When I moved into my current office several years ago, I regarded three walls of bookshelves with some satisfaction. Certainly there was room here for all of my books and room for many more! I arranged my shelves in thematic cluster: one massive medieval section, an even larger early modern British area that runs from one wall to another, primary source (in chronological order), and so forth. I even left room here and there for new acquisitions while also leaving the perilous and unreachable top shelves empty.
Fast forward several years and almost all the bookshelves are full. Yet I still keep buying books. While I personally prefer ebooks for pleasure reading and as teaching texts, I can’t lend those to students – one of the major reasons behind my academic book buying! – so I keep an eye out for sales at my favourite presses while also buying must-have books for my many teaching subjects. The result is overfull bookshelves and I’m still a good fifteen years away from retirement.
I essayed a little shelf-cleaning and clearing the other week between class time and a department meeting. I could, with some further work, clear out about four linear feet of books, perhaps six feet, from the office. I’d be culling the books that students won’t really need like 1950s editions of Renaissance texts or that I’m never going to cite in my own research like collections of economic history analyses from the eighties. I’d have to be wildly unsentimental in the process, something with which I usually have no troubles but with books, well, it’s tough. They bring back all the memories, especially if they were a gift or a hand-me-down but even those books chance-gotten at thrift sales or from a pile of discards can become familiar friends just by my seeing their spine on the shelves many years after they were first acquired and read.
We have a bench by the department with a perpetual sign pasted over it: “Free Books!” Usually some prof lays down a few or a few dozen in any given week and they’re all instantly snapped up. I need to remind myself that any books I discard will be soon snatched up by someone else and get to the work of winnowing my collection. Wish me luck!