Friday, February 07, 2003

Culling Books

I have, I admit, a serious problem with my books: I cannot bring myself to throw them out. My office is filled to overflowing with various texts, manuals, references, and monographs. In recent months the number of books per square foot of office space has reached crisis proportions, such that it has become increasingly difficult to find space for students to sit when they come to consult with me (all three chairs are piled high with books) or to find clear patches of desk on which to work. The turning point came, however, when I realized I was running out of places on which to pile new books.

I have therefore resolved to go through my office book collection (not to be confused with the much more massive home collection which holds all those books not currently "in use" in my teaching or research activities) and purge all the outdated, redundant or useless volumes that inevitably accumulate over the years. To this end, I decided to assign myself the quota of eliminating one book per working day, so that I could reduce the collection by 50 or sixty volumes by the end of term, which seemed a reasonable initial target. Unfortunately, this has proved a lot tougher than I had anticipated.

First, once I started the task I quickly realized that I had already conducted a major purge about 18 months ago, and that all those books I had pictured as easy choices for the dustbin had already been tossed. I had forgotten about that earlier purge (I believe the phenomenon is referred to as 'repressed memory') when I had staved off the last crisis by throwing everything I could bear to part with. Consequently, I was now down to those books I still wanted to keep. Hard choices had to be made.

The second problem is, I love books. I do not mean merely that I love to read, but that I fall in love with the actual book. Where other people appear content with having cheap affairs with books, returning them to the library after reading their way through them and never borrowing them again, or abandoning them into a used bookstore with never a thought as to their fate, I wish to keep all my books forever. True, books, particularly textbooks, date rapidly and there may not appear to be any point in keeping some text that I read in my own undergraduate days 30-some years ago. But these volumes have tremendous sentimental value for me. Well, okay, not the statistic texts -- those were shown the door as soon as I had graduated the course, but my old humanities and social science texts! Ah, the romance that I had with those! How can I now discard these merely because they are old and their bindings faded? Call that love, would you?

Nevertheless, there comes a time for all of us when we have outlived a loved one and must get on with the burial. I couldn't actually bring myself to simply throw out my old sociology texts, but I did have to recoup the space, so I compromised by throwing most of them out. I took out my trusty exacto knife and cut out all the potentially useful photos (e.g., of the great sociologists) and cartoons, and trashed the rest. That was fairly traumatic, not unlike cutting up a body, but I managed it. By the end of January I had processed about 30 books, well over my daily quota, reducing a couple of boxes of books to a couple of file folders of photos and clippings.

I am currently working on my technical manuals. I have three shelves of Word and HTML and Powerpoint manuals and such like to process, throwing out the versions for older software to make room for the new, but even this is difficult for me. I cannot actually throw the books out, so I have been leaving them in a reading area (Section A 7th floor next to the women's washroom for any students reading this that want free but somewhat dated computer manuals) Today, I think I may have identified and tossed the last of the obviously outdated manuals. And so am faced with the horrible question, what next?

It's like choosing which of one's children to send packing!