How Many Books = Too Many Books?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- June 30th, 2014
Susanna Hesselberg untitled

© 2006 Susanna Hesselberg (click on image for artist website)

Like all book lovers who hold on to loved volumes, and who have moved many times, and have inherited books from family members, I struggle with keeping my collection — well, if not pared down, at least sane. And by “sane,” I mean mainly relegated to bookcases, instead of threatening to crush me under toppling stacks.

I have moved within cities, between states, and across the country, every time with dozens and dozens of book boxes. (I think Bekins and Booska have me on a banned customer list by now.) Recently, my sister and I inherited my father’s book collection, and his books number in the several thousand. He loved to read about magic, travel, photography, loved mysteries and books about words and wordplay. He had excellent taste in these categories, and his books are beautiful. But most of them are in storage, and I cannot figure out how, without building myself a house made entirely out of books, I will be able to keep them.

The advent of digital technology has made keeping thousands of books a breeze, and I admit that there is some comfort in knowing that, if I am stranded at O’Hare—as I undoubtedly will be since it is the Bermuda Triangle of airline travel—I can read the complete works of Shakespeare on my smartphone before my rebooked connecting flight eventually lifts off. And I think the convenience of ebooks has begun changing people’s habits (and even their feelings) about collecting and keeping physical books. With such easy access to new books online and via apps and e-readers, the need to hold a copy seems to be lessening substantially.

But many of my own favorite childhood books are not available digitally, and still others would be much poorer for losing their physical incarnation. I’m thinking here particularly of my father’s oversized travel photography books, and my boxed sets, and all of the wonderfully odd-sized volumes in my library. And, frankly, nothing replaces that toasty, slightly vanillin smell of clean old books, or the pleasurable feel of turning their pages, from onion-skin thin to thick and velvety. Why on earth there is such delight in the varying shapes, matte and glossy finishes, deckled edges, unexpected heft, and so on, of those simple objects, I don’t know, but there is.

So I struggle with this crazy vocation. I don’t want to be burdened by my possessions. I want to live more lightly on the planet. And yet I want to hold onto memories, savor the times and places and ideas, the personal history each of my books evokes. Every few years, I try to go through my bookcases and pull out the ones I don’t feel a strong connection to and donate them, hoping they will find new, more appreciative homes.

How do you balance your love of books with the physical space you have for them? And how do you determine how many books is too many, for you?

10 thoughts on “How Many Books = Too Many Books?

  1. Cathy Anderson

    It’s great to be in such good company with this dilemma. I love the idea of building furniture with books (ones you don’t need to look at again, that is) and have also put some value on the insulation factor. I am trying to sort out the ones I don’t plan to ever read or look at again, but if I happen to look at those boxes again, I often have regrets! Another dilemma is what to do with those beloved children’s books that are in very bad shape – Do I order a newer, much more attractive edition for my granddaughter, or pass down the beaten up copy with my name scrawled in red crayon by my 5-year-old self? My only use thus far for the computer, is to keep track of what I have so I can fill in the gaps and not duplicate. I’ll get to that when I finish sorting…..

  2. Beth

    Carlos Maria Dominguez addresses this in his short novel THE HOUSE OF PAPER. Not a real solution for most of us, but a delight – one more book you must have!

  3. Johanna Hurwitz

    Thank you for describing that wonderful aroma of old books for me. For years I’ve tried to put into words the odor. Now I finally know it’s a “toasty, slightly vanilla smell.”

    Of course I own too many books. What reader, librarian, book lover, author does not. My new rule for myself is to give away a book for each new book I receive as a gift or purchase. This helps but doesn’t account for what to do with the books I already owned before I made this rule. As a result, my books are shelved in a double row which means I can’t always locate the back layer. Worse, it means that I buy duplicates of books I already own.The real problem is not where to put all my books but will I live long enough to read everything>

  4. Andrew I. Porter

    My solution has simply been to live in the same apartment for 45 years. About 10 years ago I sold off several thousand books, winnowed other collections, and in general made sure most things are on shelves or behind furniture.

    But as I get older, the question of what to do with my magazines, my artwork, my other books looms ever larger…

  5. ellen scott

    As a children’s bookseller about to retire or just work part-time and with a fantasy about downsizing from the house we’ve lived in for 30+ years, I am also trying to cull the books. So far, I have books in boxes in the living room for family, small school where I taught, library booksale and the books I’m keeping. Seem to be making a bigger mess, actually!

  6. Charlotte

    Here are rational reasons why filling your house with books is a good thing for the Earth:

    –A bookcase, especially a floor to ceiling one against a north wall, hels insulate your home.
    –books occupy dead air space that you no longer have to heat
    –books are carbon sinks. Think of all the carbon in 10,000 books being kept from rotting and returning the carbon the atmosphere!

    I myself have too many books on my to be read pile, but that’s a different problem than having too many books in the home….

  7. Eleanor (Ellie) Miller

    Elizabeth/Alison…you’re RIGHT! There is no “easy way”, and I’m wrestling with that problem currently too. Widowed and aging far more rapidly than I would wish in terms of my physical limitations, I’m getting ready to sell my too-large-for-just-me home and downsize to either a condo or some form of assisted living. Hard facts: at this point in my life, I’m almost a book a day junkie; if I can’t get to the library for variety, what will I have at-hand to read; and one person trying to sell books (even valuable ones) is outta luck. Oh…it can be done, I suppose, but the down side of the process is too difficult for various reasons, so fergedabbudit Scharlie for me at least. The first round of library donations was simple…I’ve packed ‘em up; they (bless ‘em) did the pick up. After that initial sweep, two factors complicate matters: what are my must-keeps for rereading purposes and how to get the books I LOVE into equally loving hands if I’m NOT here to do it in such a way as to cause my family the least amount of trouble? I’ve solved the latter dilemma with labels: those little colored dot stickers: red? send to a predesignated welcoming recipient; yellow? family: check for your interests before discarding; blue? toss or donate at will. The must-keeps will be boxed and go with me. And if I have to leave the furniture behind? SO BE IT!

  8. JOHN T SHEA

    My house is effectively a library. Everything and everyone else is squeezed in where they (barely) fit, myself included!

  9. Alison

    Hi – I’m dealing with this right now. For 20 years I’ve had books up to the (13 foot) ceiling – I haven’t read those top shelves in that long. I’m seriously culling, looking for those books that I know I’ll want to re-read that aren’t available in digital format. I don’t know an easy way to do it!

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