scratched into the margins of this leather-bound vessel.

But, boy, do they pile up over time! Shelves groan under the weight of old textbooks, exclamatory treatments of hot topics long past their sell-by date, endless reissues of classics, sci-fi paperbacks that disintegrate when opened, and that one book on economics you were supposed to return to somebody five, no, maybe ten years ago. Some, perhaps, have resale value. The rest could be dropped into a charity box to join the massive graveyard of books to be boxed up and never seen again.

The remaining option is to dump them unceremoniously into the recycling bin – but most of us recoil from the suggestion in horror. Why? We venerate books as objects. Some books preserve important ideas that threaten bigots and tyrants, and these are the ones often burned by said barbarians. Holding onto these books is one way to affirm their importance in preserving our fragile civilization. Some of these books are old friends to us, our teachers and soulmates, and so dumping them is unthinkable. “Books” as a common noun typically picks out the ones that mean so much to us, and if we were to announce to our friends that we were dumping out our old books, we might as well have said we were doing so on our way to burn down the Parthenon and slap a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

But let’s be honest. Very few books are that important. Most of them are not worth the trees and time they cost. The time-worn acerbic quip that “This book fills a much-needed space in the literature” expresses the undeniable fact that the world would be better without some books in it.* Just try maintaining an attitude of biblioveneration while holding aloft a copy of Rush Limbaugh’s 1992 The Way Things Ought to Be. It seems unfair for such ill-conceived natterings to enjoy the same protection as volumes of Leo Tolstoy or Toni Morrison. Could world culture survive your dumping of Limbaugh? Well, yes. It might even ascend a fractional bit.

Of course, one should not become strident in such judgments. There is a long history of great books with scathing reviews, and we should not be eager to join the aforementioned bigots and tyrants in their attempt to free the world of what they judge to be “bad” books. But what about my worn-out copy of On the Road? What about my 1983 textbook on college algebra? What about (*gasp*) my paperback Bible? Dumping these items will make no dent whatsoever in the presence of these works in our culture. Copies of them exist in abundance on shelves around the world, and in deep bins of used books in thrift stores.

The fact is that there are too many books – considered both as original works and as multitudinous copies of original works. When I imagine shoveling hundreds of old books from my office into a dumpster, I experience a spike of guilty glee, feeling as if musty weights would be lifted from my weary shoulders. No hours spent evaluating where each one should go, no agonizing decisions over what to keep, just poof! Good riddance. The world will bustle along well enough without these particular books in circulation.

But there is that flicker of guilt. Dumping out books registers as a kind of treason against what so many of us fight against: the darkness of illiteracy, contempt, and prejudice. As a species we have somehow managed to build institutions that allow for learning and shared understanding, and these institutions are built of books. Imagine holy shrines that are built only from a particular kind of marble. If you happen to have a chunk of that special marble, you might hesitate in throwing it away – not because it is part of any actual shrine, but because it is the sort of thing out of which wondrous things are built. Even a misshapen, foolish chunk commands some respect, just for being the kind of thing it is.

As life proceeds, we have to part with many of our possessions (well, all of them, ultimately). And we all dream of simpler lives. The fantasy of dumping out most of my library plays into my fantasy of paring down to just my “island” books: the dozen or so I would keep if I were to be stranded without access to any others. Sometimes the size of the library should be measured not in length of shelves, but in the depth of readings.

The island books I’ll keep. They’ll go with me to the grave, if I have any say about it. For while it is true that there are too many books, undeniably there are some that we cannot live without.


(With thanks to Rick Krause for corrections and conversation. As usual.)

* According to Mathematical Reviews, the remark “This paper fills a much-needed gap in the literature” was first coined by Lee Neuwirth in 1960.