Culling My Library

My library comprises more than 2,000 books. I’ve been building it since I got my degree in 1975. That means I’ve been adding about one book per week to it. I confess that I haven’t read every one of those books. Some are reference books like The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations or Fiscal Accounts of Catalonia Under the Early Count-Kings (1151 - 1213)

This latter book may give cause for you to wonder: why in the world would I want such a book? There’s an important lesson for game design here. Good games are based on interesting systems. This book (actually, it’s a pair of volumes) provides detailed information on the financing of governments during the period in question. It is, in effect, a specification of a complicated system. That’s the raw material for a game. I studied it carefully but concluded that the resulting game would not be compelling. 

Then there are the books that I did not finish, or barely started. Sometimes this was due to my realization that the book did not address issues of interest to me, such as Umberto Eco’s From the Labyrinth to the Tree, which taught me that semiotics just doesn’t turn me on.

Another reason for stopping short with a book was its manifest unworthiness. A good example is Rodney Stark’s execrable The Victory of Reason, a polemic without redeeming social value. 

But most of these books I have read completely; a few of the best (such as Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization) I have read twice. 

You might notice that my Book Reviews for an average year do not add up to the 50 books per year I have averaged over my lifetime. That’s because my reading material has grown denser. In the early years I read a lot of straightforward history. That’s easy, fun, and fast reading. Nowadays I tend to meatier stuff, more analytical in nature, that doesn’t afford much in the way of page-turning.

Another factor in the slowdown of my reading is the greater integration of my existing knowledge with what I’m reading. When reading a history of the American revolution, for example, I could just let the information pour into my mind, but nowadays I must compare and contrast everything I read with what I already know. This comparative process is the source of many deep insights, but it slows down the process. Nowadays reading for me is a more contemplative process.

However, a new problem has arisen: my bookshelves are full. Here’s a photo of my main shelves taken four years ago:


As you can see, the shelving was almost full then. I have other bookshelves in the bedroom and my office. But I have now reached capacity, and rather than just buy more bookshelves, I decided that it was time to cull the library. 

I expected this to be a painful process, but a simple rule made it easier: if the likelihood that I’ll read the book again is near zero, then out it goes. This is another manifestation of my recognition of my mortality. Do I really think that I’ll be consulting my grad school textbook on quantum mechanics in the future? No: out it goes.

Even so, getting rid of books has been a sorrowful experience. Out go the Feynmann Lectures on Physics (sniffle). Goodbye to Godel, Escher, Bach. Back issues of Foreign Affairs; Associative Neural Memories; The Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose — all these and many more went into the discard pile. 

There were still plenty of books that I’m not likely to re-read, but I just couldn’t part with. Lots of small paperbacks kept their places because they take up so little space. This included a lot of military history and a group of Dover classics from antiquities. All in all, the cull amounted to only about 10% of the library. Now I have several shelves of free space.

While going through all the books, I noticed some that I hadn’t read in years that bear re-reading, I think. The Evolution of the Prehistoric State looks like it could offer me new insights based on my current state of knowledge. Same thing goes for The Artful Mind. In fact, I pulled about a dozen books out for re-reading. 

And this morning I ordered Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning, about a new concept in cognitive science called ’the embodied mind’. Once again my bedstand will creak under the weight of books to read.