I have a nice collection of books and over the past two weeks I’ve winnowed down their numbers by dragging 20 black contractor bags to the Boys Club book trailer at the Barnstable Dump. I may have given myself a hernia in the process, as all of those books were upstairs, scattered between five book cases, and had to be Santa Claus carried downstairs and out the door over my shoulder.
I lightened the load on the old house’s bones and perhaps even slowed its sagging into the sand, but no one was happier to see the black bags of books leave forever than my wife Daphne, who asked me multiple times “what’s wrong with a Kindle?”
A lot is wrong with a Kindle. All those sad “books” locked away on a little plastic rectangle have nothing to compare with the impressive ranks on actual shelves of Shelby Foote’s trilogy of the American Civil War, Gibbons’ massive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (which I also listened to via Audible during endless car commutes from the Cape to NYC), a signed three-volume hardcover set of John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium trilogy, a full shelf of Pynchon, all of O’Brian’s Master & Commander series, and treasures dating back to college.
Friends and house guests can’t spend a pensive moment on a rainy day looking for a good book on the Kindle in my briefcase. I can’t excitedly press a masterpiece sitting on a device into their hands knowing it won’t come back, but still feel glad to give them the chance to experience what I had when I read the book for the first time.
What sits on a person’s book shelves may say more about a person than their Match.com profile or their Meyers Briggs score. Who hasn’t cocked their head to the side and spent a few minutes scanning book spines to get a sense of their host and their interests? When I was in college I was invited to dinner by my advisor John Hersey. His home on Humphrey Street in New Haven was packed solid with books, more than I had ever seen before or since. My read on him? People who write books own a lot of books.
My shelves — prior to the Great Reshelving of 2018 — would have told a browser that their owner catalogued according to the laws of entropy. Nothing was grouped correctly. Proust was hanging out with James Ellroy. Ancient software manuals sucked up precious space. Flimsy IKEA bookshelves had cracked and collapsed to reveal they were nothing more than corrugated cardboard encased in vinyl. Stacks of books lay under beds collecting dust bunnies. Torn paperbacks with no covers competed with first editions, great poetry, and irreplaceable yearbooks and family photo albums.
Being the nerd I am I went online to look for some guidance on how to most efficiently purge my collection and reorganize it across multiple bookshelves in separate rooms. Should I use the Dewey Decimal System? I did work in a library in college and the Cotuit Library is right across the street and I kind of know the DDS. Was there an amazing book app that would scan ISBN numbers and help me keep track of my lending? One lifehacking tip advised organizing books by the color of their spines the way teenagers sometimes organize their apps on their phones by the color of the icons.
In the end I went topical. Fiction and poetry are being shelved alphabetically in the main book case along with the best of my maritime history and fiction. Paperback fiction (in decent shape) went on the uppermost shelf that is conveniently paperback sized. Ancient history and literature — Herodotus through Runciman — went into a bedroom along with more marine titles, mountain climbing, survival stories, philosophy, and coffee table art books. The guest room got more beach reading and popular stuff like Stephen King, along with all the local flora and fauna and Cape Cod specific titles.
First came the purge and the purge intensified. In a moment I would ponder as book in my hand and make a quick assessment. Was it a duplicate and if so, was it superior to the other edition? Do I need three hardcover copies of Harry Potter and the Lost Prince of the Planet Xerox? Was it out of date, e.g. some business book about “Agile Lean 6 Sigma Teams?” that wasn’t relevant anymore to anybody and probably was that way the day it was published? Into the trash with it. Was it a one-off read that would probably never get picked up and read again? e.g. anything by James Patterson? Into the trash.
My criteria for disposal grew more weening the more weeding out I did. Sometimes I’d find a title so heinous I’d cringe that it even came into the house, let alone found space to molder in.
Once the purge was completed and five back-bending trips to the recycling center lightened the house by several tons, I started shuttling the survivors to their new homes. In the process I was able to dispose of one dilapidated IKEA bookcase and multiple temporary shelves in various bedrooms. I removed about 100 feet of shelving by the time I finished, and what remains has plenty of room for more books. All photo albums and yearbooks are in a set of shelves inside of a closet used to store old electronics and other detritus.
The most satisfying part of the Great Reshelving was the reunification of so many scattered titles and the discovery that my favorite authors are Don DeLillo, Peter Matthiessen, Barry Hannah, Joan Didion, John McPhee, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy. I’m really into Byzantine History (especially the fall of Constantinople), the naval history of the Civil War, whaling, American small boat design, shipwrecks, mountain climbing, and English romantic poets.
As for apps, yes there are book apps that purport to make life easy, but in the end I just did it by the seat of my pants the old fashioned way.