September 19, 2012

Abandoned books and personal collections


Books found on the street can be difficult to resist.

As my housemates in Park Slope could tell you, books spill out of the built-in shelves of our apartment. They’re stacked and piled high on a wardrobe and arranged precariously on top of bookcases. I like to think this makes the apartment more beautiful. Our books are muddled in together, so when someone moves out, the absence is visually most obvious in the empty shelf spaces that the books used to inhabit between our living room and kitchen.

Here in Brooklyn, in the land of stoop sales, it’s difficult to pass up adding more to the sprawling collection.  After having worked for two of the big six publishers, I’ve pilfered many of those books from the companies’ “free bookshelves”—designated places where employees put books for others to take. It’s one of the perks of working in publishing, but space limitations required me to learn that I couldn’t adopt every abandoned book.

Laurie Penny writes about this on her blog this week, after coming across a stack of books on the street.  She wonders why the owner is giving them away, is tempted to take one, but decides she can’t built a physical collection—with its comforts and commitments — just yet.

Me, I carry around my library in my head. I’ve just bought an e-reader and it’s liberating, but it’s not the same; not the same as carrying around a story or a history until you don’t need it anymore and passing it on, a bit battered, full of scribbling. Maybe someday I will be ready to unpack and settle, and maybe then, I’ll want books to weigh me down. Not just yet though.

A digital library may be ultimately unsatisfying due to the inability to easily pass on a beloved book with comments as Laurie suggests. Or perhaps it’s difficult to feel true ownership of an ebook when companies control the format and can limit the ability to read it elsewhere.

In a piece about personal book collections for Open Letters Monthly called “In Defense of the Memory Theater,” Nathan Schenider considers the e-reader library and declares:

The Amazon Kindle is a catastrophe: an interface to a proprietary market managed by a profit-motivated outfit that wants to own and monetize your memory theater… So far, for all the wonders they offer, the digital alternatives to a bookshelf fail to serve its basic purposes. The space of memory and thinking must not be an essentially controlled, homogenous one.

It’s the complexities of a physical bookshelf that are so alluring — the memory of the person who lent you that book or where you found it; the mysterious markings of an abandoned novel by its former owner; the simple yet elegant cover design of a former out-of-print edition; the visual organization by theme or chronology of a collection on your shelf. Above all, there is the promise of permanence and the feeling of security that the book won’t disappear if the format becomes obsolete.



Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.