January 14, 2013

Pruning a personal library


It can be difficult to let go of books in a personal collection — even when they start to overflow from the constraints of a bookshelf.

This weekend I spent a lot of time agonizing over which books in my library I should keep, and which ones I should give away. The start of a new year is always a good time to simplify and de-clutter, but I am faced with a more pressing impetus for a literary purge: I’m moving and I have too many books.

At the end of 2009, the New York Times asked writers to describe their criteria for the books that survive a personal library re-organization in a Room for Debate feature. Each contributor had a slightly different strategy. Francine Prose exercises a rigorous self-examination:

Ask yourself the following hard question and answer honestly: If I live to be 100, will I read this book again?

David Matthews, a memoirist and biographer, said that he gets rid of long biographies and any nonfiction that begins with “The History of …” As for fiction, he only saves books that have had a profound influence on his life:

Delillo’s “Underworld” can go, because a book can be long, or it can be boring, but it shouldn’t be both. Marquez’s “A Hundred Years of Solitude” makes the scrap heap, because it would take precisely that combination of circumstances before I could be bothered to finish it. Bye, bye Jamaica Kincaid — assigned 20 years ago by a comparative lit professor — you will always be homework to me. Soon, my bookshelf is lean. All muscle and bone.

All that remains is my literary DNA: Hubert Selby Jr., Fred ExleyJoan DidionRichard PriceDostoyevskyJames Baldwin.

Those other books by those other authors were great and good. But these authors can stay because they did something the others did not: they saved me.

I also found some of novelist and Princeton professor Chang-rae Lee’s line-listed suggestions about the types of books to leave behind to be helpful:

  • How-to books, especially those on writing and self-improvement.
  • Any novel or poetry collection written by a celebrity.
  • All of the Advance Reader Copy copies I’ve accrued over the years.
  • Anthologies of fiction and poetry that have “greatest” in the title; “best” is O.K., but “greatest” usually means a hit list of the too familiar and bland.

One useful method for regular library hygiene that I learned from the Steinfels, editors of Commonweal and co-directors of the Fordham Center for Religion and Culture, is to have an annual party where guests are encouraged to take books with them.  Since they know so many writers and publishers, they post a sign that serves as a disclaimer: “If a book you wrote or published is in the giveaway pile, we have a duplicate.”




Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.