This year found the annual spring clean-up at my house taking on an added dimension. After extensively remodeling three other rooms, I finally came to the holy place where I keep my books. This forced me into special considerations. I definitely didn’t want any paint getting on my library. Just to be on the safe side I decided to put most of my books into boxes and move them well out of harm’s way.
The thought of putting these “moldering paper bricks” into temporary storage made me reflect. Once packed away, which books would ever come out again? I have room for about 1,500 volumes on my shelves, but I reached capacity some time ago and every week there are more coming in. Drastic times called for drastic measures. Several boxes were going to have to be put away for an indefinite period. How to choose?
After all, the fact is I like most of the books I have on my shelves. The few I despise – The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, Pamela, some damn thing by William Burroughs – were soon dispensed with, but didn’t gain me a lot of extra room. I needed to clear some serious space.
I was left with the task of deciding which books I was least likely to ever read again. This is a problem because I am a dedicated re-reader. Poetry in particular has to remain easily accessible. Luckily, great poetry is usually available in hefty volumes of Collected Works, so all of the big names got to stay (though I did cast a long look at Wallace Stevens – easily the most overrated poet of the twentieth century, and one I have all but given up on now).
The other books I read again and again – though I don’t think I read any book annually, like some devotees of Tolkien do – tend to be classic novels. Among these touchstones are works like The Great Gatsby, Absalom, Absalom, Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, and Walden (which would be a novel by today’s standards anyway). They may not be the very best books I have on my shelves, but they’re my favourites. If you really want to know where I’m coming from as a reviewer, the answer is probably somewhere in there.
But while most of my shelf space is taken up with Great Works (mainly as a result of course requirements rather than any predisposition on my part), I’m not at all ashamed of my collection of pulp. I’m definitely keeping my copy of E. M. Nathanson’s The Dirty Dozen out for a re-read, as well as all of my SF paperbacks and Raymond Chandler novels (though Chandler is, unfortunately, becoming a high-brow taste). And, to be perfectly honest, I’m not even so sure about all of the Great Works. I know that I read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter a while back, but I no longer have any recollection of what it was about. Could it have been any good? Other classics on my shelves that I almost certainly won’t be revisiting include The Rainbow, Parade’s End, Plato’s Republic (all I want is a summary), and anything by Graham Greene. Life is too short – an observation that the whole shelf-clearing exercise brings home with a vengeance.
Why, you are probably asking, don’t I just take these books to a second-hand bookstore and sell them? The answer is simple: They aren’t worth anything. I’ve had dealings with many second-hand book dealers over the years and I know what they are willing to pay for. For starters, the book should be new (that is, published this past year). In terms of genre there is a definite hierarchy. History is pretty near the top. Hardcover fiction is hard to move, and you have to take a huge discount. Current affairs: again, keep it fresh. Culture criticism and geopolitical analysis is demonstrably news that doesn’t stay news.
Poetry? Is that a joke? You couldn’t give that stuff away at a poetry convention. With poetry books the term “shelf-life” is a cruel double entendre. If it’s past its date the only thing you can do is throw it out.
After two days of sorting I finally came to my old stash of comic books, many of them dating back to the 70s. There was the Flash on the cover of one, running beneath a glittering mirrored ball as he tried to survive the “Disco of Death.” Was it kitsch, or was it art? I wasn’t sure, but after consulting with some friends who are more in the know about these things I decided to splurge on a special comic book storage system. When I got home I carefully slid each comic into its own protective plastic envelope. These old comic books, you see, are now worth more than all of the 1,500 books I’ve been talking about combined. While the World’s Classics and the Library of America have slowly been turning into smelly, yellow, unrecyclable trash, my comic books have been appreciating through the roof. I am told that today they are worth quite a lot.
Essay first published online June 8, 2000. The phrase “moldering paper bricks” comes from David Marusek’s story “The Wedding Album.” In addition to being virtually worthless, most old/used books are not even accepted by libraries as charitable donations. They’re your junk, so you have to get rid of them.