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!