The book problem, revisited!

I’ve a lot of reading around and about logical matters I’d really like to catch up with, now that I have indeed sent off a final(?) version of IFL2 to CUP. Indeed, there is a rather ridiculously large number of new-ish books piled on my study floor (when will I ever learn?). An early task, then, is to do another major sort-through of older books, giving away ones that will never be read or referred to again, to make shelf room. Does anyone enjoy doing this? I certainly don’t! I’ve written about this problem before here, a number of times. Let’s have some excerpts again … leading to some wise advice (which I will try to heed!) about how to downsize your library!

I’m having to try to sort out my philosophy library — I can’t start shelving yet another wall at home — and that’s a painful business. It’s not just that there is a ridiculous number to sort through. It’s also a matter of encountering long-past philosophical selves, and not quite wanting to wave them goodbye. In the seventies, I was mostly interested in the philosophy of language (though there are also many ancient philosophy books dating from then, and a lot of Wittgenstein-related stuff); from the eighties there is a great number of books on the philosophy of mind; from the nineties a lot of philosophy of science and metaphysics. Digging through these archeological layers I’m reminded of past enthusiasms — not just of mine, but often quite widely shared enthusiasms which seemed philosophically rewarding at the time, but some of which now seem rather remote and even in some cases quite odd misdirections of energy. What creatures of fashion we are!

But at least in those more academically relaxed days I could follow my then interests wherever they led or didn’t lead (I never got bored). Young colleagues now don’t have the luxury: to get even their first permanent job they have to specialize, concentrate their resources, carve out a niche, build a research profile: and it takes more of the same to get promoted. Some feel constrained, lucky to have a job but trapped. The structures that we philosophers have allowed to be imposed on “the profession” (as we are now supposed to think of it) have thus come to be in real tension with the free-ranging cast of mind that gets many people into philosophy in the first place. What Marxists used to call a contradiction …


I’m still trying to sort out my (tiny) study at home. It all takes ridiculously long. Not just because I have to decide what to give to the library/students/Oxfam (though that’s difficult enough). But I find it impossible not to keep stopping over a book I haven’t opened in years and begin reading. I’m of the same mind as Churchill, who wrote

If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them — peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.

And those nods of recognition as I move the books from one shelf to another all take so much time!


Chez Logic Matters, approximately
Chez Logic Matters, approximately

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 the better part of fifty  years. Suppose you average a couple of books a month. Not 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 over thirty books a year or more. But go figure: that’s already around 1500 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 1600. Which, I agree, is a quite 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 finally 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. 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 more of  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.


… But now it is getting harder. I’m slowing down, and it is all getting more discombobulating. In some cases it is a matter of regretfully having to acknowledge that — being realistic — I am never going to have a year or so to really get my head again round X or Y. I’d love to really get to the point where I was sufficiently on top of the state of play in the philosophy of quantum mechanics (say), at least to follow some current debates; but it is never going to happen — or at least, it’s never going to happen if I am to have half a chance of finishing some logicky projects. So that whole area will have to remain a closed book, or rather a pile of closed books. A cheering reminder of faded hopes, eh?

Then there are the books to which I still feel an odd attachment and find difficult to let go for no reason I can easily articulate. Irrational, as I’ve not read them for decades, and I’m surrounded by Cambridge libraries. For instance, I’ve just found myself rereading some of  Cornford’s Unwritten Philosophy, which I must have bought in 1967, and not had occasion to read much since. I’m sure it is all very creaky: ancient philosophy has come such a very long way since when Cornford was writing (the essays date from the thirties and forties). I’ve long since lost touch, and my Greek has quite disappeared. And yet, and yet … The charm of his writing still weaves its magic. No; this I think I will keep, just for a bit longer.

Back to the pile for sorting …


Hello. My name is Peter and I am a bookaholic …

Well, perhaps it isn’t quite as bad as that. But I’ve certainly bought far too many books over the years. I’ve now given a great number away, but retiring and losing office space means there is still a serious Book Problem at home. We want to do some re-organization, which will mean losing book shelving there too. So lots more must go. Dammit, the house is for us, not the books. One hears tell of retiring academics who have built an extension at home for their library or converted a garage into a book store. But that way madness lies (not to mention considerable expense).

“A little library, growing larger every year, is an honourable part of a man’s history. It is a man’s duty to have books. A library is not a luxury, but one of the necessaries of life.” Yes. But let “little” be the operative word!

Or so I now tell myself. Still it was — at the beginning — not exactly painless to let old friends go, or relinquish books that I’d never got that friendly with but always meant to, or give away those reproachful books that I ought to have read, and all the rest. After all, there goes my philosophical past, or at any rate the past I would have wanted to have (and similar rather depressing thoughts).

But I think I’ve now got a grip (so at last, here’s my advice to anyone else in the same position, needing to downsize). It’s a question of stopping looking backwards and instead thinking, realistically, about what I might want to think about seriously over the coming few years, and then aiming to cut right down to (a still generous) working library around and about that. So instead of daunting shelves of books reminding me about what I’m not going to do, there’ll be a much smaller and more cheering collection of books to encourage me in what I might really want to do. The power of positive thinking, eh?

And really, I have surprised myself. I can only remember one occasion when I’ve been kicking myself, really regretting some book I got rid of. Though, as I said at the beginning, I do seem to have acquired yet more books. I can’t imagine how that happened. Time, then, for another sort-out … 

11 thoughts on “The book problem, revisited!”

  1. Thank you, Peter, for such a lovely essay on life lived among ideas and among the books that have fed our ideas and studies. For many of us, our books have been our friends and interlocutors as much as then-living people were. But we have been able to keep our books with us, and so they became a part of us, old companions from what was or intended companions in what might have been. To part from them is hard but necessary.

    And your cumulative advice by the end is good–enjoy the fond memories, be a bit ruthless with the paths not taken and not likely to be taken, and above all focus on a realistic vision of where you still want to go and might have time to go. Let yourself dream dreams, still, but the dreams of one who has become realistic about what can be done.

    Be glad, too, that you have not had your books taken from you at once by, e.g., a fire. Or been forced to part with most of them in a hurry and without preparation. ‘Two moves are as good as a fire’, goes an old Yiddish proverb.

    Someone has said, ‘It takes a library to make a book’. He or she had a point–even if the statement, taken literally, falls into infinite regress. You’ve written a bunch of books, so clearly you’ve needed, and used, your libraries. Well done! Take satisfaction from that, and from the happy prospect of making a few more books from a more intimate library.

    Thank you for such a beautiful essay.

  2. My programme is to to repeat every now and then the following: Select a load of books, haul them to one lovely antiquarian bookstore–they really appreciate philosophy books–then: 1. Have with what little you got a celebration at one fantastic oyster bar 2. Think about all the enterprising young philosophy students who perhaps buy these books for next to nothing and maybe sometimes even get something out of them!

  3. Paul J. Campbell

    I too have a couple of thousand books, mostly mathematics books, many at a popular or semi-popular level. And it is time to divest. But what to do with them? Colleges and libraries don’t seem to want books any more. Selling them one-by-one on the Internet would be a nightmare of boxes and trips to the post office. A colleague just pulped most of hers—I would hate to do that, since they could be of value to someone, somewhere. Any ideas?

    Paul J. Campbell

    1. The biggest downsizing for me was at the time of retirement. I put a large number of books in an office off the graduate-student work room, and asked people to take what they wanted (if I recall, initially asking students to take only up to five(?) initially, so that people got a fair shot at finding something they might want, and then after a few days it was a free-for-all). That did get rid of about half of the books.

      After that, I too thought it wouldn’t be worth the effort trying to sell on the remaining books one by one. So I gave many of them to Oxfam (these were mostly philosophy books by the way; I kept many of the more mathematical books). In the UK, they do seem to be quite good at sorting through academic books and then putting any that do have real value online. And they have the infrastructure to do the online selling. Perhaps it would be worth asking around about which charity (with a relatively local presence) might similarly be able to make use of some of the books?

      1. Certainly Oxfam will take the books, and giving them to Oxfam is a way of passing on responsibility for them, with at least a hope that some might find a new home. So it at least feels better than putting them straight into a recycling bin.

        I’d like to know something clearer and more definite about what Oxfam actually does, however. What would they consider a book with “real value”, and what do they do with the rest?

        When I went to the Oxfam online shop, and eventually found the philosophy section — it’s not listed on the main books page but is in the “BOOKS” menu as “Society & Philosophy” — I was somewhat reassured, because I could give them many books at least as good as almost any of the ones they’re selling (books in much better condition than most of them and more likely to be of current / continuing interest). How confident can I be, though, that the local Oxfam show would see it that way? (The local one is at least near a university and so ‘ought’ to be interested.)

        For maths books, there’s no explicit maths section and maths books don’t seem very prominent in Science & Nature, so you have to search. And then: very few yellow maths texts or similar. Are people holding on to their copies? Or is there some well-known better place for them? Or does Oxfam just think “textbook, yuck, no one will want it”? I don’t know.

        BTW, if anyone fancies a copy of Katalin Bimbo’s Combinatory Logic: Pure, Applied and Typed, Oxfam has one for £34.99. Amazon UK charges a hefty £89.99 for a new one (yet even that is down from the absurd RRP of £105.00), with used copies of similar or (!) greater price (£84.31, £92.52).

        They also have Michael Hallett’s Cantorian set theory and limitation of size, paperback, for £55.00 which is reasonable as such things go. (Only one used copy on Amazon UK — the one from the Chicago branch of Powell’s in the US — is cheaper (£41.65).)

        1. I can only report that the local Cambridge branch of Oxfam have told me (different people, more than once) that they have volunteers who do sort throught donated books in a knowledgeable enough way — not too surprising, given the location. I don’t know how it is otherwise.

          I’ve never sought to buy books by going directly to Oxfam online: but I have noticed on Abebooks, for example, items offered for sale by Oxfam — and have bought them by preference, other things being equal.

          I guess you are right about the lack of a market for maths books. I do have the impression is that the young expect to find free PDFs online (legal or not so legal) and are happy to work from them …

          1. Given some outrageous prices, I’m inclined to side a bit with the young. However, I still see plenty of text books being sold at certain times of year — or at least the ones on shelves or in piles at the local academic bookshop becoming fewer in a way that seems best explained by sales — and quite a few yellow books have some interest beyond immediate use as course texts. Quite a few also have used copies for sale on Amazon. I looked up Armstrong’s Groups and Symmetry (Undergraduate Texts in Mathematics), and it has “18 Used from £13.00”

  4. NORMAN BIRKETT

    I have some experience of getting rid of academic books, from popular to semi to not, in the US and Canada. My suggestions would be:

    1. Look for libraries that hold book sales in your area. They’re usually annual affairs. You can donate books for their sale, usually within a couple of months before the sale.

    2. Identify a college in India or Africa that emphasizes the right academic areas and contact them. It will cost you, but you can box up your books and mail/ship them. I have come across charities in the US that send a shipping container to an African college periodically, and they took hundreds of my books and included them in the next container to Zambia.

    3. See if you know someone who has an online business already and wants to add online bookseller to their portfolio, and give them the books outright or negotiate easy terms (for them). I found a semi-retired couple in Canada (academics!) who enjoyed selling books online and who insisted on giving me 25% of whatever they sold my books for. They took a few thousand books off my hands. Occasionally one of my friends winds up with one of them! That’s kinda fun.

  5. David Auerbach

    When I vacated my university office I found my cell phone to of enormous utility. I took pictures the few hundreds of giveaways and circulated the photos within my department. People put dibs on the ones they wanted and I delivered or they picked up. Saved a whole lot of physical rummaging. The rest went to the university library which, nicely enough, coordinates sending books to libraries/schools in need in third world countries.
    (I had to make room at home for the keepers (too many) and there I did a similar thinning of my hundreds of cookbooks. My restaurant friends were chuffed.

      1. David Auerbach

        Not as many as Lawson. I think I have between 300 and 400 cook/food/bread books. (e.g., The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question 1700-1775. But also the Paula Wolfert oeuvre.) I recently started listing my books at eatyourbooks.com which obligingly indexes them for you. A nice service.

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