The book problem

So you start buying books — I mean academic, work-related, books of one kind or another — in your late teens. As retirement age looms you’ve been doing it for more than forty-five years. Suppose you average a couple of books a month. Not that very difficult to do! You buy a few current books on topics that you are working on; books for reference; books you feel you should read anyway, given the ripples they are producing; books for seminars or reading groups you belong to; books it is useful to have to hand for teaching (the textbooks the kids are reading, or just useful collections of articles, before the days when everything was online). It very soon mounts up. Add in a few review copies, freebies, books given by friends, serendipitous finds rescued from the back of obscure second-hand bookshops (I got a set of Principia Mathematica that way). Then without any effort at all your modest library is steadily growing at thirty books a year or more. But go figure: that’s already around 1400 books as you get to the end of your career. I’ve been a bit more incontinent than some, but actually not a lot (especially as my interests have rather jumped about). Say I’ve acquired 1750 over the years. I’ve got rid of a few books from time to time, of course, though I’ve been absurdly reluctant to let them go: but overall, I’ve still probably got not far short of 1500. Which, I agree, is a stupid number to end up with — but (as we’ve seen!) it’s easy enough to end up there without a ridiculously self-indulgent rate of book-buying as you go along.

Soon enough, I’m going to lose an office; and we’re trying to declutter at home anyway. So over the coming weeks and months I need to cut that number down. A lot. Near halving is the order of the day. What to do?

Most of the Great Dead Philosophers and the commentaries can go — I can’t see myself ever being overwhelmed by a desire to re-read Locke’s Essay, for example (and anyway I can always get the text online). But that doesn’t make much of a dent, as I was never much into the history of philosophy anyway. I can get rid of some of the books-for-teaching, and old collections of articles whose contents are now instantly available on Jstor. But that doesn’t help particularly either. So now it gets difficult.

It could just be neurotic attachment of course! But I like to think that there is a bit more to it than that. I’m sure I’m never going to seriously work on chaos again, so — though it was great fun at the time — I guess I will let the chaotic dynamics books go fairly easily. I’m also pretty sure that I’m never going to seriously work on the philosophy of mind again, and I’ve never done anything in epistemology: but just axing the phil. mind and theory of knowledge books seems to go clean against how I think of philosophy, as the business of trying to understand “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest sense of the term” as Sellars puts it. And anyway, some of the issues I’d like to understand better in the philosophy of mathematics seem to hang together with broader issues about representation and about knowledge. So perhaps I need to hang on to all the mind and knowledge books after all ….?

No, no, that way madness lies (or at any rate, swamping by unnecessary books). After all, Cambridge is not exactly short of libraries, even if I do dump something I later find myself wanting to read again! So, I’m just going to have to be brutal. A few old friends apart, if I haven’t opened it in twenty years, it can certainly go. If it is just too remote from broadly logicky/phil mathsy stuff, it really better go too. Sigh.

PS Before more readers write asking for books, I should say that I have charitable plans!

7 thoughts on “The book problem”

  1. I suppose your pruning principles depend in part on what your books are for. There seems to be a continuum: on one end there are those books which are just sources of information; on the other are the sentimental ones. You can make a case for cutting books near the first end. But some are nice to have around just because they once played an important part in one's intellectual life. I used to be quite interested in philosophy of psychology. Many of the books on my shelf in that area aren't of much use to me any more and some are certainly out of date. But I like having them around. They're like intellectual photos of my past. There's nothing neurotic about an attachment to external symbols of the intellectual life when that's what you've devoted a major chunk of your time to. Of course, I might change my mind when I get to 1500 …

  2. Re "charitable plans" — I also have too many books and would like to get rid of some, but where?

    I could try to sell them on Amazon or ebay, but … too much trouble,

    Most second-hand shops aren't interested in a pile of academic philosophy or maths books.

    Oxfam? Oxfam would take them, but how likely is it that they would find their way via Oxfam shops to people who would want them?

  3. I'm glad to see that more people in the faculty are starting to accept my taste for desert landscapes when it comes to personal possessions (even books).

  4. "And what will happen in the morning when the world it gets
    so crowded that you can't look out the window in the morning.

    "And what will happen in the evening in the forest with the weasel with the teeth that bite so sharp when you're not looking in the evening.

    "And all the friends that you once knew are left behind they kept you safe and so secure amongst the books and all the records of your lifetime…"

    Hazey Jane II, Nick Drake

  5. If there was any notion I could emphasize with.

    I've been accumulating books since I started making money. At my humble age of 23 I have about 300 of them, and the numbers are ever growing.
    Fortunately, I have a tendency to give them away to people and forgetting to ask them back, which acts as an efficient counter force to my exuberant book consumption habits.

    I grew up in a house whose walls were laced with books, and I guess having them surround me makes me comfortable.

    I think it's only a matter of time before my walls are also laced with books.

  6. Well, not to get into your charitable plans, but any first editions of well known works?

    (If that PM you picked up in the back is the first impression of the second edition – not to speak if it's a first! – it's worth more to charity if you sell it and then donate the money.)

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