Sunday, June 24, 2007

Throwing Away Books

The NYT touched on an issue that is a bit of a sore point around Chez Buce. It’s the matter of throwing away books (link). Mrs. Buce thinks that, oh, say, around 2,000 ought to be enough books for any house. I lean towards 3,000 (nb: that catalog link at left connects to only a partial accounting). So we compromise at 2,000, which means a good deal of sloughing off. And you know what? It’s actually easier than it looks. I think it is John Updike who wrote something somewhere about sloughing off former selves, like insects shedding their skins. A good many of these are indeed remnants of my past—but often as not, a past that I’m well rid off and can happily set behind me. Others are clearly transitional stuff that I really ought to acknowledge that I have outgrown—I still have (or had, until lately) some of the old Fontana Modern Masters that I picked up when I was first scarfing down culture in London in 1976 (link)—indeed, a quick skim of the Amazon listings suggests that a lot of mine have been superseded by later editions.

The more challenging question, though, is—what to do with old reference books, the kind I once thought indispensable, but which now may (or may not?) have been superseded by the Internet. I still cling to my International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences from, I think, 1979—I think I got it as a book club premium and no, I am not moved to get the new one on offer from Reed Elsevier at $10,495 (link). So also the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, another book club premium I bet, acquired about the same time, even though I suspect I haven’t consulted either of them in several years. With perhaps even less justification, I’m hanging onto my Oxford Classical Dictionary (Second edition, 1978 reprint) and no, I don’t want to know how many times it has been superseded.

[I note two problems here: whether the earlier stuff is superseded, one, by the web; or two, by itself—I find a lot of my old faves have been replaced by later editions, even ignoring the internet.]

Other things have a bit more than sentimental value. I find I still haul out my New (Ha!) Columbia Encyclopedia (4th ed. 1975)—somehow, I can sometimes find things here that Google just doesn’t urp up. So also my old second-hand copy of Liddell & Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (9th ed. 1940)—the “great Scott.” I also have the “Middle Liddell” and the “Little Liddell,” and I find that I poke in all three of them from time to time.

But what shall we do with the New York Public Library Desk Reference (First ed. 1989)? I thought it would be indispensable when I bought it; in fact I have never used it very much, and I can’t imagine that there is anything here not better done by Google. So also, I think, its companion, the New York Public Library Book of Chronologies (First ed. 1990). And so also, I am almost sure, The Almanac of American History (1993)—into the bin it goes.

There are also a few that are sufficiently distinctive that they stand out as good reading on their own account. I actually have two copies of the Reader’s Encyclopedia, aka Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, after William Rose Benét, its first editor. Benét has been dead since 1950, but the book seems distinctively pithy in a way that defies abandonment. And I just now realized I cannot find my copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable—I used to buy copies in bulk and pass them out to friends. I’ll just have to check and see if the current edition (the 17th?) justifies my continued support.

Anyway, off to the Public Library they go, notionally for their summer book sale. But as the NYT suggests, if they go straight from there to the dumpseter, I really don't want to know.

1 comment:

New York Crank said...

Nothing clears the shelves of books like moving in with one's girlfriend.

"I have limited space," she says, "so what'll it be – a ton of books or use the space for clothing and have opportunity to change your shirt and underwear on a more than semi-annual basis?"

"But S.I. Hayakawa's 'Language in Thought And Action!' How can I abandon that? It had a powerful impact on my early post-adolescent (or maybe late adolescent) thinking. It was my Freshman English bible, my first classroom experience, a way to remember my professor, the late Judson Jerome."

"When's the last time you read it?" she asked -- a killing question tantamount to ripping the binding off every book in my library.

I was permitted to keep the books that I myself had written. (They now languish in a Park Avenue cellar storage bin) and books written by friends.

Know what? It turns out I don't the rest. Not an iota.