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?