Off the Shelf

Ever dreamt of weeding out the excess books in your office? Scott McLemee interviews a professor who did the deed.

July 25, 2007

“I am on the verge of making a radical decision,” a professor told me in an e-mail note a couple of weeks ago. The plan taking shape was “to get rid of almost all the books I have in my office,” he said, “based on their almost total superfluity.”

He found that he regularly consulted around two dozen volumes – “references, timeless classics, a couple of recent and invaluable syntheses.” But they were always the same titles. The rest were starting to look like “ugly wallpaper.” The sight was getting oppressive and he started to imagine what it might be like to have a change of scenery.

“I feel increasingly overrun by these things that, day by day, seem less useful,” he explained. “I am thinking of keeping only those books I refer to on a regular basis for writing lectures. Anything else, I can get from the library, or in a pinch, find a citation via Google Books or Amazon. I've already stopped keeping most paper journals, though there are a few things that aren't available online. Is this crazy? Is anyone else you know making this kind of decision?”

The implied notion was interesting: my correspondent seemed to think this urge to purge might be a product of the increasing ease of instant access to material not on one’s shelves. I have no idea whether or not this is the case, or whether it represents anything like a trend. But the sense of being overwhelmed by accumulated books is only too familiar. My office and library are at home, and it has been necessary to trim the excess books on occasion, sometimes hundreds of books at a blow, just to keep them from piling up on the floor. (This is known as “preserving domestic tranquility.”)

It seems like a fair guess that, digital access or no, many other people share this daydream of a book apocalypse-in-miniature. I asked my correspondent to keep me posted if he decided to go through with it. As it turned out, this was a formality, for his first note seems to have been a matter of psyching himself up to face the job.

He gave permission to quote from his messages. He is an up-and-coming professor in the humanities who – so it emerged from some passing references – has in recent times taken on some administrative responsibilities. I won’t identify him or name his field, for reasons that are not too hard to understand. There is a potential breach of collegiality in clearing away books by one’s friends or peers.

At the start, my correspondent estimated that he had 130 feet of books occupying his office. That works out to the equivalent, with ordinary bookshelves, of about 40 to 50 shelves’ worth. He said the moment of decision came when he realized that reducing the collection to “the hard core of actually useful information [without] a lot of filler” would have a fringe benefit: “I could fit a comfortable reading chair in my office.”

It sound like the first thing to go was the dream of reducing his holdings to just two or three dozen titles necessary for preparing lectures. This extreme ambition was revised to trimming down to roughly 60 feet of books. The effort would take a few days, he thought; and he hoped to finish before leaving on a trip that would take him away from the office for a week or so.

“I guess the first thing is, we're talking about work-related books,” he said early in the process. “Maybe that's a distinction most people don't make. But P.G. Wodehouse books get kept, at home, and re-read. They're on separate bookshelves and don't count for this discussion. The books that really form intellectual landmarks for me aren't in my office anyway. Things like the essays of William James or Isaiah Berlin, they're at home where they can be dipped into at leisure.”

After a couple of days, I asked how things were going. Progress was steady, he said, but his new role as bureaucrat was imposing demands on his attention, plus he had just signed up with Facebook. But it sounded like the biggest impediment to ruthless purging came from the mixed feelings that accompanied by the process. “I find it hard to pull the trigger,” he said.

“I'm worried I might suddenly want one,” he wrote. “I feel strangely attached to books I haven't opened in, no kidding, 12 years. What if I need to? (You won't need to. Anyway there's a copy in the library.) What if my colleagues see I don't have these books anymore? Will I lose intellectual street cred?”

As the veteran of several such deep purges, I can understand his misgivings, and will say that all of them are completely justified. You will rue the cuts you are making. You will be chagrined when something you need, and once owned, is not readily at hand. There is no getting around this. It’s a trade-off: The pleasure of substantially reduced clutter comes only at the price of regret.

Still, it is possible to create so much momentum in the process that you blast right through the second thought – getting rid of books in a kind of frenzy, something akin to the “berserker” state. There is a kind of exhilaration to it. But it requires full acceptance of the reality that there will be pain later: the remorse over titles you never retrieved from the discard pile.

But this professor’s schedule didn’t leave him the option of getting worked up to go all Viking on the task at hand.

“I'm not being ruthless enough on the first pass,” he said, “ and I will have to go back through and cull, again. In hard cases, the question is, how guilty will I feel if I toss it?”

After he’d been at it for a while longer, I asked if he had established a method or a routine.

“It's going like this,” he responded. “First few minutes of the morning, look over shelves on home office. Shuffle books around, begin to pull books that I don't think I should really keep. Put in bag. Take to office. First few minutes at office, shuffle books around, pull books I don't think I should really keep. Look at pile of discards, pull one irresolutely out, flip through to see if I'd written anything in it and if I can tell how long ago. Fidget, put disputed book back on shelf. Remove from shelf and put back in pile. Take a walk up the corridor and back, get impatient, throw all discards in bag, leave in a place where graduate students can pick them over and take what they want.”

Monographic works tended to find their way to the discard pile without doubt or long delay.

“The exercise," he wrote, "has confirmed concretely what had hitherto been an abstract conviction: it's a rare monograph that's actually worth a book. You can digest the idea, pick out a few key pieces of evidence, decide whether or not it really changes your mind about an overall interpretation, and then you're really, sadly, done with it. Scarcely ever will you revisit it -- scarcely ever will it repay you to revisit it, except to check a citation maybe -- unlike a good essay or synthesis, which you can always come back to for insights.”

On another day, he wrote: “Monographs suffer unduly in this process; mostly, one gleans them for information and/or ideas. One can very easily remember that a monograph had a particular fact or quotation in it, and can if need be discover it again via Google Books or Amazon’s ‘Search Inside.’”

My correspondent also found himself developing a new appreciation of his library at home. Apart from holding the absolutely essential titles he might want to read on the spur of the moment, it constituted a kind of professional safety net.

“I can always tell people who want to know why I don't have many books in my office anymore, ‘Oh, I have bookshelves at home.’ True enough, and maybe that monograph of yours is on them.”

But it turns out he won’t be needing that escape clause after all. “In the end,” he wrote near the close of our exchange, “my colleagues' books all stayed, though one former colleague's went.”

Along the way, he minted an aphorism: “A personal library is the physical version of a bibliography or ‘for further reading’ section in something you’ve published; some books are there because you actually used them, some are there because everyone else thinks they should be there, and some are there because your friends wrote them.”

On Friday, before he took off for a break, I asked if he’d met the goal of reducing the books on his shelves to 60 feet’s worth – a cut of more than half. He said he had.

“Still some shuffling around to go,” he wrote. “In the end, I decided I could have ‘household gods’ at home, in the household -- so shelves of favorite thinkers available first thing in the morning. Reference works, surveys, things needed to look in when giving lectures, are at the office. But generally speaking, the great purge occurred, and it left room to grow.”

The comment about leaving “room to grow” seemed ominous. Having gone through this process myself a few times now, I contemplated the situation with the sense of mingled familiarity and apprehension that Prometheus might feel, upon waking, at the sight of of his new liver.

This might be the right time to adopt the outlook of Mae West. A friend asked her what she wanted for her birthday. “Just don’t get me a book,” she replied. “I’ve already got a book.”


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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