This is a story of learning how to discard books. I’ll tell you why it happened, and then how I handled the imperative for different book collections in my library, and finally where it has left my state of mind.
January: A burst pipe in the alcheringa
After I changed careers from academia to tech, I began a long, swampy trudge to find work as a programmer. But once I did find it, I observed myself yielding somewhat to my wife’s entreaties to get rid of at least some of my scholarly library. Reason was hers, because sections of the library are in fields I’m certain I’ll never work in again. Someone else, somewhere, could surely use those books, and for our part we would like to reclaim some of the cubic yards they occupy. In 2014, not long after finding my first coding job, I contacted a large academic society about donating them and started cataloguing them, but work pressures left me little time — what time I had I coveted for more immediate rewards.
At the end of this January, when I was in a state of anguish over a corrosive work environment, Heaven sent a solution (in characteristic dreamtime fashion). I had noticed for some weeks that the boards in our dining room floor were uneven. (I know now that I was being nudged to notice the unevenness in my own emotional floor.) The problem turned out to be a burst radiator pipe, inaccessible underfoot. Recognizing that I might soon burst a hidden pipe of my own, I resigned the job and before long we had the floor ripped up.
There turned out to be very interesting things under the floors of this 107-year-old building! Piles of garbage from the construction process a century ago, among other things. Much of that has decomposed into soil, but there were bits of paper, wood, broken brick and so on. It was wet from the leaking radiator steam, but the floor stayed open for weeks and the soil dried out. The Super and his workers decided not to remove what was under the floor and eventually sealed it up again.
In order to fix the warped floorboards, our entire dining room had to be emptied. It housed several thousand scholarly books tightly packed in a cluster of bookcases. In order to move the bookcases, within the passage of a week or so I handled every last one of the books. The awakened dust stung my fingertips. Once the floor was repaired and refinished, I handled all those thousands of books a second time, and by then I knew I was going to get rid of many of them. I did not yet know how.
February: Books banished to an adoptive home
In late February, after the floor was first ripped up, I took a hundred or more math and programming books to the Recurse Center for immediate, forcible adoption.
The heuristics for keeping programming books were easy to set: Some are useful because they write about ideas, or because they’re good reference on fact. I have kept most of those. But others are hard to place in terms of these two features. When I was in doubt, books met with banishment.
I tried to recognize when I wanted to a book only because I’m interested in the subject but feel insecure about my knowledge of it. If I think the book useful only out of insecurity, that’s a poor reason. Such a book is neither philosophy nor reference. Many such books have now left my possession.
A small mass of books deal with Turing and Bletchley, from research for an unfinished blog post. Those have stayed — interpreting my motives, it seems I believe the blog post will yet be written.
Some programming books are beautifully designed but not useful — those were all banished.
All the algorithm and theoretical CS books are still living with me, I find. Of those, all but one have been useful at various times and fun to read. But SICP — and its (much more interesting) instructor’s manual — are now living with a friend. I don’t think I’ll see them again.
I had thought of limiting myself to keeping just 20 programming books. I think I ended up with eighty or so. Possibly that is a tactical failure. There is also the loudening claim that on-line documentation is better than any printed volume. I can’t discuss the general assertion, but I know of specific counterexamples — some of those counterexamples still have residency permits in my home — Cormen et al., Kernighan and Pike, The LaTeX Companion, The Python Essential Reference, and others. Some books contain one or two really splendid chapters that justify keeping the whole volume — Mertz’s Text Processing in Python, for instance. Some are useless for reference but superb for wandering around in — the Knuth Art of Computer Programming volumes, Lopes’s Exercises in Programming Style.
March: “Ordinary” books
Dealing with ordinary, non-scholarly but also non-programming books has been more difficult. I have had to learn to throw books actually and finally away. Several dozen I abandoned initially on a nearby street corner — most were taken in by kind strangers on short order. Others were destroyed there by rain or feet.
Some of the books that I am no longer willing to keep I have owned since high school — forty years or so. A few of those I gave away to a friend, a bad idea, as it is easier to do than throwing them away on the street and requires less reflection. I mean that books seem more likely to be read if I hand them off to someone. Another issue is that ease of disposal obscures the essential poison of a book — its physical form suggests that it contains concentrated wisdom, but it may actually hold nothing but hokum.
Books that have come down to me from my father and grandfather but that I will certainly never read, books that I bought as a teenager and that shaped me early, books that I have read dozens of times, books that I have never read but imagine contain something good — many of those are now out of my possession. Others rest in a special place of limbo, awaiting judgment.
One book in limbo is Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, which I have owned from my teens. It was, in its day, an essential once-volume reference book — filled with odd details about culture and literature. I don’t think anyone would use such a book today except in the paper form that allows a particular kind of manual random access, “browsing”: leisurely grazing and at moments rooting for truffles. Right now it is hard to imagine either keeping or discarding this book. I have interred it among the limbo books, to be resurrected and called to judgment later. Perhaps I’m doing in my library what the construction workers did with the garbage under our floorboards.
I also own the Standard Dictionary of Facts, which my grandfather used to peddle door-to-door when he had been in the United States just three years or so. It came with a Standard Question Book and Home Study Outlines, which offered trivia questions, answered by page-numbers of the Standard Dictionary where you could find the information. The earliest copyright notice is 1908; my grandfather wrote his name on a flyleaf in November, 1924. The preface to the Standard Question Book begins:
The days of the cave man have passed. Physical strength no longer gives prowess to the individual. What the twentieth century demands is the trained intellect. The man who knows is the man of the hour.
My grandfather loved trivial detail, as do I. How could I remember him in full — the old man I knew, grown from out of the young man who owned and peddled this book — except in part through his copy of the book itself? All his life he believed that these words “twentieth century” meant humanity was finally going to do new and different things — that idea was deeply imprinted on him. But he died in 1992, before the World Wide Web or smartphones — before the modern world came into being. I wonder if he would have remained as optimistic about the twenty-first century as he was about the twentieth. I do not think I am as optimistic now as he was at my age. At the age I am now, he founded a business, which he ran for twenty years. I've been wondering for most of a year if I will do the same thing soon.
March: Scholarly books
Dealing with my scholarly library has been most difficult of all. I began facing that struggle in mid-March. I doubt I will act until I find either a buyer or some kind of reasonable home for these books. Individually, many of them are of little interest except to a specialist. Collectively, they represent a considerable well of negative entropy, and I would like to preserve the order in that arrangement somehow.
Most of the dialectology books must go to someone who will use them. Some are pretty rare. I stopped doing comparative-historical fieldwork in 2006. I have all the materials I need to work on some unfinished dialectology projects deriving from that labor, and I’m still active in Taiwanese (and in fact very interested in it), but if I keep just a small subset of Taiwanese materials, they will suffice.
I am preparing to get rid of many copies of classical texts, all but those few that interest me particularly. Modern Taiwan and China produce serviceable reading editions — somewhat comparable to the Loeb Classics — with corrected texts, scholia (which the Loebs lack), a Mandarin translation, and exegetical commentary. These version are looked steeply down upon by most Western scholars — but at the same time most Western scholars I know have a large collection of them, sometimes hidden where students and colleagues can’t see them. I, however, have no one to impress with the false purity of my library. Keeping mostly just the Chinese “Loebs” leaves me with a lean but nutritious reference library of classical and medieval texts.
Epigraphy (the study of the ancient script and inscriptions) and historical phonology are troublesome, since I now think I’m unlikely to do major research or teaching in these areas, but they are connected with etymology as practiced in Chinese, which remains a major interest. Worse, many of these books are dictionaries — and whether or not to discard dictionaries is the most vexed of questions, since lexicographic history has been one of my research interests, and sometimes you can’t decide anything unless you have access to a particular edition. Rimebooks (yùnshū 韻書), it appears, I am keeping for the most part. My teacher left me some that had come down to him from his own teacher; I can’t see parting with any of those — they combine sentimental and research interest.
April: Discarding tools, keeping tools
It is harder for me to throw away a dictionary than any other kind of book.
Two of the large reference works important to my sinological work are the Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 漢語大詞典 and le Grand Ricci 利氏漢法辭典, both multiple volumes. I have both both of them on my phone now, occupying as close to no space as possible. What does that mean about whether or not I should keep the paper copies, which occupy two cubic feet and weigh more than I can lift without bursting a gut? And what does it mean that those two sets happen to be in the background when I am conducting technical interviews over Skype? The presence of these books in my life has been advertised to hundreds of prospective Recurse Center people that way.
Most academic libraries I have visited simply discard old dictionaries as though they were out-of-date cellphones. No dictionary app or on-line dictionary tool I’ve used very much includes all the prefaces and other meta-content of the original. Exceptionally, the on-line Oxford English Dictionary includes the 7000-word preface to the third edition (2000) and a more recent 1200-word update (2007), but it isn’t obvious how to find them. And all earlier prefatory matter is gone. The New Oxford American Dictionary is the source of the “Dictionary” app that comes built-in on the modern Apple operating system, but there is no trace of the front matter of the original work.
And will I always have access to the apps and websites that serve the dictionary data itself? It’s hard to be really sure of that.
I think my nascent strategy is to keep a modest core library in paper form. If I have to flee New York, at best I’ll probably have only my phone with me. But I can stay, or can leave at a measured pace, some paper will stay with me.
For a long time I have been struggling with the conflict between paper and electronic forms. A diary note from some years back remarks that when I read a physical book, sometimes I find myself glancing at the corner of a printed page to see the time, as though it were a screen. Competing instincts are in collision as my grandfather’s century meets mine.
In the process of examining each book, I removed hundreds of old bookmarks, nearly all left in place from past research projects, though not all the passages I had marked ended up being used. Remembering the research question that led to each being placed is like looking through old photographs. I don’t see how to do that with PDFs or documents in app form.
It is now late April, three months since the radiator’s apoplexy. Undertaking the project to discard books, I am finding many interesting ones I haven’t read in years — in some cases, volumes I bought to read but never did, and the intention itself was buried along with the book. For the first time in years I am reading quite a bit every day.
So something is happening to me, some element of convalescence from my unhappy corporate experiences of late. Since the burst radiator pipe (to those who choose to divine from it) intimates a state of being that calls for repair of hidden damage, for me to cut back my weighty library seems to be metaphorically in order and even urgent — like losing weight after a mild stroke.
Even so, I am still not spending time every day doing much of the personal coding and scholarship I have decided is most important for me to do now. That means I haven’t yet learned the most important lesson offered to me by my sojourn into and out of Corporatia.
Soon it will be May: Wolves
These days I have been listening to keyboard music of Sweelinck, a little-heard master composer of a century before Bach. This fine video, Irene De Ruvo playing the “Fantasia Chromatica”, features a major composition rich in non-diatonic melody, performed in the wrenching meantone temperament. Meantone is not intended for chromaticism, and “wolves” appear — harmonic intervals whose overtones seem to howl because they deviate from expected consonances. It is for the ear as looking through imperfect lenses is for the eye, and it very much suits my mood.
(I find that “wolf” is the name in all the European languages I’ve examined, including Magyar, for this phenomenon.)