Caring for Books

Like a lot of people who read and write for a living, I own a lot of books. I used to own many more but about a decade ago, long after I’d bought more books than I could shelve (notwithstanding an abundance of shelves), I admitted to myself that I was hoarding. So I sold or gave away thousands of books I had never read and did not seriously intend to read, which was hard work, both physically and emotionally. I get attached to things.

Now I have a more reasonable supply, somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 books (I can’t be bothered to count). For the last five years, I’ve stuck to a promise not to bring another book home without disposing of another.

I didn’t think this was much of an achievement until last week I read an article by Michael Dirda, a critic for the Washington Post and the author of Caring for Your Books, on how difficult he found it to cull a hoard of similar size.

Despite his book’s title, Dirda was definitely not caring for his collection, or at least not all of it. He had a bunch of books, including first editions, in an abandoned greenhouse, and 300 boxes stacked in his basement. So he ordered a Zippy Shell storage container which was dropped on his driveway (that’s him in the Zippy Shell, below). He put the basement books into the storage container, cleaned the basement, and installed proper shelves to make a library down there. What didn’t fit in the shelves was jettisoned. He hired a kid to help him. (To my immense credit, I managed alone.)

Dirda seems to have achieved his goal but he admits he’s still spending a lot of time acquiring books on eBay and in the stores. It’s only a matter of time before he’ll need another Zippy Shell container to store his overflow.

When purging books in this manner, it is not enough to decide what stays and what goes. One must also decide how to arrange what stays. Dirda doesn’t share a plan for this part of the exercise, only a vision: “All my books would be on shelves. There would be well-chosen classics, neat rows of my personal favorites, some inscribed copies, a few beautiful editions.”

That’s not a lot to go on but it suggests that Dirda’s books would be organized casually, as are mine.

My remaining books are scattered in rooms top to bottom in our house. Closest to my desk are those I’m using for my current writing project. Another large set of upstairs shelves is filled with “on deck” books – fiction and non-fiction that I plan to read before I die. A large room in the basement is lined with books from previous writing projects and books I’ve read over the years for work or pleasure.

That’s it. Three broad categories. The books are not in alphabetical order. They aren’t arranged by subject or genre. There is no special section of rare or collectible volumes, although I suppose some are fairly valuable. I do have a largish selection of the 2007 Everyman’s P.G. Wodehouse (a bookstore display below) together on a prominent shelf because they are beautiful little books and they look beautiful together and seeing all that Wodehouse in one place makes me happy. There are a handful of favorite writers who I read time and again because their voices are comforting to me whose better books are clustered together – Joan Didion, Wallace Stegner, Larry McMurtry, Mordecai Richler, Patricia Highsmith, Philip Roth, A.N. Wilson, Dickens. That’s it for system.

I can nevertheless usually find whichever book I’m looking for in no time at all. I’ve been building and using this collection for decades and I just know where things are. I think of a particular book and my mind will serve up an impression of it, usually reflecting its shape and colors and heft, and sometimes its fonts, and without moving I’ll be able to visualize it on its shelf, and I go and grab it.

In all of this, I’m quite different from my friend Sterling who this week sent me his personal library spreadsheet.

I’ve known Sterling for more than thirty years. He was born out of his proper time and place, which was London (more particularly Mayfair) between the wars. Certainly, there was little in Edmonton in the eighties to account for his tonsorial habits, his mixology, and his clubbability—he was the first Freemason I met, and the first member of the Churchill Society. He was a serious reader (still is) and his library was stuffed (still is) with mid-century Brits.

Sterling has entered every volume of his 4,500-book library into Book Collector, a software product of Each title is listed by title, author, ISBN number, date of publication, format (hardcover, softcover), page count, library call number plus a cover scan (example below).

Sterling’s books are divided into genres, for instance, Fiction and Literature, History, Biography, Letters and Diaries. He has special collections, including Folio Society, Punch, Franklin Library, Heron, Penguins. And then he has his major authors grouped separately: Churchill, Graham Greene, Waugh pere et fils, Amis pere et fils, Wodehouse, and so on.

In his spreadsheet, Sterling’s books are also tagged for cross-referencing. I can see at a glance that he has ten volumes of William Styron, and that The Confessions of Nat Turner (hardcover) appears in Fiction and Literature, with the subject tags American Author, Historical Fiction, and American History.”

The major advantage of Sterling’s system over mine, as he notes, is that if his house burns down he’ll have a much easier time with the insurance adjuster.

Another friend, the journalist and television critic Jaime Weinman, admits to an OCD habit of not only carefully arranging his collection but sometimes buying books and videos to fill gaps and make a well-arranged shelf. Here is some of his work:

Thinking about Jaime’s arrangements and Sterling’s spreadsheet prompted me to ask other people I know about their book management and storage habits. I got comments like this:

· I keep track of my books in excel files by author or genre. My books are arranged in irregular formations to maximize space. I have a library loan form to deter theft.
· I divide mine first by fiction and non-fiction. In each group things are sorted by author’s last name with exceptions for series which individual books are written by different authors. I also have a separate meta section of books about writing, for quick reference.
· Mostly by topic, then by size per shelf. Smallest at the leftmost and rightmost sides, getting larger toward the centre, producing a vaguely pyramidal shape. Topics with more attractive books on higher shelves and closer to eye level, with less attractive books relegated to the bottom.

I also got from people I approached a stream of unsolicited comments about the evils of book borrowers. Two people said they hate loaning books, and that they would actually prefer to buy someone a new copy of a book than lend their own copy.

While I’m not particular about shelving and have no aversion to loans, I understand the impulses.

A library is a deeply personal thing. Books are tangible reminders of all the places our minds have wandered over the years and all the knowledge and nonsense we’ve accumulated along the way. A big part of our intellectual, emotional, and moral educations is in these books. A lifetime of enthusiasms is in these books. So it’s not surprising that we get attached, and no matter how different our methods, I think we’d all be more than pissed if someone came in and started moving stuff around.

One of my above-mentioned favorites, Larry McMurtry, was also a bookseller for most of his life. He bought and sold millions of books and finally filled much of his hometown, Archer City, Texas, with his stock of 450,000 volumes (that’s him in his main store, now closed, above). Separate from his trade stock, he kept a 28,000-volume personal library. “Forming that library, and reading it,” he says, “is surely one of the principal achievements of my life.” And that’s from a guy with a Pulitzer, a dozen bestsellers, an Oscar, and two Academy Award Best Picture screenplays to his credit.

Postscript: While I did cull most of my books single-handedly, I should admit that the redoubtable Chris Johnston helped me carry dozens of boxes from my truck into a used bookshop on Bloor Street. Credit where it’s due. She also found the bookstore. It was difficult to locate one in Toronto that bought used books. And she probably haggled over the price, too, one of her many talents.