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Why is it so hard to get rid of our books?

House & Home

Why is it so hard to get rid of our books?

We are inordinately attached to these markers of ego and past selves. But in truth they can undermine — rather than underline — identity

In our house, we sometimes look at our belongings and remind ourselves: “One day, all of this will be packed into boxes and taken to a charity shop.” I can’t see our gloomy mantra achieving the popularity of Marie Kondo’s injunction only to keep things that spark joy, but the recognition of the futility of relentless acquisition is very much the spirit of the age.

Many crave liberation from “stuffocation”, and some find it through the catharsis of a Kondoesque clear-out or “Scandinavian death cleaning” — the apparently traditional Nordic decluttering undertaken at the arrival of old age.

Having recently put everything into boxes for the less terminal adventure of a house move, we decided to strictly limit how much came out of them at the other end. However, we knew that there is one kind of object that defiantly resists the cardboard coffin: books. Like so many, we would happily decimate our wardrobes, clear out our cupboards and gut our garages, but would struggle to liberate our libraries. Why is it so hard?

Many of the reasons given for retaining many more books than you are ever going to open again turn out to be pretty flimsy. Take the unapologetic insistence that books are beautiful things and to complain that they have no other utility misses the point. William Morris commanded: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Any books that are not the former are still the latter.

But we don’t keep old clothing that no longer fits, or beautiful pots and crockery that is unusable. And unless you have a rare book collection, the vast majority of your books are unlikely to be so beautiful as to warrant their treasuring on aesthetic grounds alone. Often, the beauty of books we fall for is the effect of their display en masse, irrespective of what lies between the covers. 

What of Morris’s other criterion: usefulness? Hoarders insist you never know when you might want to reread something or pass it on to someone you know will appreciate it. For some readers, this may be a genuine justification and not just an excuse.

For instance, consultant and artist Niels Koschoreck has about 8,000 books, divided between his Tottenham art studio and his homes in England and Germany. He often finds that he remembers something he has read in his collection and then wants to look it up. “It’s like having an archive to draw on,” he says. A supplement to the all too limited capacity of memory.

But I’m surely not the only one whose memory isn’t good enough to make such an archive usable. Whenever I scour through books to find the source of a half-remembered passage I almost always fail and have much more luck doing a web search instead.

The reasons we give to justify book hoarding are rationalisations for what is in reality a kind of fetish

Others are prolific lenders and love being able to pull out a long-neglected book to share with others, perhaps their children.

“All these books I’ve kept from my childhood I’m now going through with my sons,” says a London lawyer friend who prefers to remain anonymous. “I’m also looking forward to them being old enough to raid my bookshelves and go through these books that I’ve loved or been interested enough to read and talking to them about it.”

She and Koschoreck may have their points. But I’m generally suspicious of the “you never know” argument. We rightly overcome the just-in-case rationale with other stuff. When it comes to juicers and spiralizers we know that “it might come in useful one day” is a charter for clutter. Nor do we keep old sports equipment we no longer use because eventually we’re bound to have a friend who’ll make use of it.

When the “might” is slight, it isn’t right. Sure, occasionally you do regret giving or throwing something away, but excepting the most expensive items, isn’t it better to have to rebuy the odd old thing than live under the weight of so many of them?

It seems clear that most of the pragmatic reasons we give to justify our book hoarding are merely rationalisations for what is in reality a kind of fetish. We make books the exception to very reasonable rules we otherwise endorse for ridding ourselves of excess.

The suspicion has to be that for many people, the main reason to keep a house full of books is to show ourselves and others that we are intelligent and well-read. Nothing else can signal this so effectively, or socially acceptably. As my lawyer friend says, “I don’t have certificates or qualifications on my wall but I do have books.”

In the UK, where self-deprecation is traditionally mandatory, having a fine library is one of the few ways we’re allowed to show off. The common complaint that one has too many books, rather like the confession that one has had too many lovers, is usually a boast in not very good disguise.

Markers of ego and identity

Everyone I talked to while writing this piece readily agreed that identity and ego were deeply tied up with their book collections. This was perhaps most understandable for Cassie Thompson, a stay-at-home mother with two university degrees. “I need something to show that I’m not just a mum,” she says, aware of how undervalued parenting is in some career-driven circles.

Consider also those who have rows and rows of old travel guides. These books quickly go out of date so are not being kept because they will be used again. The only reason to keep them is as a visual reminder of the many and varied places you have visited, evidence of a life of adventure. That’s why my lawyer friend never gets rid of her travel books.

“They make me really happy because it makes you remember where you’ve been, when you’ve been, as I don’t buy souvenirs, I don’t take photos or if I do, I don’t look at them.”

Maybe most of our book collections are like this, souvenirs of our journeys in imagination and learning. “It’s your life experiences up there, the things that have shaped you,” she says. The point is not that we will experience them again but that we won’t, and so all the more reason to keep hold of the reminders of what our lives have been.

It sounds harmless, but it runs the risk of encouraging us to live on past glories. Those dead pages are a testament to what we have done, not to what we are doing or will do. In that sense, it sustains our identities — as a traveller or reader — by means of symbols not substance. If we are still travelling, still inquiring, why do we need so much evidence of past activity to reassure ourselves?

To get rid of these books requires confronting some uncomfortable truths. It is to admit failure

What’s worse, the reassurance offered is often false. In our latest attempt at a cull, I have gone through novels by the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides, Angela Carter, Paul Auster, Thomas Hardy and Emily Brontë. The truth is that I read them so long ago I can barely remember the outlines of their plots, let alone the richness of the characters or the nuances of their use of language. They do not prove my literary credentials but rather remind me that if I ever had any, they have long ago been lost.

We use books to underline our identities when more often than not they undermine them. Most old books are memento mori for distant selves, since the person who read them no longer exists.

The former broadcaster Mark Mitchell discovered this when he reread Anthony Burgess’s Enderby series of novels. A photo he still has of himself as a young man reading the book on a hotel roof in Venice testifies to his youthful aspiration to be the kind of person who liked that sort of thing. But reading them now, he finds that “although I can appreciate the craft behind it, the misogyny is appalling. What on earth was I thinking?”

Mitchell thinks that when he holds a book from his youth, “there is this kind of attachment to a probably imagined ideal past”. He has felt the warm, nostalgic glow of a book he picked up in a second-hand bookshop while on a camping holiday in Wales, he says, but worries the emotion isn’t terribly authentic. “[It’s] something that I imagine that I felt, but may well have been something that I’m just imagining myself into now.”

A similarly brutal honesty about our unrealistic illusions is required to make us more willing to give up many of the countless books we have kept hold of, intending to read “one day”. Mitchell says he is sure that if he reread, say, Middlemarch, he would get a lot out of it. But “there’s so much else to read, so much else to do. Is there time?”

Likewise, I am sure that despite the evidence to date, I will read my 25-year-old copy of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography one day. But the truth is, the time it would take to get through my “to-read” list is longer than the rest of my life. Most I’ll never touch. When you have fewer reading years ahead of you than behind you, it makes more sense to reduce your to-read pile, not add to it.

To get rid of these books requires confronting some uncomfortable truths. It is to admit failure. To concede that our aspiration to become more widely read, more knowledgeable, more well-rounded, has not come to fruition. Worse, it never will.

So, despite the many reasonable-sounding — if not entirely convincing — rationales I have heard for hoarding books, I have become more committed to thinning out our library. It still takes determination. Many of the books I’ve picked up ready to discard are very good indeed. But that is not reason enough to keep them if I am unlikely to read or have to refer to them again.

Letting go of such books is as important as accepting that a wonderful holiday, concert or meal has come to an end. The right way to take pleasure is in recognition of its transience. Even knowledge must also be allowed to pass. Holding on to books seems to be a denial that what enters our heads is also destined to exit them.

I have also struggled to say goodbye to many books I have by people I know or have met, some of which are signed. It seems brutal to get rid of these. But we overcome the understandable sentimentality to pass on other gifts that have served their purpose, if they ever had one. I do not expect people who have received books of mine from me to keep them forever, so in discarding the books of others, I am only doing as I would be done by.

For the self-deprecating British, having a fine library is one of the few ways we’re allowed to show off

This does require tearing out the front page with the signed dedication, which at first felt like a sacrilegious desecration. But I’ve come to see it differently: the fact that I want to keep that page even when I’ve decided the book should move on honours the author rather than insults them.

We still have more than enough books left, though maybe not enough to impress a true library-builder. But nearly 500 books have been boxed, and I am already feeling lighter. As my better half said, before there were so many books it was as though you couldn’t see the trees for the wood. We couldn’t delight in any of them because we were overwhelmed by all of them.

Now when I look I see only books that are classics, ones I would love to read again. Before, I was likely to alight upon something I guiltily thought I ought to read or keep, but didn’t really want to. I understand now what an ex-professor said about his own purges: “I’ve gotten rid of about two-thirds of my books twice in life. All that remains is gold.”

I am aware that culls can go wrong. Cassie Thompson says: “I always wanted a library so I bought books with that intention and then they just sat in boxes in the shed.” With the library looking like a pipe dream, she got rid of a lot of the books. This year, she finished the home study with the library space she long coveted but “the shelves are only two-thirds full. I am sad for the books I got rid of.”

I, on the other hand, am confident we won’t regret our purge. For all the talk of bookshelves providing wonderful decoration, it is refreshing to be in rooms that are lighter and less cluttered. We all know that clear-outs can be cathartic. If we can overcome our prejudice that books are not the exception to this rule, we might just find they are actually the best exemplars of it.

Julian Baggini is an author and philosopher

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Letters in response to this article:

A carbon capture defence of our personal libraries / From Anthony Lipmann, East Molesey, Surrey, UK

Be fearful for a civilisation that gets rid of its books /From Pierre Moreau-Péron, Rome, Italy

Bibliophiles do not need lessons on culling books / From Dora Thornton, London EC1, UK

Read between the lines on rationale for book purges / From Chris Sherwell, St Peter Port, Guernsey

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