First, you have to identify the keepers. A book is safe in my home if it meets any of the following criteria:
- a) I like it.
- b) I like its author.
- c) I intend to like it when I get around to reading it.
- d) It’s a classic.
- e) It has sentimental value.
- f) It’s autographed (e.g., my long-dead grandfather’s personalized copy of J. Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight It).
- g) Its premise amuses me (I Was Jacqueline Kennedy’s Dressmaker).
A book’s days on my shelf are probably numbered if any of the following are true:
- a) It has monetary value. (I once sold an old Charlotte’s Web with a ripped dust jacket and an early-edition jacketless Hemingway to an antiquarian bookseller for $200; almost as valuable was the three inches of shelf space I gained.)
- b) It’s serving as what one “Seinfeld” episode called a “trophy” — a prize for having read it.
- c) It’s a galley.
- d) It’s a remainder.
- e) It’s a library edition.
- f) It has “Book of the Month Club” on it.
- g) It has written-on pages and/or torn-off bits of cover.
- h) It was built by a book-making robot.
Re: c) through h): I’ve spent enough time working in bookstores over the years to know that such volumes rarely have resale value. And yes, I see that this argument fights with a).
“But what if I like those books?” you say. Well, then check them out at your library. You have too many books too, you know.
It’s now time for you to start reading whatever’s left on your shelves. It’s like that “I Love Lucy” episode: for some larky reason, refrigerator-deficient Lucy and Ethel have so much perishable food on hand that they have no choice but to eat it. Actually, that never happened on “I Love Lucy,” but it might have, and it should have, to bolster my point.
If you read a book from your shelves and dislike it, then this is a good day for you: now you can ditch it. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up strenuously disliking a book by an until-now untried author whose work you have in multiplicity. I’m not naming names, but fairly recently I read a fat, exalted novel and had the pleasure of getting rid of it and its shelf neighbors too. This is your grand opportunity to take a position on an author, your stance apparent by virtue of his or her name’s comprehensive omission from your bookshelves. Take that, [redacted].
The all-or-nothing approach to author retention can present problems. I’m holding on to my copy of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room — I didn’t adore it, but come on: it’s a classic, it took forever to read, and maybe there’s something to Seinfeld’s book-equals-trophy idea — and yet I have serious doubts that I will like the other Marilyn French novel that I own, based on the dust flap description (which includes a giant typo; did not even the publisher care about this book?). When you have such a dilemma, and you will, it’s best to move on to another probable candidate for the axe.
Sometimes what seems like a sure thing will disappoint you. Take Sigrid Nunez’s Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury. Truth told, while I respect animals enough not to eat them, I don’t really like them. So what were the odds that I’d love this novel, which intoxicated me with its fine handling of Virginia and Leonard’s twilight-years affections as they doted on their weird pet? Alas, I had to keep it.
Not having any luck disliking a book? Take heart: if your collection is like mine, you may very well find a book on your shelf that is literally breaking. This is spectacular news. The Woman in White, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, What Maisie Knew — all three ended up in my recycling bin. The only catch is that you must read the book — in separate pieces, if necessary — before you recycle it because its binding probably wouldn’t be crumbling if it wasn’t at least half a century old, which means that someone, likely not even you, toted it around for decades, and maybe they even read it, and it would be a shameful waste of their energies, and, frankly, ungrateful of you to unceremoniously chuck it just for the sin of decomposing. (It can’t help decomposing.) Plus, you must’ve kept it on your shelf for a reason: don’t you want to know what you think of it? And yes, you do have to finish it. I’m still haunted by having started and abandoned The Good Earth twenty-five years ago. Fortunately, I lost the book. Otherwise what would I have done when I had to accommodate my recently deceased mother-in-law’s copy?
Because you’ve read this far, it seems only right to tell you now what I’ve come to realize after two years of seeking out shelf duds: you should really stop kidding yourself. You’ll always have more books than space for them. You’ll never achieve bookshelf equilibrium. You are up against too much. Older relatives will continue to die, and you’ll get their books. And look at that: there’s a box of free books on the sidewalk in your neighborhood. Who knew that Hoagy Carmichael wrote an autobiography? You can’t be expected to walk on by. And are you really supposed to resist owning both wide-load volumes making up Library of America’s Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and ’50s? Also, you are just the sort of idiot who would buy your bass-playing husband Stone Alone, the ex–Rolling Stone Bill Wyman’s five-hundred-page memoir, for Christmas. Where is your husband going to keep it: the refrigerator? There’s no room in there either, as Lucy and Ethel will tell you.
Nell Beram is a former Atlantic Monthly staff editor and coauthor of Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies (Abrams, 2013). Her writing has appeared at Salon and Slate and in The Threepenny Review, V magazine, and elsewhere.