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On Culling a Book Collection | Inside Higher Ed

A few years ago, The Wife asked me what I would have done for a living if the whole academic thing didn’t work out. Not skipping a beat, I said I would have loved to open a bookstore. Reed Books has a nice ring to it, and it might help satisfy the bibliophile in me.

Of course, I wouldn’t have had the capital, and even if I had, I would have been crushed like a grape by Amazon. So, it’s probably for the best to let that dream fade away. Reed Books may thrive in some other universe, but not this one.

You might not know it from our house, though. TW is an avid reader and has an impressive collection in her own right, but mine borders on disturbing. In addition to the multiple bookshelves in the living room and family room, books can be found under side tables, on coffee tables, on nightstands, on the dresser and in both shelves and boxes in the basement. The Kindle was supposed to stem the tide, but it has proved mostly additive.

I’ve been accumulating books for long enough that some of them have accrued meanings entirely separate from what they say. Gig, by John Bowe et al., reminds me of the conversations I had about it with colleagues at DeVry. Richard Sennett’s out-of-print 1980s novels remind me of the lengths to which I went to find them and of the dissertation chapter for which they provided material. Geek Love and City of Quartz remind me of friends who swore by them. And you’ll pry my personally signed copy of The Lonely Crowd from my cold, dead hands. Meeting David Riesman and having a thoughtful conversation with him was a highlight of my early career.

Some remind me of past ambitions that I’ve let slide over the years without quite realizing it. Am I really ever going to read Sources of the Self by Charles Taylor? Probably not. Will some of the Routledge volumes of the 1990s regain their relevance anytime soon? I doubt it. They’re each wonderful in their respective ways, but out of context, they just feel like artifacts. I shudder to imagine some of my hopeless Clinton-era highlighting, trying in vain to wrestle clear meaning from some of the more postmoderny stuff.

I think we’re allowed to be nostalgic for postmodernism now. Anyone remember when we decentered the subject? Good times, good times …

Every so often, for reasons of her own, TW decides that the collection has gotten out of hand and it’s time to do some culling. As any devoted academic knows, this is a fraught enterprise.

Yes, some stuff can go without protest. Over the years, I’ve picked up plenty of the kind of “current events” books that age like milk. Go ahead and consign the quickly written campaign autobiographies to the dustbin of history. Some reference books have sat undisturbed through multiple moves over the decades, unused, gradually sliding into obsolescence; it’s time for them to find new homes. Some books were read grudgingly, barely earning their keep even when new; I don’t mind losing those.

But the easy cuts are fewer than one might expect.

For many of the unread ones—and candor compels me to admit there’s a fair number of those—giving them up means giving up on the expectation of someday actually reading them. That’s hard to do en masse. I bought them for reasons, and sometimes those reasons still hold. As TW can attest, of course, the flaw in that theory is that I keep buying new books faster than I read the old ones. That’s true, but where is it written that you can only read one book at a time? And who knows when, say, the urge will strike to crack open volume one of Vernon Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought and plow all the way through the rare third volume? I mean, it could happen, right? And then where would I be? Best not to risk it.

Come to think of it, I may have backed into Reed Books unintentionally. The collection may be a bit idiosyncratic, but the best bookstores always are.

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