Last weekend I spent an afternoon culling the closet. To the recycling bin, ready for pulping, I moved two and a half shelves’ worth of Poetry, Paris Review, Sewanee Review, Boulevard, Ploughshares and other space-consuming excess. My resolve choked when it came to The New Criterion and Commentary, rare journals worth rereading. Then I restocked the newly empty shelves with some of those dangerous and unsightly book-stalagmites. Along the way I pulled recent acquisitions I was certain I would never read, even a computer book some misguided publisher’s rep had sent me. I have no qualms about thinning the herd when it comes to topical trash or anything about current events. I thought of an observation made more than two centuries ago by the great French aphorist Chamfort, né Sébastien-Roch Nicolas (born on this date, April 6, in 1741): “Most books of the day seem to have been written in one day from books read the day before.” This is from a book I didn’t discard, Products of the Perfected Civilization: Selected Writings of Chamfort (trans. W.S. Merwin, North Point Press, 1984).
Another admirer of Chamfort, Joseph Epstein, has written several times about the tough choices involved in reducing one’s personal library (published together they would comprise an oblique and interesting autobiography of a reader). One of the best of these reports is “The Opinionated Librarian” in Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life (Oxford University Press, 1979), written while Epstein was editor of The American Scholar and wrote a monthly essay under the pseudonym Aristides. He turns book-pulling into drama and comedy:
“A book in one’s own library is in a sense a brick in the building of one’s being, carrying with it memories, a small block of one’s personal intellectual history, associations unsortable in their profusion. Yet this building from time to time needs landscaping, tuckpointing, sandblasting.”
On occasion, Epstein’s essay serves as a how-to guide to permanent book removal. If the volume in question falls into the categories of “books I have read but do not expect to ever to return to” or “books I have bought but have not yet got around to reading for the first time,” well: heave-ho. Wisely, Epstein retain his A.J. Liebling (“the superior New Yorker writer”) collection, and vows to expand it. Before he finishes the essay, Epstein is already plotting which volumes he still hopes to acquire – more Beerbohm, those missing Bagehot volumes, All the King’s Men. He confesses:
“I should like to acquire all these books—and countless others. Is there no end to all this, short of death? Probably not.”