Monday, December 8, 2008

The Logic of Shelving Books

Which books to keep, which to give away? Laura Miller sees two approaches:

The first views the bookshelf as a self-portrait, a reflection of the owner’s intellect, imagination, taste and accomplishments ... The other approach views a book collection less as a testimony to the past than as a repository for the future; it’s where you put the books you intend to read.
The latter smudges the boundary between two distinct classes of books you intend to read: those you've acquired and plan to read in the future, and those you've already read and plan to re-read or reference in the future.

The former smudges a few boundaries as well. I have an entire shelf of books that I inherited from my mother and display for the same reason she did: because they are beautiful objects, and in some cases, old, rare, and reputedly valuable. I would not dare to pick up and read these books any more than a collector of antique plates would use them for tonight's casserole. This display counts as a self-portrait, but not strictly of the "look at the high-falutin things I've read" sort. (I have, in many cases, read the books in question, but in less fragile editions.)

Another shelf holds the books that count more squarely as a self-portrait, but the catch there is that the shelf is located in my man-cave / office / tee-vee / music / ongoing projects / miscellany space, a space I would be loath to show to guests I truly wish to impress. I look at the books there as an affirmation of the sort of person I currently think myself to be or aspire to become. The lineup of books there changes gradually over the course of time, but always makes a statement of the kind, "these are the ideas and the artistic achievements I value." This shelf is less a self-portrait than a flattering mirror. It is always a working mirror -- these are books I expect to check again and again, and many are the cheapest of paperbacks.

Either way, books have to earn the right to make it to one of my bookshelves. Acquired but not-yet-read books must settle for living in piles until I get to them, which might be soon, or might be a long time coming.

(via normblog)


Ian McCullough said...

If you're interested I can give you my Powell's book buyer "tough love" appraisal. Gratis, of course.

Dale said...

Ian, I just might take you up on that ... I'll gather some details and get back to you.