I have too many books. In fact, I have too many unread books. In fact, I have so many unread books that I can’t find several unread books that I know I bought recently (including two Atwood novels and an Olivia Butler novel.)
Like a lot of Metropolitans of a literary bent, my apartment is not so much Where I Live, but Where I Keep My Books. I have, at present, two full-length (height?) Ikea bookshelves, and two columns of built-in bookshelves of roughly the same capacity. And I still have books overflowing off the shelves! And this was after I got rid of at least a third of my books when my ex and I moved in together!
I have a theory as to why people keep books, that breaks them down into three classes:
I. Useful Books
These are books you keep for reference purposes or utility. This would be, in my case, my collection of computer reference books (I like “cookbooks” which don’t purport to teach you how to program all over again, just tell you how to handle individual problems); my history books, language books (I collect languages and am generally in the process of trying to learn one; right now I’m teaching myself Hindi), and dictionaries/thesauruses (thesaurusi?), my rhyming dictionary, and even that big book of literary criticism that I keep around just in case I need to deconstruct something in a hurry. Also included in this category is my vast collection of genre books that I re-read whenever I’m too tired to engage more challenging stuff.
II. Books of Sentimental Value
We all have those: the book of poems that you don’t even like anymore, but they reminded you of what you felt like when you were young and in love. (Or not in love, as the case may be–woe is me!) The novels that used to be in Category I but have dropped into here because you won’t reread them, but they remind you of who you were when you were just learning how to read. The inspirational book that led you into a religious fad for several years. They have only limited utility, but you keep them anyway because of their associations.
III. Books That Make You Look Smart
Maybe it’s a Metropolitan thing, but a lot of people have books on their shelves for the sole reason of letting people know that they are the Kind of Person who would read that Kind of Book. For example, I have a copy of Ulysses on my shelf. I read it on my own while in my junior year at college, without notes, and comprehended maybe 10% of it–which I thought was a decent batting average, all things considered. (I chased it with Paradise Lost to clear out the Joycean syntax–my god, the things I could do when I was young!) Now, I’m never going to read Ulysses again (heck, I may never read Gravity’s Rainbow again, and that was a book I enjoyed infinitely more than Ulysses.) Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t with the copy on my shelf–it’s missing several pages in the “catechism” section towards the end of the book. But–and this is the key–I want people to know that I’ve read Ulysses, that I’m that kind of grand master reader of capital-L Literature. And so I keep Ulysses and Don Quixote and my Faulkner novels on my shelf.
The thing is, you’re justified in keeping everything from Category I; most of the stuff from Category II (it shouldn’t be all that big, anyway); but why in the hell should you keep anything from Category III? Sure, you’ll end up with a bookshelf of detective and sci-fi novels, plus a few computer books, but that shouldn’t matter, right?
Of course, there are problems with this schema. For example: my three-volume copy of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War. Category I? I have re-read it at least three times. Or maybe Category II–I read it during the heyday of my bout of Civil War, an affliction that remains in remission but still plagues me with periodic outbreaks. And what about the rest of my military history collection? And am I even interested in this stuff anymore, when I could be reading Judith Butler or Julia Serrano?
Philip K. Dick, in his remarkable Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep (much weirder and more visionary than Blade Runner), talks about “kipple”:
Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you to go bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up there is twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.
No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot.
Now, this is actually an observation about entropy, and how the universe will eventually end up in a state of thermodynamic equilibrium called the heat-death of the universe. It also shows that Tom Pynchon wasn’t the only smart-ass virtuosic writer in the 70s to make a career out of writing about entropy–just the one reviewed in the New York Times.
In any case, it’s clear that books are my kipple. I occasionally find a book I had forgotten purchasing, lying clean, pristine, and unread: in a perfect state of literary thermal equilibrium.
In other words, I need to stop buying books until I’ve reduced the kipple in the apartment.
But, you say, O gentle reader, what on earth does this have to do with your blog? We thought this was going to be a place to hear about feminism, and specifically trans feminism, and so far your last two posts have been about what shows you like to watch, and how messy your apartment is? What gives?
Fear not: for part of my process tonight was to cull out several books that I haven’t read (or need to re-read), all of a feminist bent. Which I am going to read over the next X weeks and report back to you on. Which should be interesting; I was, after all Professionally Trained in interpreting literature. Which is why I design databases today. Life is rarely neat.