Be careful you’re keeping books for the right sentimental reasons

Don’t keep books to convey a certain status

If you’ve got books in your home that you have never read, why are you keeping them?

—Quotes taken from ‘How To Get Rid Of Book Clutter,’

on the Home Storage Solutions website.

Some years ago, the house I was living in burnt down with my belongings. Among these, all my books. Like many book owners, I had often cringed at the recommendations of de-cluttering experts and felt they were missing the point of what keeping books was about. Having been through what might be called a radical de-cluttering experience, I thought I could test my assumptions and examine more closely the reasons I keep books.

Let’s first say that I felt no sense of liberation—or whatever one is supposed to feel after the de-cluttering process—even though the memory of carrying over one hundred boxes of books was very much alive in my lower back as I had only recently moved into the house-that-burnt. And that I returned to accumulating books quickly afterwards.

Surveying a number of advice columns on the subject I identified what seem to be the three main recurring categories of books we ‘should get rid of,’ and I tried to unpack how I might relate to them: books we keep for sentimental value, books we keep for status and unread books.

Be careful you’re keeping books for the right sentimental reasons

Thinking of keeping books for their sentimental—and possibly monetary—value reminded me of one of my favourite essays: Walter Benjamin’s ‘Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting’. Written in 1931, the essay describes the memories and emotions Benjamin experiences when taking his books out of their crates. He identifies himself as a genuine collector, and in this essay he attempts to convey ‘some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions’ with a particular focus on the modes of acquisition. He writes that ‘every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories’; that a collection is ‘a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order’. He writes that he made his most memorable purchases on journeys, as a transient, and of the strategies he uses to acquire certain books at auctions to circumvent his limited means. He also writes of the memories of the cities in which he found the books, and suggests that collecting is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. He writes of erecting a dwelling with books and disappearing inside.

In his essay ‘Unpacking Benjamin and His Library,’ Joseph D. Lewandowski compares Benjamin’s books to an ‘objective constellation of a dynamic past’: ‘For this library is alive with remembrances, remembrances which are not tucked away, but interrupt, and transmit themselves.’

Whether Benjamin kept his books for the ‘right’ sentimental reasons is anyone’s guess, and reading Benjamin’s essay is a whirlwind of insights: one can feel the emotions, and knowing how transient and unstable his life was, one measures all the difficulties he might have encountered to keep a library at all, and how much it might have meant for him. Yes, all this. And yet, this is not it, this is neither the relationship I had with the lost books nor the one I have with those I have gathered since. They were not acquired during exotic travels, and no childhood memories are wrapped up in them.

Don’t keep books to convey a certain status

Heavens forbid that I should have books to show off! I could easily dismiss the very thought of it, if only because I have few visitors, and fewer still that enter my workspace where I keep my books. So who would I be showing off to? But past this knee-jerk reaction, it is actually a more interesting question than appears at first. For instance, do we necessarily show off to other people? Can’t we ourselves be the audience to whom we are performing? And is aspiring to look better read than we really are or really feel, necessarily a bad thing? Reading Dan Fox’s fascinating book Pretentiousness: Why it Matters opened up for me new, intriguing ways of thinking about pretention. Fox points to the desire, aspirations and ambitions that are too easily missed when we call someone pretentious, and to the often hidden class prejudice when we mock someone who aspires to be more than they are. Fox reminds us that a pretender’s cause is an issue of legitimacy and allegiances and that ‘pretending is what kids do to figure out the world.’

With this in mind I rethought my books and my reasons for acquiring some of them. Many years ago, I bought a second hand Encyclopaedia Universalis, all twenty volumes of it. Not only was it one of the most expensive objects I had ever owned, it also felt like something to which I had no right, something that could not really belong to me. Aside from libraries, I had only ever encountered these volumes in the homes of friends whose parents were university professors—for a long time the only profession I aspired to—while my parents were school teachers. To own an encyclopaedia was like a game of pretend: those volumes carried a social status that I did not have. It was pretentiousness in all the complexities Fox carefully unpacks, an act of pretend, of mimicry. The encyclopaedia was perhaps the most obvious example, but there are many other such books I bought and read because they represented a certain idea about myself to which I aspired. Eventually I have grown into some of them, enjoying the books for their content and not for the status they conferred. And it is as if I have earned the right to own them—as if I slowly earned the right to my encyclopaedia, the unexplored pages of which still haunt me; it contained such fabulous articles about subjects I did not even know existed. Just browsing through it was like a journey in human knowledge.

There are other books that still loom on the horizon of my ambition, and others that have lost their attraction, because I no longer aspire to the status they confer. So yes I do buy and keep books for status: they are a projection of who I’d like to be, they embody my intellectual ambitions. What’s wrong with that?

If you’ve got books in your home that you have never read, why are you keeping them?

However I may feel about de-cluttering advice generally, suggestions about unread books are those that feel most strange. Unread books are probably at the core of my thoughts about personal libraries. In the de-cluttering genre, they are simply a no-no. You get such advice as: ‘Get ruthless with your “yet to read” pile’; ‘If it hasn’t been read in six months, it probably won’t ever be read’; and ‘Unread books: “sometime” means “never”.’ There is even a Japanese word for it, tsundoku: ‘(n.) buying books and not reading them; letting books pile up unread on shelves or floors or nightstands.’ The unread books are a species to be eradicated, to be ruthless about, to stop being delusional—pretentious?—about. One always feels somewhat guilty in accumulating unread books.

So coming across Umberto Eco’s thoughts in ‘How to Justify a Private Library’ was a relief for me. Perhaps one important distinction here is between ‘people who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already-read books’ and those who ‘think of the library as a working tool.’ Unread books and the private library as a research tool were expanded upon by Nassim Nicholas Taleb—a professor in the Sciences of Uncertainties at the University of Massachusetts—in the opening remarks of his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. He writes that ‘Read books are far less valuable than unread ones’ and that a library should contain as much of what we do not know as what we can afford. The more we know, the more the field of what we know we do not know expands, so that as we grow older the number of unread books should grow: ‘Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books.’ He calls this collection of unread books an ‘antilibrary,’ and describes an ‘antischolar’ as ‘someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device—a skeptical empiricist.’

While researching references to Umberto Eco’s writings on unread books, I came across an article by Don Trubshaw, ‘A Paean to Serendipity,’ in which he explores the genealogy of the word serendipity and its importance in research and creativity. He distinguishes serendipity from the accidental and defines it as an aptitude or attitude towards the unexpected within a particular field of human activity. One does not make a discovery in a domain one knows nothing about. Serendipitous discovery takes place in an environment of ‘ordered chaos’—such as a library—where unrelated things lie in proximity.

Trubshaw wonders how the use of search engines and digital resources instead of physical libraries and workspaces might impact research, as it might diminish the opportunities for serendipitous encounters:

Search engines are logical and literal in their search; in order to accommodate new ideas they must be programmed with new search terms. But in this way we are only extending what we already know, or projecting from what we know into the less known. But there is no route into the great realms of ignorance, that which we truly do not know, the ignorance of which we are profoundly ignorant.

This echoes Taleb’s notion of the antischolar, focusing on expanding the ‘known unknown’ rather than the known. As yet, the possibilities for serendipitous discoveries in online research should not be underestimated, but as the pool of data to be mined increases and algorithms become more powerful and more accurate, it is a genuine concern. Trubshaw concludes on the importance of physical working environments:

Discovery in any enterprise takes place in the messy physicality of the world, whether that is the scientist’s lab, the artist’s studio or the writer’s desk, through immersion in the discourse of the discipline and problematic issues to which one is dedicated to finding a solution.

This physical environment that maps out what I know I do not know, that visual reminder of all these fields of knowledge to which I aspire, these get to the heart of why I acquire and keep books and why I will always find more walls to shelve.

The personal library is like a mind map, one organised by ever shifting constellations: the books are arranged by author, by subject, by collection, by their size or by the colour of the cover; they are re-arranged by being drawn together towards a particular research topic —this very essay has triggered the formation of new constellations, bringing new books onto the shelves and re-arranging existing ones.

So losing my books, journals, photocopies and all the written traces I keep around me at all time, triggered a form of amnesia: I lost the books that remained as traces of past inquiries, and the books that marked future domains of exploration; the past and the future of my thoughts. I am only slowly recovering from this amnesia, as I cross over some of these paths—those taken and those I aspired to—and remember the books that marked them.

The day after the fire, a book I had ordered arrived in the post. I had ordered it as part of a particular arrangement of books and ideas, a particular area of research. It was now the only book I owned. I held in my hands, looking at it and it made no sense, there was no shelves for it to go, no companions to join. To this day, I am not sure what to do with that book: it belongs to an assemblage that no longer exists and does not quite fit any of the new ones.

It took me some weeks before I was able to buy books again—probably one of the longest lapses in my book acquisition history. And the first books I bought were a dictionary and a thesaurus. I felt I could not really go wrong there.

I sometimes wonder what this current concern with organising, tidying, de-cluttering is a symptom of. It is supposed to make us more efficient and productive—but then what if messy environments make us more creative, as some research seems to suggest?

According to the de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo, the work of tidying is to identify the things that make you happy. In her bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising, she enjoins us to keep only those things that ‘spark joy’ —from the Japanese ‘tokimeku,’ which translates as flutter, palpitate or throb. And here I can only agree with her, at least as far as my books are concerned. Each and every one of them—the read, the partly read and the unread alike—‘spark joy,’ not only in the Japanese sense but also in the Spinozian sense of joy. According to Spinoza, joy is the feeling or affect that characterises the passage to a greater perfection, the increase of the power of acting: we feel joy when our power to act and our capacity to be affected increase. The books in my library increase my power to act, as a researcher, and my capacity to be affected in their constant reminder of what I know I don’t know—which I only wish to expand. Few other things give me such joy, least of all a shelf-less wall.