July 3, 2012

Doctor, it hurts when I do this: “thinning out” books


“An odd truth about reading: As exciting as it is to acquire books, it’s equally thrilling to get rid of them.” So says Maggie Galehouse, anyway, in a post at her Bookish book blog for the Houston Chronicle.

She says her bookcase is “a visual prompt for my reading life” and holds lots of books that are beloved or otherwise “important.” “Still,” she writes, “the books I have read and not liked make their way to this bookcase, too, which is why I stage a great bookcase thin-out once or twice a year.”

Her enthusiasm for this comes from the fact that “I learn a lot from these thin-outs,” including

1. I think I’ll read anthologies but never do.

2. I think I’ll read translations but never do.

3. I cannot throw away books I loved as a kid. (“The Snowy Day,” by Ezra Jack Keats, is always on my shelf.)

While I try to be upbeat about the process of “thinning out” books from my own library (by telling myself I am making room for more books), and can admit that the removal of a few titles has generated actual enthusiasm, on the whole I can’t say I share Galehouse’s enthusiasm for the process — I certainly don’t find it “exciting.” In fact, I resist it mightily, moving books around more than actually weeding them out, to the point of moving some to my office, and renting a space to store still more of them in. As for what I learn from the process:

1. I clearly made some mistakes early on in choosing careers (another euphemism) such that I am now unable to afford a bigger apartment.

2. Chekhov was a motherfucker. (I always get distracted by the Chekhov section.)

3. The object we call a book is an utterly amazing piece of technology, both in terms of storage capabilities and data access, and their survivability is unrivaled by other information technology. (Hell, you can still read the first book ever made, a Gutenberg Bible.) Thus, you have to kill them yourself, which makes this a truly fraught process.

In short, “thinning out” essentially strikes me as a euphemism on the order of “collateral damage.”

What about you?


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives