Friday, February 16, 2007

One Man Revisits His Old Books

I believe that most of us are overwhelmed at times when we look at our bookshelves and realize how many of the books are still unread despite having been on the shelves for months or even for years. Then we begin to think about those books that we read one or more decades ago and which have remained closed ever since we finished them. And, of course, there's the problem that we all have in finding shelf space for the dozens of books that we continue to bring home every year. The forest has indeed become so large that we no longer can spot the trees.

Dmetri Kakmi, a senior editor at Penguin Books Australia, has recently recognized the problem and has done something about it. He's completed a massive culling of his shelves, eliminating everything that he no longer holds in high esteem or which he is not likely to read again. And he claims that he feels better for having done it. I don't know if I will ever have the nerve to take this particular approach with my own bookshelves but I found Mr. Kakmi's reaction to having done it himself to be interesting.
Gazing at the groaning shelves brought on intense anxiety. I felt overwhelmed by the titles, the multicoloured spines, the sheer weight of words and knowledge staring at me from the niche in the wall; consequently, over a month or so, I boxed hundreds of books and offered them to friends, charities and opportunity shops.
I am a bibliophile; I do not approve of getting rid of books willy-nilly. Nor am I inclined to desecrate a book by turning down the corner of a page to mark my spot, or to abandon a novel on a bus or train.

To me a book is sacred and must be treated with utmost care and respect. Like a beautiful house or a priceless work of art, a brilliant book is entrusted to us for the duration of our life and it is our solemn duty to be its guardian and benefactor until we can no longer perform the duty.

That said, I had no choice. The truth was my library had to be culled out of sheer necessity. Aside from the fact that shelf space was at a premium, many of the books had not been read in decades.

A little voice told me most would probably never be opened again, at least not by me. As far as I was concerned, their day had come and gone. Surely, I reasoned, liberating them into the care of someone who will doubtless turn their pages and read them is a kindness, a chance at second life.

Mr. Kakmi realized that he was neglecting his old friends, those books and writers he had enjoyed so much in his younger days, at the expense of lesser writers and books that were crying for his attention simply because they were the "flavor of the day." He determined to do something about that and seems to be enjoying the sheer anticipation of re-reading all the gems that he has put aside for too long.

That does make me wonder if I, since I'm in my fifth decade of reading now, should consider taking a similar approach. I don't think that I have the courage to cull as drastically as Mr. Kakmi culled his own shelves, but at the least I see that it may be time to refocus my reading to what is more important from what is simply more popular.


  1. Like you, I seem to have a lethargic inability to part with books. In itself, this is not a problem; however, coupled with my pack rat nature when it comes to books, I also have a powerful desire to continually purchase more books. Something's got to give. At the rate I am currently purchasing books, every corner of my house will be a book repository in five years. I don't think my husband, or my insurance agent, will appreciate that, toe-stubbing accidents, fire hazard and all.

    I have books on my shelves that I not only have not read in years, but I actually didn't even like reading them the first time around. Now, why would I possibly keep books that I don't enjoy?

    Good question. If you have an answer, I would love to know. :)

    I admire Kakmi's initiative in decreasing the books on his shelves. Books were, afterall, made to be read, not to collect dust in someone's basement.

  2. ''many of the books had not been read in decades.''

    I am not sure if I could do as he has done. I still have books that I have not opened since my schooldays eg Virgil, Ovid...but I could never throw them away. They are part of who I am.

  3. Wow, Mr. Kakmi has a way with words; he's a great writer. That said, I agree with y'all - I don't tink I could do what he's done. I've donated books that I've read and thought were completely awful, but everything else I've kept. And like nick said, the older books make up my past and represent who I am. Right now, I have no more shelves and lots more books, but I keep telling myself I'll have more room someday... the dream of having a real library constantly beckons. For now, my books are sitting in stacks because there's no way I can get rid of them.

  4. I agree with all three of you. I think that's why I'm so impressed with what Kalki has accomplished with his collection. I do hope that he doesn't regret getting rid of the books at some point in the future when he goes to reach for one of the books and find that it's a book that he's given away. I've had that happen to me a couple of times and it is frustrating.

    Anne, I have some bad news for will NEVER have enough bookshelves because no matter how many you have, you will fill them and wish you had even more space. You sound like a serious victim of that disease known as "book lust." Good luck.

  5. "Book lust"? Nah, I'm not that shallow - this is true love. ;)

  6. I should have known better, Anne. You impress me as the kind of girl who looks for menaingful relationships with her books...

  7. I have even started buying books about collecting books, decorating with books, and how the hell to survive towers of books collapsing on top of you...:-)

  8. There's really no cure, Sally. Don't even try to fight it.