Friday, July 13, 2007

Books and Bookmen

The excellent Ian Russell, in a comment on I've Heard Of Dutch Blinds, But..., raises an interesting point: Are books worth the money, the trouble? The answer to the first question is probably No, if you're buying new in a bookshop (and, in spades, if you're buying contemporary fiction). But the trouble - ah the trouble, especially the agonising business of getting rid of books we once thought worth the effort of acquiring. The trouble with books is that they reflect our lives - to some extent accurately, but also wishfully. Some books are mere totemic presences on our shelves, representing things we would read if we were really the person we like to pretend we might be (I have preserved an unopened copy of Auerbach's Mimesis for decades in this symbolic role), or good things we once read and feel should remain on our shelves as a kind of literary spoor, the furniture of a civilised mind, though we might never look at them again. Much of this, then, is self-projection, the laborious creation and maintenance of a meta-life. In weeding our bookshelves, we're editing our lives - it's not easy. And it's a dangerous business, all this - here's what can happen. Bibliophagy sounds especially intriguing - one way of avoiding the trudge to the charity shop? Impeccably green, too...

21 comments:

  1. "...representing things we would read if we were really the person we like to pretend we might be."

    That's why I've never bought any Salman Rushdie.

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  2. I've found a great way of recycling books for my pleasure. Barter Books, in the old Alnwick station building takes them from you, gives you a fair price, whch you can then use to 'buy' books from their, what seem like, miles of shelves. Of course living near Alnwick helps.

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  3. ...a bit like public libraries - for capitalists. ;o)

    It's not just books. Those damnable magazine subscriptions! there are only a finite number of GP surgeries, veterinarian waiting rooms and barbers shops on the planet and space is fast running out. Who reads Reader's Digest anyway and, once secondhand, isn't it Reader's Regurgitation?

    I hear The Economist is going audio which is a step in the right direction. It'll be treated more like music, and I'd welcome a bit of background reading.

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  4. i had a severe asthma attack when trying to move out of my last flat, and threw about 200 books in the bins, or rather ordered/wheezed at my henchman to do so. It's very liberating even if it feels wrong.

    Modern books tend to be shit. i try and buy 2nd hand books from the old days. i found two George Steiners for about 50p each, hardback, ex-library copies from the 70s in good condition. Also Appleyard's Understanding the Present in a hideous jacket, hardback, for £3.

    i've only ever destroyed three books - Ian McEwan novels. Amusingly, it turns out a friend of mine did the same thing to his sole Ian McEwan purchase, though he first shaved off his pubic hairs and deposited them within the book, for some reason.

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  5. The same goes for records really. At college, a student was fixing up his spare room to house his collection. He boasted he owned over 5000 albums! How could anyone even listen to 5000 albums?! His argument was they're there if he needed to hear them not that he intended to ever listen to most of them again.

    I read that John Peel had millions of the things which he'd bung in his shed - not the best place to care for priceless recordings but I suppose he got them gratis in exchange for a plug and 99% of them were bloody awful anyway. Still what can you do with secondhand vinyl apart from making 70s ashtrays which will no doubt go begging now the smoking ban is in force.

    The fact is (to borrow a Bryanism), the fact is 90% of recordings are total bollocks. So why do we carry on buying all this crap? We have to give the money to these people so they'd come out and play the old favourites from their first album that made them a household name. That's all most artists have in them - enough talent for one or maybe two fair albums. Think about it. Most music lovers could reduce their collections down to 100 - even 50 favourite top albums of all time ever. Which is a good thing too because I don't know about the rest of you but I started to get collector's amnesia around about 200 - and then I started buying stuff I already had!

    Of course, all this has changed what with the invention of the MP3 jukebox and downloads. They take up no space at all.
    The downside of this is you can't have a gander at your host's collection at parties. They used to say you could tell the calibre of your host by the state of his record collection and you could tell the calibre of the guest by whether they studied the record collection before your books. If they went straight to the Vids, you wouldn't invite them again (unless they were mucky vids, then you'd have them around at the earliest opportunity).

    This whole collecting thing is ridiculous - a throwback to when we evolved from lithe hunter-gatherers into fat-belly farmers. Now we've almost come full circle, we should go back to travelling through life with just what we need and no more.

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  6. Much of it is self-projection, I agree. They proclaim to the world: this is who I am. Aren't I a clever chap? However, I also find my books comforting to have around me - I can't suck my thumb anymore, drink or take drugs, so I read and smoke cigarettes to help me cope with life. They are also like a record of my life, as I remember when and where I bought most of them. And I don't want to edit my life, thank you very much. It may not have been an unmitigated success story (more an accident waiting to happen), but I don't want to forget anything, in case I make the same mistake three times. So, despite my wife's constant pleas to give them away, I will hold onto them (grimly). Furthermore, I have this idea that if there are lots of books around the house the kids are less likely to turn out to be television-watching, computer game-playing philistines. Does that make me an optimist at heart? I hope not.

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  7. So many books now aren't made to last - paper yellows, cover fades, binding cracks in about five years, though those from US publishers are much better made ime. The essentially throw-away production values of the modern book made it easier for me to dispose of nine-tenths of my own collection. Even so, it took several years. Not for everyone, but too many books can get you stuck in life just as easily as too few.

    Where I live, some charity shops are so inundated with books that they are reluctant to take them any more.

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  8. Neil, the thought of you have not only a wife but children too scares the hell out of me. i imagined you living in a cave somewhere under a volcano, clad wholly in briars & human remains, perhaps accompanied by a goat or wyvern. Next you'll turn out to have a job and a car.

    It should be disappointing, but instead it's terrifying.

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  9. I see from Wikimeejig that "bibliophily, is the legitimate love of books... is not considered a clinical psychological disorder."
    Which presumably infers that bibliomania is the illegitimate love of books. Someday, no doubt, a tabloid front page will tastefully declaim, "I am the bastard offspring of one man & his books." Though not in so many words.
    Biblioquiniophagus: Short-sighted mammal, in danger of extinction as a result of declining food source- the food source being Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica in Latin. The Biblioquiniophagus will eat but tends to regurgitate Aquinas in English translations.

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  10. In my never-ending quest to be humble I might never get rid of another book: The Antilibrary.

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  11. Except for the wife and kids part, you have me more or less pegged, Elberry. And if it isn't the books she's complaining about it's the feckin goat. What is it with women? If she doesn't leave me alone, I'll trade the children for another goat.

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  12. an interesting perspective, dave lull. it reminds me of the dichotomy about cleaning out the attic: is a storage space more useful empty than full?

    which brings me to ponder the issue as to whether it is the collection of knowledge that is not worth the time and effort. It is a fact that facts hinder imagination. and it is imagination which got us thus far, not facts. (okay, by now we realise that facts are as much an illusory comfort blanket as god is but that's probably already in another post). Is a book better when it is based on facts than completely fabricated from imagination?

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  13. Ian, books of fiction should be as factual as possible and factual books as close to fiction as possible.

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  14. Ian, I'm sympathetic to Neil's point. You and I appear to share a love of 'Three Men In A Boat'. What better example of that mixture of fact and imagination as Jerome takes us through the joys and miseries of negotiating the Thames in the late 19th century, regularly interrupting the journey, without warning, by launching his unfettered imagination into a glorious fantasy world, and then, equally suddenly, returning us to the vagaries of the Thames?

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  15. Jerome is a good example. It's all about plausibility. speciousness, that's the real art of writing.

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  16. Susan B., Philly bibliophile,July 13, 2007 5:46 pm

    I must read "Three Men in a Boat" -- it shows up (as does Jerome) in Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love," one of my favorite plays.

    As for book-purging, I need to do it chez nous. I've got thousands and, really, most of 'em are just dust-catchers. On the other hand, some I need to keep for research purposes (wisht I bought all those in hardback, but mostly didn't).

    As Thoreau said, "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone." Or do without. Of course, it was also Thoreau who showed someone his shelves and said, "Look, I have a library of 700 books! Unfortunately, I wrote 500 of them myself." (Leftover copies of "Walden.")

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  17. Admittedly, I was an odd child who began reading the family World Book Encyclopedia for pleasure at about age 7. So it came as no great surprise that, while in college, I amassed a largish collection of some 200 volumes on East Asia (one of my majors).

    While they did make for an impressive bookcase, a few years after graduation, I realized that I wasn't about to write a scholarly dissertation on any of the subjects covered, and highly unlikely to ever read them again. Thus, I donated them to one of the small college libraries at the university I attended in the hope that others would find them useful. They must have, because within the year, most disappeared from the shelves of the unattended library for good. (I doubt anyone has so much as opened any of the remaining volumes.)

    My library is much more eclectic now, and the shelves desperately need culling. Given the previous lesson in human behavior learned, I have been reluctant to begin the process, and determined that if someone wants the book for themselves they can damn well pay for it. Like Nige, I have daydreams about puttering around the house, making my living by selling-off various no-longer-useful things to the hordes looking for deals on eBay and Amazon. As Nige points out, the devil is in the details: posting the sales, tracking them, schlepping to the Post Office, and a host of other inconveniences. I'm not up to details at the moment, so the shelves bulge, sag, and on occasion, collapse.

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  18. There are a number of references in the postings to 'culling'. It sounds, well, so brutal, so final. Once the big chopper has fallen, there's no way back. What if that despatched former favourite eventually becomes a classic, but then goes out of print, where will you turn ? No, stick in there - build more bookcases. I have several. When my wife asks me "How many have you read (books, not bookcases) ?" I say "More than you think. And I have a programme ". She then sticks the knife in "Oh, and how long do you expect to live?" Quick as a flash I reply " A bloke called Appleyard has written a book titled 'How to Live Forever or Die Trying'. In it he recounts that a person alive today could live to be 1000. That person could be me".

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  19. Internet Ronin wrote: I'm not up to details at the moment, so the shelves bulge, sag, and on occasion, collapse.

    For god's sake, man, firm action is needed! Been there done that with the bulgy, saggy stuff and the dreaming of Ebay. Confine yourself to keeping no more than a couple of hundred and be resolute in disposing of the rest. You will suffer some sleepless nights, painful doubts and even grief, but eventually you'll tread more lightly, because you can now wear your learning lightly, which is as it should be.

    Besides, think of the treats you can spoil yourself with in exchange for what lesser men may feel is an act of amputation rather than release.

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  20. What's even more maddening than books never read is books read and then forgotten. Or misremembered.

    I've narrowed my mania by only collecting non-fiction books. No writer since Shakespeare has been able to equal the strange and paradoxical beauty of reality in fictional form.

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  21. Ah yes Duck, books forgotten... Me I forget almost everything I read these days, and yet it still seems worth it (if the book's good, that is) - I have to assume something's lodged there beyond the immediate reach of memory. There's a hilarious 'book' by Nicholson Baker, U And I, which purports to be his tribute to his literary mentor, John Updike. Baker lays his cards on the table right at the start, telling us he's only read a few Updikes, remembers very little of any of them, and doesn't intend to do any rereading in order to write U And I, preferring to rely entirely on such fragments as he has (unreliably) remembered. Of course I forget the rest, but it did strike me as quite possibly the most pointless book ever written.

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