Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 10 November 2008

The half-life of books

Some time ago I read the following:

A neighbour recently loaned me her copy of Atwoods's short stories, Moral Disorder, which I am slowly making my way through - one story a night before bed: my nightcap. It is a collection claimed to be as close to autobiography as Atwood has written in her fiction. More poignant: I find it to be a reminder of what it is I admire and appreciate in a "good story." The book, BTW, with a 2006 copyright, and a first edition, is already a victim of "discard" from a public library. - New Pages Blog

This, of course, started me thinking about what it would take for me to discard a book. I know I don't still own all the books I've ever purchased. A few were leant to people (my copy of A Time of Changes, for example) before I learned my lesson but I honestly couldn't tell you what ever happened to Don Quixote. I think I must have thrown it out about fifteen years ago when I moved house for the seventh time although how it managed to survive six other moves I have no idea. What gets me is that I can't think what could possibly have gone through my mind to throw out a book.

I'm the same with photographs. I never throw out a photo. I tore up a photo of an old girlfriend once (as a gesture to the current girlfriend) and I have absolutely hated myself ever since for it.

In recent years I did chuck out an old and very smelly copy of Hartrampf’s Vocabulary Builder – which my dad had bought in the 1960s – but only once I'd located a replacement. (It still had the original invoice inside from 1965 for £1.10s.0d (£1.50 in today's currency) and I picked up my copy in 2003 for £1.20. Not bad.) Looking at my shelves I am actually disappointed that I don't have more books and there's a part of me wants to go and buy up all the books I know I've borrowed from libraries just so I have a copy for emergencies. You simply never know when a copy of Spider Robinson's Telempath will come in handy.

But I was thinking about libraries: how do they choose what to discard? It's not as if the books are theirs. Of course it's semantics but discard sounds a little harsh. How about weeding books or withdrawing titles?

All librarians are encouraged to weed their collections every year in order to maintain materials that are still useful and timely. They have to. Space is limited and who needs copies of Yellow Pages going back to nineteen-canteen? I don't think I've opened a Yellow Pages in the last five years and all I do when I get a new one is take the old one out of the writing bureau, remove the plastic wrapper and toss it in the recycling bin. In fact as I write this there are five copies lying in the foyer of this building that my neighbours have neglected to uplift. They must all use Yell the same as I do.

I've been trawling through the Web looking to see what the rules are for disposing of books. The gist of most of them is as follows: An item is considered for discard when it is (1) obsolete or outdated; (2) physically deteriorated or damaged; (3) no longer circulating; (4) one of many copies of a formerly popular title. And that seems quite reasonable to me.

Most lists expand on these. I was particularly struck by this entry which I found in the School Board of Alachua County, Florida's Media Specialist Handbook:

3. Timeliness - This is one of the most frequent criteria: Reference may be to: (a) out-of-date materials, particularly in the sciences and technology. A rule of thumb is to reconsider almost anything more than three to five years of age, (b) materials no longer in demand, or that no longer support the curriculum or current community needs (c) older editions no longer used, and (d) dated textbooks, where they are part of the collection.

Now, I know that with non-fiction books this is easier to determine and other sites list general guidelines, like this one from Omaha Public Schools:

Weeding specific classes of books (maximum age of materials)
  • Encyclopaedia sets -- ten years.
  • Almanacs -- five years.
  • Directories -- five years.
  • Biographical sources -- see "General guidelines" above.
  • Dictionaries -- ten years.
  • Atlases -- ten years.
  • Books on mass media, descriptive geography, careers, computers -- five years.
  • Topical materials -- ten years.
  • Social sciences -- ten years.
  • Fiction titles not listed in standard sources and which have not been checked out for three years.

The thing is I misread 'Timeliness' the first time I looked at it. I thought it said 'Timelessness' and that made me ask, "How does one determine if a book is timeless?" There are certainly a great many books that are of their time and yet, at the same time, timeless.

I was impressed to find online something called The Freedom to Read statement on the American Library Association, part of which reads:

7. It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians to give full meaning to the freedom to read by providing books that enrich the quality and diversity of thought and expression. By the exercise of this affirmative responsibility, they can demonstrate that the answer to a "bad" book is a good one, the answer to a "bad" idea is a good one.

The freedom to read is of little consequence when the reader cannot obtain matter fit for that reader's purpose. What is needed is not only the absence of restraint, but the positive provision of opportunity for the people to read the best that has been thought and said.

The whole thing is worth having a look at. I wonder if there's a British equivalent? I couldn't find anything.

I don't think I could be a librarian. Okay, I could chuck out old reference books but I would have a real issue with fiction. I'd find myself very protective of other people's novels and short story collections. One of my favourite science fiction novels of all time is A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg and I went to find a copy a while ago (see above) and lo and behold it was out of print. Damn and blast! Okay, I managed to get a second-hand copy. And The Death of Grass by John Christopher – I had to download a PDF because used copies were so ruddy expensive (£55.00 last time I looked). And these are just two books. And what if my local library had decided to toss them?

How can you make that decision without reading the book first? Every condemned man gets to state his case but what about every book? The librarian is judge, jury and executioner. But what if he or she isn't into science fiction? I can just imagine all the copies of The Death of Grass from 1978 that hadn't been checked out in many libraries for over three years and got the chop and there are now queues forming to demand copies of this underrated little gem. And where are they? Okay, maybe not queues but you get the idea. How do they handle the responsibility? How do they sleep at night?

There was an article in The American Spectator back in April 2007 about certain library practices in Fairfax County: "We're being very ruthless," said Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch system. "A book is not forever. If you have 40 feet of shelf space taken up by books on tulips and you find that only one is checked out, that's a cost."

According to the article:

The Fairfax libraries are now using new computer software programs to identify titles that have not been checked out in 24 months. Victims, to date, include the speeches and writings of Abraham Lincoln, The Education of Henry Adams, poems of Emily Dickinson, and, according to the Washington Post's Lisa Rein, "thousands of novels and nonfiction works" that were swept up in the computer vacuuming.

Other books that have been "weeded" from the shelves of various branches of the Fairfax County Public Library system or haven't been checked out in 24 months and could be discarded include: The Works of Aristotle, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, and The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams.

So, pray do tell, what are the good residents of Fairfax County reading these days?

The top 25 books checked out in December, from Fairfax County libraries, were best-sellers by John Grisham, David Baldacci, James Patterson, Nelson DeMille, Stephen King and Alice McDermott, among others. Most are entertaining, but only a few will be considered classics in 25 years.

The world is speeding up. Things go out of fashion quicker and quicker. I look at my contemporaries online and I see the piles of books they have to read and I wonder how many of them read them properly. There are simply too many books being produced. And some of those books will be the classics of the future. But what if they only had 24 months to demonstrate their timelessness? What would we lose?

I used to think I'd like to be a librarian, after all Philip Larkin was one and a very successful one, but now I'm not so sure I could live with myself.


john baker said...

Jim, I am also surprised when I see which books libraries get rid of. It's almost impossible to get copies of the classics from my local library. OK, if I order them, they'll find me a copy. But I can't just go in and pick one off the shelf like I used to be able to do when I was a teenager.
People mus buy them, I suppose.
Unlike you, I don't hang on to books at all. As soon as I've read something I give it away. To a friend if I've enjoyed it, or to a charity shop if it was unreadable or mediocre.
Having said that, we do have a wall of books in the sitting room, odd volumes that I somehow believe I won't be able to replace, or books that I might need for reference, or slim volumes with one poem that I keep reading again and again every fifteen years.
But your post also reminded me of the brilliant essay, On Photography by Susan Sontag, which discusses and analyses the ways in which the photographic image has altered our way of seeing the world. It's a fascinating piece which also looks at our reluctance to deface or destroy photographs. I'm sure you'd enjoy it.

Art Durkee said...

Looking at my own personal library, even after having weeded out a lot before moving this year, it stands in the thousands. I'm still weeding through. I take books to be sold, though, hoping to pass them on to someone else who will love them as I have.

I'll get to my weeding criteria in a minute.

First I want to underline something hinted at in your research, but not explicitly stated. It's most obvious with the Fairfax example:

There's a lot about this issue that is purely fashion, and popularity, and not at all about timelessness, eternal worth, or at least long-term value. Escaping to the library when I was young was, as I've heard for many others, a life-saver for me. It opened doors in my mind, when I discovered a book that really got me thinking. And books lead to other books. I can recall a few instances of novels leading me to look up the books cited by their authors as worth reading, and chaining on from their. The point is, someday someone is going to come along and their minds will be blown by encountering, say, Henry Adams; and it's solace to know the book might still be there so that can happen.

Fashion is surface, and shallow. I daresay the half-life of a Grisham thriller is much less than that of Henry Adams—unless circulation is one's principal and/or only criterion. I admit I've checked out thrillers from my library—because I was mildly interested in reading them, but didn't want to own a copy.

Okay, now for my criteria. I've written about this here before, and more explicitly here.

It's basically easier to say what I will keep:

—irreplaceable or rare editions I'm not likely to find again, especially some rare art books
—beautifully-designed special editions that are works of art in themselves
—my professional reference and consulting library, on the categories of typography, design, printing, photography, music, writing, and software manuals
—novels and plays, non-fiction, and collections of certain authors' works, that I read and re-read again: favorite poets, favorite short-story writers and novelists, favorite science writers

Anything I can find again, if I really want to re-read it, can go. Things you can pick up again for a buck at a thrift store, that are easy to locate and replace. (Okay, your Silverberg story proves that's sometimes a risk.) Like most thrillers or mysteries. Other than Raymond Chandler, there are only two mystery authors I seriously collect at present: Tony Hillerman and Dana Stabenow. I re-read all three.

This meant, when I was selling books before moving, that I got rid of 75 percent of my science fiction and mysteries, many of which are still available somewhere. I kept the rare editions, certain anthologies, and the works of favorite authors. What remains is still a lot of books, but proportionally more hardcover editions.

My other major criteria, and this was harder to live up to, was: If I haven't re-read it in a year or more, do I really need to keep a copy around? The answer was usually, if sometimes painfully, no. I may have even lost interest in a topic, and still find it hard to let go of the book. But in most cases I did. Remember, in moving, I had to strip away as much mass as possible beforehand. I estimate I didn't achieve this goal before moving, that I was probably no more than 60 percent through the process.

Now, since moving, and having lived in the new home for a few months, another factor has crept in. I moved, then I went on the road for about three months, spending more time away than here. Now I'm back, and will stay here over winter, before the next road trip come spring. I'm finding that as I look over the shelves, another category of book can go, namely:

Introductory-level materials that I have thoroughly absorbed, don't need to re-read again and probably won't. I'm much more interested, now, in advanced reading on most of the topics that interest me, rather than yet another beginning-level book. Oddly, or not, most books on most esoteric topics are geared towards the beginner, assuming as they do unfamiliarity with the topic.

So, lots of photography technique books are going. So is a lot of theology and metaphysical studies. I can locate most of this again, too, if I need it. Some are perennial; but again, I don't want to re-read starter books anymore. I want to be in grad school, not kindergarten, on these topics. I think I've earned that.

So, those are my criteria. I have no deadline now, though, not like I did when I was moving. So I do this casually, a little at a time, and without much stress.

BTW, I love the photo you used to at the top of your essay. Very evocative.

Elizabeth (Beth) Westmark said...

I do share (reluctantly) books with friends and even an occasional relative, but throw one away? No. I couldn't be a librarian.

It's kind of like barbecue. I crave, adore & savor great barbecue. But even bad barbecue, I would eat for breakfast.

Thanks for a fascinating essay.

p.s. I actually went to school in Alachua County (University of Florida) back in 1969.

Jim Murdoch said...

Ah, John, and that reminds me of the Stephen Poloakoff film Shooting the Past about an American property developer's attempts to rebovate a London building containing a huge photographic collection and the resistance he encounters from the decidedly odd members of staff who stand in his way.

I related to it strongly. When my mother died I remember sitting with my brother and sister as we divided up the photographs, some to be copied, some not, but none were not given a home, not a one. I still carry a passport photo in my wallet of a girl I've never met. I picked it up off the street about ten years ago or longer.

Beth, sharing books, eh? Yes, I have done that and I could probably give you the name of every book I've ever loaned out and who still has it. Glad to see you make a comment – I don't think you've spoken up before.

And, Art, I think if my collection was as huge as yours has been then I might have to make hard decisions purely for the sake of space but the fact is I read a lot that I never owned and I do regret not owning them now because it's all reference material. I do wonder what will happen when I die. Much as I'm blessed with a bibliophilial daughter I'm not sure that she would relish my collection nor do I expect she will have room for it, certainly not where she is just now. And the same goes for my music, a floor-to-ceiling bookcase full of tapes and another full of CDs. I really would turn in my grave if they ended up in a charity shop.

Sorlil said...

My local librarians ought to read your post. I'm pretty sure 95% of the book titles haven't changed in the last 15 years - I did school placement with the library 15 odd years ago, my job was to replace the returned books.
Book space is a bit of a constant nightmare in my house, both my husband and I are big book buyers, though it's lucky that poetry books are generally much thinner than the likes of fiction (apart from the collected tomes of course).

Art Durkee said...

Oh gods, don't even get me going on the CDs and other audio media. I didn't have time to deal with all of that before the move, so I'm slowly doing it now. I just found 4 more milk crates full of CDs. (I used to review, so I have a lot more than I ever paid for.) My plan is to rip the ones I want to keep into iTunes, and sell the rest. Then there's the several hundred LPs, including my late Dad's collection. A lot of that is rare and out of print, and never made it to CD. So I plan to digitize the best of 'em. I have to sell most of them, but I'll keep a few treasures. If I can get it down to 50 percent it'll be more manageable.

I am blessed, as I well know, by having a house that's big for one person. We build that way over here, though, relative to the British Isles. But then, you could drop France into Texas, and it wouldn't leave much of a ripple. All a matter of relative scale.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say, Sorlil, I didn't spend a huge amount of time in my local library on my last visit. It was pretty easy just to scan the shelves and know what kind of clientele they were catering for and if that makes me sound a bit snooty then so be it. I can live with that.

And, Art, yeah, I'm sure my whole flat would probably fit in your bathroom. Space is an issue here I'm afraid. Now, a loft, that I could use. I used to have an office in a loft once and a table about eight feet long. The clambering up and down ladders was a bit of a pain mind.

McGuire said...

I have replied twice now. My first replied was frozen and lost in the electric ether. I thought my second reposne got through, so either, Jim has yet to allow it or some other mistake has occured.

Either way, I am quite possessive of my books, and protective. A trait I am trying to address.

Ken Armstrong said...

The trouble is that fashion for what people read at any given time (this time perhaps more than most) is created by the publishers and what they are willing to take on and put out.

Word has it that they are treading very cautiously these days and if you're not a glossy thriller or a chick-lit diva, you're out.

I tend to let my books go. Some I love and I keep those close.

Jim Murdoch said...

No, McGuire, I only got the one and pretty much okayed it the moment I got the e-mail as I recall, so I'm sorry Blogger's been playing silly buggers with you.

I'm not sure that being possessive of your books is what I'd call a bad trait especially if your generous in other ways. Books are a special category as far as I'm concerned.

And, Ken, yes, the damn public, give 'em what they want. If only there weren't so damn many of them. They're taking over the place. There are some outside my flat right now circling. What do they want? What do they want?

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