Of Ins and Outs

Libraries may accumulate of their own accord, but weeding them out requires undergoing a conscious process

For more than 10 years, since the day people started to talk about "e-books," I have been writing repeatedly that the book as we know it has nothing to worry about. I got so used to this whistling in the dark that I almost believe in it by now.

I have no doubt that the e-books in their various shapes and forms will replace the paper reference variety, as digital technologies are irreplaceable when it comes to storage and retrieval of data. But when we come to think about the book as a cultural icon, I have no doubt that as long as there are people alive who need to read, the paper reading book will be a part of their world - and not only because you cannot curl up with a computer.

But after having muttered this mantra aloud for the umpteenth time, I saw what was happening in my own house, under my very own eyes, and with my very own hands: As I have been working very hard on organizing the "exodus" of books from my house (due to the fact that my new apartment will be smaller, and hence will have a lot less shelf space), I noticed that I tend to part fairly easily with my reading books, but that I leave intact almost all of my reference library, contrary to what I preach about the future of the book in the digital world.

Bookshop as savior

Usually I'm the first to admit my own factual mistakes, to the point that one of my readers once inquired gently how many of these mistakes constitute one unit of ignorance. But when it comes to fundamental beliefs, like the one about the future of the reading book, I'm not in any rush to admit that I am wrong. Therefore, I felt a need to explain my own actions - which contradict my own theories.

And my conclusion is that I give up and give away my reading books (not all of them, of course. I left most of the classics, in the original languages if I can read them, inscribed copies and some favorites, and we have already six double shelves), as I believe that I'll be able to find them again if and when I'll need them in the future. No, not on the Web, but in every book shop. I have already four copies of Kafka's "The Trial," acquired on different occasions when I needed a copy but couldn't find my own on the shelves.

But I very much doubt if I'll be able to find some of my reference books - some of them long out of print, some of them opening readily on the required page - quite as easily. For instance, I know I can find Shakespeare's plays on the Web; some search engines are even very helpful in locating a quote. But what about some of the nicer editions, or the theoretical and critical writings that do not exist on the Web, which are not to be found easily even in second-hand bookshops?

Nobody decides to "have" a book collection. Mostly, it just happens. One day, you had a few books, and the next day, you have a library. It may demand a lot of time and money, but it sort of accumulates by itself. But when you reach the weeding-out stage, it does not happen by itself anymore: It demands an act of will, sometimes of even self-inflicted cruelty.

But deciding which books will go and which will stay is only part of the problem. The other part, much more difficult, is to decide what to do with them. You can give them away, of course, but each book owner wants to know that the books they have - or had - represent some sort of value, which is not only sentimental.

It is not easy to get rid of used books, mainly because the ordinary book collector (meaning me) does not own unique copies or first editions, which will sell at auctions and fetch a nice price. He can only hope that there will be one used-book dealer who will agree to take the books and pay something, anything, for them. Most dealers look on such lots of books and say: "No, thank you, I already have books."

That is how, after several trips to the second-hand bookshops - after having sold what I could and having given away some more - I was left with what I believe to be the nucleus of my library (and it is quite a big one at that). These are books which mean something to me, although with many of them, I do not know any longer what that may be. I do know that they mean something only to me. They may have some personal value. But they have no price.