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Unpacking My Library

January 26, 2010

My brother and I were able to fantasize far more extravagantly about our parents’ tastes and desires, their aspirations and their vices, by scanning their bookcases than by snooping in their closets. Their selves were on their shelves.
~Anne Fadiman, ‘My Ancestral Castles’, Ex Libris

About once a year, I clean out all of my technical books (computer and programming manuals, cookbooks, instruction manuals, design books, camera books, etc) and give some away and sell others. The ‘Tech Book Giveaway’ has now been honored in at least 3 companies where I’ve worked. The rest are sold to several used bookshops. What’s left goes to Value Village or Goodwill.

I find this works out for a couple of reasons. Most programming books are out-of-date when published and archaic only a few years later. Since the used book stores won’t touch them (or give only a pittance), giving to colleagues makes more sense than giving them directly to Goodwill. They can squeeze a few last drops out of them before they move into obscurity. I try to move resources to the places they can do the most good when I can.

In case you’re wondering: the rules of the ‘Tech Book Giveaway’ (given in the annual email):

  • Respond by email only to me with what you want. No drive-by’s.
  • The books are free.
  • First come, first serve. No givebacks.
  • The books are not at my desk. I will respond to your email saying the book is available or already taken.
  • I don’t drive. It will take a week or two to bring them all in.
  • Not sure of a book? One word: Amazon.
  • No limit on the amount you can grab, but be mindful of your co-workers.
  • Feel free to pass this email along to other folk who might be interested.

These rules have been finely-tuned over the last 7-8 years to near-perfection. The only bug is I can’t take requests outside my immediate workplace without it taking up too much time.

I spend a lot of money on books. More than anyone should reasonably spend. Which, of course, brings me to today’s topic: Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books. This is the companion book to an exhibition of the same name that was displayed at The Urban Center in May 2009. The premise was simple: a series of photographs showcasing the ‘working’ libraries of prominent New York architects, along with an interview of how the books reflected not just their tastes, but how they approached their craft. To top it off, the book starts with Walter Benjamin’s famous essay Unpacking My Library.

For someone like me, this is pornography. Really Good pornography. Looking through the pictures and seeing books I’ve owned, still own, and want to own was bittersweet. You could see which books had been loved to dog-eared death, which had been treated like they were fine jewels, which had been bought and then forgotten.

Each architect approached their library from a different perspective. Some were avid collectors of rare books. Others were haphazard, buying only what interested them. One had a classification system so complicated it needed a diagram and a numbering system. Whatever the system used, each library had an astounding range of interests. Even though some had no core speciality, they all had distinct personalities.

I’ve taken pictures of my bookshelves before, and I always look back at them with a mixture of heartbreak, nostalgia, and respect. Heartbreak for the books I had to sell to make room for more, nostalgia for the person I was, and respect for authors who’ve contributed so much to the human family.

Over the last few years, I’ve had a lot of financial difficulty. I’m glad to say that I’m finally coming to the end of that tunnel. If I can keep my nose to the grindstone, I may start 2011 with manageable debt, and start to have a real income again. There have been a lot of roadblocks. Barring emergencies (or nasty auditors), I have hope.

Part of this financial difficulty meant living in very cramped quarters with not a lot of space for books. This, as far as I can tell, has been a boon in disguise.

The architects in the book had libraries that were hundreds, sometimes thousands, of titles large. The smallest was 750 books, the largest was 6,000, and the average of the 10 libraries was 2743. All told, all 10 libraries had 27,425 books total.

Nobody has time to read that many books. If you could read 100 pages a day, and the average book clocks in at 300 pages (okay, an arbitrary number), you’d read 1217 books a year. But who has time to read 100 pages a day? Even if you read a book a week, it would take you 14 years to get through the smallest library in this collection.

So, my boon in disguise has been to accept the ephemerality of books. You can keep a library, but it’s utility, to me, seems to be in the knowledge you unlock, not the vanity of keeping books on shelves you have no intention of re-reading.

Also, that you can’t read everything you want to. No matter how many vegetables you eat, how many anti-aging pills you pop, how many laps you run, you will not absorb it all.

Now, the architects aren’t being vain. These are working libraries as much as personal ones. Many books are there not to be read cover-to-cover, but for as-needed reference, for them and their employees.

For my personal library, I’ve found that only the most important books have made the cut. Books I would like to re-read, books that have shaped me in ways I can’t even begin to describe. And my working library has slowly shrunk from an entire bookshelf down to only a few shelves. They are slowly being pared down to only what I need for the immediate moment.

My concept of a library has changed over the years as well. I used to keep my comics separate from the books, but I buy more comics in collected trades now. I also have to manage things like libraries of negatives and slides for my photography.

You know, I’d love to have a big library. A big house in Rosedale with wall-to-wall bookshelves filled with rare books and signed first editions. A basement rec room with cool filing cabinets stuffed with comics. An attic of cd’s and dvd’s. But I also want to roam around the world on a Harley with no fixed address. How do you reconcile irreconcilable dreams?

At some point you have to draw the line.

I’m drawing it at:

  • books I keep I’ve read
  • books I keep I’ve loved
  • books I keep help me do the things I love to do
  • I give books to folk who need them when I can

And that’s really all there is to it.

The last thing I really loved about Unpacking My Library is that each architect was asked to provide a list of 10 books they’d recommend to students of architecture. I’d like to slightly warp that, here, with a list of books that I love.

Just for the hell of it.

If you see one of these in a shop, a public library, a garage sale, or your parent’s attic, pick it up, try it out. Explore.

  1. Brian Andreas, Mostly True
  2. Nicole Brossard, She Would Be the First Sentence of My Next Novel
  3. Delacorta, Diva
  4. Lord Dunsany, At the Edge of the World
  5. William Gibson, Burning Chrome
  6. Tanya Huff, Stealing Magic
  7. Nancy Larrick (editor), On City Streets
  8. Barry Lopez, Winter Count
  9. Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable
  10. Georgia O’Keefe, Some Memories of Drawings
  11. Michael Ondaatje, In The Skin of A Lion
  12. Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
  13. Bronwen Wallace, Keep That Candle Burning Bright and Other Poems
  14. Richard Brautigan, Rommel Drives on Deep Into Egypt
  15. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
  16. Samuel Delany, Nova
  17. Annie Dillard, Living By Fiction
  18. A.E. Housman, The Works of A.E. Housman
  19. Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed
  20. Jacques Poulin, Spring Tides
  21. Sun Tzu, The Art of War (James Clavell translation)
  22. Roger Zelazny, Eye of Cat
One Comment leave one →
  1. February 24, 2010 7:11 am

    ‘In the Skin of a Lion’ is pure magic.

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