By Colin Woodward
“What is this obsession people have with books? They put them in their houses like they’re trophies. What do you need it for after you read it?”
–Jerry to George on Seinfeld
If you are a historian, you probably have lots of books. The same goes for all academics, historians or otherwise. You might have so many books, in fact, that they have become a problem. A problem to store, a problem to move, a problem to get read. Let’s face it, some of us are book hoarders.
I am a recovering one. Or at least, committed to change. It was easy to buy books when I was in graduate school. Much of my time was spent reading. In my first year at LSU, most of my waking hours were spent reading. And that is not an exaggeration. Grad school is intellectual boot camp and not all enlistees make it. Those that do suffer from a kind of intellectual PTSD.
After the first two years of grad school, I could be more discriminating in what I read. And yet, the books began piling up anyway. After a disastrous fire in the spring of 2000 (a few months before my general exams), I lost most of my books. I tried to replace all those that burned. I bought new and used books with a vengeance. I didn’t have much money, but much of it, too much, was spent on books. I was coping with loss through book buying.
LSU was no help. Baton Rouge wasn’t/isn’t much of a reading town. But the area around LSU was/is an exception. That area has lots of smart people, who love books. The LSU Book Barn, located in the basement of the library–a one minute walk from my office–was a drug den for book addicts, where you could get paperbacks for as little as 10 cents each. Free books were often stacked outside in the hallway. The sweet, smiling, little old southern ladies who volunteered at the Book Barn were like the beaming pushers who give you your first hit of heroin for free at the schoolyard.
It wasn’t their fault, of course. But when you are young and nerdy, you think you have all the time in the world to read all the books you’ve been collecting. Not just history books, either, but memoirs, poetry, short stories, and novels. You become a post-apocalyptic Burgess Meredith.
At some point, you need to stop yourself and say, “Hey, at the age of 23, I probably read more books than most people will ever read in a lifetime. Why don’t I calm down a little?” But by then, the addiction is too strong.
You begin to trace the source of your addiction. I went to a reading-heavy small liberal arts college. Those four years alone were enough to satisfy my reading fix for many years. But it wasn’t enough. And grad school made the book addiction worse.
Should you be lucky, you will graduate from a quiet, introverted book worm to a boozy, loutish intellectual in the manner of Byron or Christopher Hitchens. Most of us land somewhere in the middle. As graduate school grinds on, you’ll find yourself drinking and writing more than reading. But the book buying might continue unabated. Surely, there will be time to get to those books once I have a tenure-track job and summers off, right?
Land an academic job, and you may be a book hoarder for life. After all, that’s what offices are for: a place to hoard more books. What better way to intimidate friends and students than to show them the office of a heavy drinker with a book problem?
I have met several people who claim to have 3,000 books in their possession. Thomas Jefferson was a famous book hoarder, whose collection became the foundation for the Library of Congress. I know of a historian, who shall remain nameless, who bragged that he had books that he would not only never read, but never open.
I suppose it all comes down to a question of comfort. Hoarders like their “stuff,” even if it takes over their lives. The TV show Hoarders depicted the worst extremes of this complex, which is a kind of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (I’m not sure if this is clinically accurate), only much messier. Books become your friends. You spend time with them. Yet, you are control. Or think you are. After all, books are great. They let us travel to distant times and places for little money. They introduce us to amazing people. Until they take over your life, that is. If you understand the complexities of Shakespeare’s Iago more than your parents, you are reading too much.
I began to break out of my book hoarding when moving became frequent in my life. Not just across-town moves, but across the country. The pressures of moving will make you reconsider your hoarding. I mean, am I really going to read Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War again? Or even need it as a reference source?
Once you begin weeding your book collection, it may become difficult to stop. Take solace: you still have more books than most people. And why let them tie you down? You’re not going to live forever, no matter how many books you comfort yourself by thinking you’ll get to one day. Besides, giving away is a way of spreading the joy. Let someone else discover the books that changed your life.
Readers don’t ever stop reading, so you will always be buying more, collecting more. But don’t let it get to be too much. Ask yourself these questions:
1. Do I love this book enough to keep it long after I’ve read it?
2. If I don’t love it, do I need it?
3. Does it have any value beyond sentimental attachment?
4. Lacking sentimental value, does it have any monetary value that makes it worth holding onto?
5. Could someone else use it more than me?
6. Does having this book around bother or inconvenience me?
7. Will I ever re-read this book?
8. Am I kidding myself in thinking I will ever get to this unread book in a reasonable amount of time?
When it comes to having books in our house, we should probably think of them like produce in the grocery store. Has having this book around for years made it lose its freshness? Do I no longer want to read it because it stayed too long on the shelf? If so, then it’s time to get rid of it. And like produce, once consumed, it is needs to be gone from our lives.
I knew what you’re thinking hoarder: the book is dying! We need to hold onto them amid the digital onslaught. I don’t think books are going away. I recently saw on amazon a new, two-volume 1,376 page book on the Franco-Prussian War of 1813. When publishers tell you they can’t publish a long book, they are lying. They can’t publish your long book is what they mean.
So, it’s okay to get rid of your books. Not all, but many of them. Relax, you’re still smart.
Colin Woodward is a historian and certified archivist. He is author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, published in 2014 through University of Virginia Press. He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.