Monday, August 1, 2011

The bibliophile's lament

I really, really like books. Once I have a book in my possession, I tend never to give it up. Unless I specifically hate it for some reason. I have a lot of books I read decades ago, and may never read again. Paperback books that don't have any substantial monetary value. I have multiple copies of books I really love, like Ulysses. If I see a used copy of it, I'll buy it. That's especially true of philosophy books. Cheap, used philosophy book? I'll buy it. A library sale is a little bit of heaven.

So, I have a lot of books. e-Books are not a solution for me. I have a thing about books, and paper, and the whole sensory experience of holding and reading a book. I like bookshelves groaning with books. My dream house would have one of those huge libraries with the ladders for climbing up to the books.

I have to move in a few weeks. The movers charge by weight, so it behooves me to release some of these books. I'm kind of stuck on the philosophy books. I tend to think that as a philosopher, I ought to have a well-rounded library of philosophy books. I'm not likely to ever teach Wittgenstein, or Schopenhauer, but I'm kind of loathe to get rid of those books. I have multiple editions of certain textbooks in my AOS. Should I get rid of those and just keep the most recent? What about my six copies of Kant's Groundwork? They're all different, and some are out of print. Or my two copies of the Critique -- really different translations. Some of these books I've been carting around for decades, since I was an undergrad. Ditch the Republic paperback since I have the Complete Works? But it was the first philosophy book I read in college! Move it? or lose it?

What do you do with your old philosophy books, fellow philosophers?



Anonymous said...

Ship them post office media mail. Remarkably cheap.

I kept all of my philosophy books and am glad I did. I've had students come and talk with me and I could lend them an extra copy of a book that I had. And, on a more frivolous note, you're likely to get an office with a lot of bookshelves in it. More books = fuller bookshelves!

Actually. No. I did ditch the earlier editions of textbooks in my AOS. I mean...they only change on a very superficial level between editions and I figured that any textbooks I assigned would be the latest version. And textbooks can be *heavy*...much heavier than a copy of Kant's Groundwork.

But yeah. I mostly kept them all. Even those half a dozen or so books on American Pragmatism that I bought as a first year grad student, convinced that Pragmatism was right. It's not clear I'll ever crack one open to read it, but at least it's there if I want to.

Anonymous said...

I am also a bibliophile, and I would suggest to keep them all as well. When I moved to my TT job, they weren't great about covering moving costs. I ended up shipping all my philosophy books to the dept. I love having all my books in my office.

I'll second media mail as the best option if you're moving US to US. I was moving Canada to US so that wasn't an option for me. I ended up taking a bit of a hit and mailing everything via Canada post. But I'm glad I did it.

Elizabeth said...

I keep anything I have detailed notes in. I am learning to give up the rest, although it's hard. Very hard.

One thing I've wanted to do, but haven't: donate books to scholars in Africa. I know that there are non-profits that facilitate this, but unfortunately I don't know a lot of details.

Anonymous said...

You'll regret it if you get rid of books for which you have no other copies and books for which there is sentimental value. I tend not to keep additional copies of books unless they are books I refer to frequently and want a "mark-up edition" or two (I won't write in a book if I have only one copy). Media mail is a great idea and I wish I'd done it myself. I just moved and (among other horrors) the movers lost two boxes of books. The downside is that you have to pack them yourself (onerous for us bibliophiles), but its worth the savings and the avoidance of heartbreak later.

Anonymous said...

We recently moved across the country and ate the cost of having the movers include our collection of 1200+ books. It hurt. And while it generated sincere promises to ourselves to sell some of them off before the end of my 2-year postdoc and our next move, I can also say I sincerely doubt that will ever happen. I love the media mail idea, so I think we'll just go with that next time.

Socrates43 said...

I share many of the sentiments expressed in your post. I like the texture and physical presence of books and, as a philosophy grad student, feel that it is important to have a well rounded philosophy section in my personal library.

My policy for keeping/getting rid books that I have read is that if I cannot plausibly foresee either reading the book again (or needing to refer to it), or loaning/giving the book to someone as a recommendation, then I get rid of it. Though I won't pretend to speak for everyone, if neither of these are the case, then I'm not sure that I'm keeping the book for any other reason than to make the library larger, which (as I see it) is an act of vanity that should be avoided.

Mr. Zero said...

I have a lot of books. I don't like getting rid of books. But I recently sold a bunch of them to via their textbook buyback program (although this is out of character for me). It is possible that you will be hurt by the fact that you got rid of these books. I imagined that it might hurt me. But if you're like me, it will hurt you only when you reach for the book and it's not there. So I would choose the books very carefully, and sell a book only if you will not ever reach for it. And I would not consider selling any book that contains a substantial amount of your own work, e.g. in the form of notes & underlining & stuff.

Anonymous said...

Burn them!

Anonymous said...

I'm with you Zombie. They'll take my books from my cold, dead hands to mis-quote good-old God-damn-them-to-hell Charley Heston.

Each book is a marker for me in my mind's adventures--some great, some not so.

Maybe it's my belief in the extended mind thesis--but those rows on the shelves are as much me as the rows of flesh on my brain.

Selling 'em is like taking pills to encourage senility. Can't do it.

wv: workines; professional memes specifically connected to books

zombie said...

That Amazon buyback is awesome. I just made $85 on books I've never used and never will use. Thanks for the tip.

Now I can afford to keep my other books. The precious....

I totally agree with the extended mind theory as a justification for book hoarding.

Anonymous said...

You could do what Nietzsche did with his books: leave them with friends and family. When you need a book, write to the holder and let him/her pay for shipping. It helps to leave the books with wealthier friends. Probably emigrating beyond good and evil cuts down on the complaints.

Glaucon said...

I just had occasion to read Walter Benjamin's "Unpacking My Library," a really nice essay on books and book-collecting.

"For [a collector], not only books but copies of books have their fates. And in this sense, the most important fate is its encounter with him, with his own collection."

Anonymous said...

Keep them. You'll regret it otherwise. And if you find you really don't need certain books or certain editions/ them to students.

J.R. said...

If I have a book that I know I will neither read, nor need for reference, I give it to homeless people for them to read, or in the case of philosophy books, eat (no normal person wants to read that shit).

In all seriousness though I do have a tough time getting rid of books. The only books I tend to get rid of are the ones I let people borrow that I never get back (or they destroy).

Also, if I get rid of my books, how will I trick people into thinking I'm worldly and learned? If I'm ever lucky enough to get a teaching position down the road, I want my faculty picture to be me swimming in a sea of books I've never read, nor ever intend on reading.

Anonymous said...

Donate them. If you've never reached for them til now, you have a decent inductive base for inferring you won;t reach for them in the future. At best they're just office decoration; at worst a means of intimidation.
Sentimentality is an indulgence. If your mind is really extended surely it can extend to the library or through t'interweb.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely. Researching with a book in your hand is almost an aesthetic experience while reading a pdf feels like work. There is nothing better then lighting some candles, having a good drink in hand and really digging into a text.

A couple of years ago some of my first philosophy text started denigrating. I started researching leather book binding. Now every book I read, that's worth while, I bind in leather. They look really good on the shelf and it helps me not cheat myself out of "complete works". A really thick leather bound book looks great on the shelf when you know you have read the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

Book porn!
mmmm, stroke that leather ...
(of course, its somewhat leas attractive if you're a vegearian)

Inigo said...


The text said, "Why are you holding me like that, you klutz? And you know you've already read this chapter twice, right? You think you're a philosopher, my god, what a sad state the scholarly world is in if you're the best they can come up with..."

And yet, you turned the other cheek and bound it in leather. Now that's a bibiliophile!

Anonymous said...

Let me endorse the Media Mail option via the USPS. I just completed a long distance move (about 1000 miles). The professional movers charged about $1/pound. Media Mail was about $0.50/pound. Media Mail can be books, CDs, DVDs, printed music, and software, so you can ship a lot of things that way.

For things that don't qualify, flat-rate priority boxes are a good alternative. Files/papers are heavy and you can cram a lot of stuff into those boxes. The USPS even provides the boxes!

I also donated a lot of older textbooks and duplicate copies to my local public library. They have a "store" where they sell these things to help shore up their budget, struggling with city cuts. You get the tax deduction (if you itemize); they get the possible revenue from the sale.

Christopher Parsons said...

I recently moved, and so had to get rid of a pile of books to bring the costs down somewhat. My solution was to donate books that I no longer wanted to a local graduate student society collections. The books might be of use to someone, at somepoint, that passes through that library (so the books are less likely to sit forever) and I could donate them while thinking I was doing something 'for the community.' Seemed like a win-win solution.

Anonymous said...

Once I moved across the country (east to west) and left a lot of books I acquired when my department cleaned out their library. I sorely regret it.

When I moved back (west to east) a year later, I took everything I still had.

Now, I've been settled for a few years, and have book distributed between my campus office and my home office. But I recently purchased an iPad, and have started downloading books and using the iAnnotate PDF reader. I had been wanting an iPad for sometime but resisting because I realized that my desire was not rational (I had no good reason to get it) and was the product of a very successful marketing campaign (it just looks pretty). But I started a project that required about 30 books.

In the past, I'd hit the library, interlibrary loan, etc. and buy those at the end that I thought were worth keeping. But I always manage to rack up overdue fines, knew this project would take a long time, and knew several of the out-of-print books were printing in runs that were so small they'd be hard to acquire even through ILL.

The cost of buying all the books second hand would have been approximately $800.

A friend suggested I search online for PDFs. And I found them -- every last one. He showed me a PDF annotating app on his iPad that allowed him to mark up the e-books. I waffled a bit, then I sucked it up, and ordered the iPad using my research account.

And while I love books, and will likely not stop collecting them, I have to say, I probably won't go back. The ability to write notes and mark ups yet still keep a clean copy -- the ability to print only specific pages wirelessly -- the ability to have your entire research project in one place -- the ease of acquiring many of out of print books -- being able to email collaborators mark ups. I've started using it to grade papers, and its amazing. Etc. I'm totally hooked.

Here's the thing. I have many books to which I am emotionally attached. But then I also have all these books that I'm not really that attached too, but because I've spent so much time with them on projects in the past, I just can't seem to separate from them. It's kind of like grad school friends, I guess: there are the ones you really click with, and form deep emotional bonds ... and then there the people you like well enough but years later, when you meet them for drinks at the APA, you find the only connection you really have is that you were in school together, and there's nothing else to share or talk about.

I'm a hoarder from a long line of hoarders. My grandmother and mother are bordering on pathological, and I strive to avoid their fate. I think philosophers have hoarder tendencies when it comes to papers and books -- just look at most of their offices.

Now, I can be a real collector in some sense. Because the books I "need" are available immediately, I can reserve my money for books I want. I can search for rare first editions, or give away generic copies to students or the humanities lab on my campus. It makes the collecting a bit more fun when you narrow it down.

Just IMHO.

Joshua Harwood said...

I don't exactly like books, but I end up with a lot of them, and I make some efforts to fit my essential library into a suitcase.

I found that I did a lot of good work by following the following:

If I hate the book, I throw it away.
If the book is in public domain, I look for the electronic text and give the book to whatever public library.
If I like the book, but will not refer to it often, I keep it in remote view until I stumble upon an electronic version or find a way to copy the text in full with little hassle.
If I always use the book, it's on my desk.

I've become wary of buying philosophy books. If I catch myself grinding my teeth, squinting hard, and muttering, "That's bullshit!" under my breath too much as I read the first chapter, I put the book away. In my experience, most books of that sort don't improve after the first chapter.