Although the fashionable term nowadays is decluttering, I have too much affection for most of my old books to think of them in this respect. But the time has come when I absolutely MUST part with many. Doing so, however, involves two problems: which to choose and where should they go?
The hardest part is the first of these: deciding which to part with. There seems to be no simple guide. I am certainly unlikely to re-read many – if any – of them again, much as I might wish to do so. There are so many treasures among them; books I loved for much of my life and others that are simply ‘important books’ that deserve to be spared. And, of course, some are both, loved and cherished.
Then there are some, easily identifiable, that I can part with without much angst albeit a few odd regrets. After a book I edited was published by Oxford University Press (OUP) I began receiving requests from OUP for reviews of books they had under consideration. The reward for these reviews was not monetary but a choice of books in their catalogue. I usually chose the most expensive, but most of these were tomes I never bothered to read (although the dictionaries and such were useful). They all looked good on my bookshelves and gave some visitors the impression that I was more scholarly than I really was. Perhaps in this category are also a dozen or so that were acquired when we were part of a Book of the Month club. These too we also neglected to read. We used to joke about the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and other such heavy-duty challenges.
In another category are the few books I had written, edited, or in which I had written a chapter. Then I asked myself, why? And – atypically – I had no good answer. I had no intention of reading them again. They were usually painful to write and I suspected, even way back then, that they would never be read. Nor could I imagine any of my family reading them. I know no library was keen to have any of them. I offered them to my local library, my hospital and university libraries but none were in the least interested. Not because they were ‘bad’, or even because they were outdated. They were both, but I guess mostly because they would consume precious space. (Or were the librarians too polite to tell the truth?)
So much for choosing possible discards. Determining which are ‘keepers’ is more difficult. There are many books on my shelves that I hope some of our children or grandchildren may want to read. Failing that, they may be offered to old friends. These would include many classics: Dickens, Jane Austen, Shakespeare and collections of poetry. All the great Russians. Then there were closer to home authors that need to be kept for patriotic reasons including, for example, Jack London and Mark Twain. I guess Mordecai Richler falls into this group and, now that I think of it, there are at least a dozen strictly Canadian writers that must be protected for posterity. Finally, I am not ashamed to admit that I would be reluctant not to try to pass one many favourite ‘popular’ writers including Simenon and John Macdonald. Sheepishly I confess I am also inclined to keep the only two books I received as prizes: the first a high school English prize – something by Costain that I never read; the other a Pediatric textbook for the highest marks in paediatrics and thus the main reason for choosing this specialty. I did read some of this one.
The second question was, where might the discards go? So far, I have been dumping them, box by box, in a large container at our local library. This forces others to decide which should be junked and which someone might be willing to take or buy. There may be other such dumping destinations but this is the most convenient. I confess, however, that the longer I do it – especially with badly worn books – the more I realize that I may be doing something naughty. I don’t want to caught and labelled a ‘book dumper’. (I just coined that phrase). And I am haunted by memories of the burning scenes in Fahrenheit 451.
What I absolutely cannot even consider doing is putting any book out with the garbage (trash for my American friends), or even in the recycling dump. Even the worst of them deserve more respect than that!