Posted under: book reviews
I’m a historian, and I’ve been at this gig for about fifteen years now, if you count back to when I was first paid to profess somewhere other than my graduate institution. (Twenty if you want to count all the way back to my first year in grad school.) I’m at the point in my life and career now where all of our bookshelves and bookcases are full, and some of them hold two full rows of books (with one row stacked right in front of the other, hiding the row behind.) Some of my history book shelves now have books lying down horizonal on top of vertially-arranged rows. Both of these solutions are aesthetically unattractive and/or impractical if one wants to locate a specific tome.
Before the Google, I was usually able to find answers to most questions, large and small, the old-fashioned way by consulting my personal library. (I don’t want to sound like Susan “mine is the greatest library in private hands in the world” Sontag here. It’s far from that–but it has served me and my obscure interests extremely well.) I have a pretty strong collection of important titles in my field published in the last 25 years, in additon to hundreds of obscure titles or published primary sources I’ve found in old junk shops and used book stores. I’m particularly proud of my fairly recent acquisition of the 1977 edition of Father Lafitau’s Customs of the American Indians translated and edited by William N. Fenton and Elizabeth L. Moore. (Mine is #656 out of the 750 published by the Champlain Society!) So stuff like that is obviously not going in the junk pile.
Have anyof you endured a major book clean-out? What kind of sorting criteria did you use to prune your collection? Do you feel better, or do you constantly find yourself jumping up to find a book you sold, donated to a library, or put on the “free books” bookshelf in a hallway somewhere? One rule: you can’t tell me to move my books from home into my work office. Although I have an office with many empty bookcases at Baa Ram U., I never write anything but memos, e-mails, and letters of recommendation there, so I like to keep all of my books in my home office. Should I finally just dump those books I bought in grad school but never bothered to read, which I’ve been packing, moving, and unpacking again for the last 20 years in a perpetual act of contrition? Or should I clean out books I’ve read but didn’t think were particularly interesting or valuable?
Here’s why I’m stuck with such a sprawling mass of books, and why I’m having trouble getting started on a clean-out: there’s a real difference in market value between my paperback copy of (for example) Peter Wood’s Black Majority purchased in 1988 for a college class, and the Lafitau tomes–but in some books there’s a sentimental value that is nearly on a par (or even greater) with the actual value of a limited edition publication of the Champlain Society. I have a vivid memory of the day I first read Wood’s book and was blown away by it–Spring Break 1988, on an old quilt laid out on a lawn at Haverford College on an unseasonably warm and sunny March afternoon. It almost didn’t even feel like I was reading for a class, it was so absorbing. I rarely consult that book, and that particular copy will have little if any value to anyone else (unless they’ve been assigned to read it for a college class). My heirs, such as they are, won’t know about that afternoon in March 1988 and how it set me on my professional path, so hanging onto that copy will just be more work for them in the end. But how can I give it away?
I love reading about the whole libraries that belonged to people in history–that is, usually a wealthy and subsequently famous man whose library was preserved intact (for the most part.) If the library no longer exists, there are sometimes lists of every single book a man owned in colonial American probate records, even of very middling men. (I once had dinner with a group of historians surrounded by Frederick Jackson Turner’s personal library, which was then in the basement of the home of his grandson, the late Jackson Turner Main and his wife, Gloria Main. It was a memorable evening.) I find it utterly persuasive that knowing someone’s library is a window into their soul.
So, maybe I’m not really looking for advice. Maybe I’ll just go shopping for another bookcase.