I don’t know how many books I own. I’ve never counted. They are not few in number. They get shuffled around, moved here and there, set aside and dug out again. Some have sat on the same shelves for years, untouched. Some wind up in a different room of the house every week or two. Some get given to the local public library for its book sales, at which I buy more books to replace the ones I got rid of. If a personal library has no ebb and flow to it, no immigrants and emigrants, it’s no longer home to a working reader.
An interview I did a while back got me thinking about which books I’m really attached to—as physical objects, as codices—and why. There are expensive hardbacks I would happily give away and cheap softcovers that I will cherish long after they fall apart (and some have). The Anchor paperback of The Secret Agent, the one I read in 8th grade, the one whose glue binding has lived up to its cheap reputation, has more value in my library than an early 20th-century copy of Quentin Durward, which has lovely illustrations but never mattered to me as a story.
Alexander Halavais, an associate professor of communications at Quinnipiac University, took a more dramatic approach than mine to culling and tending his library. He decided to undertake his own book-digitizing project. He’s been taking books from his collection, slicing off the spines, and scanning the texts, which he keeps as digital files. You can read more about how and why he does this on his blog, A Thaumaturgical Compendium. Here I’ll just say that it’s a combination of space constraints (small NYC apartment plus toddler plus 5,000 books equals time for something to go), a desire to simplify and declutter, and a recognition that different books have different uses.
Not all of Halavais’s books go on the chopping block. He spares the special ones: fiction, art books, unique volumes (for instance, his mother’s copy of Das Kapital with her marginalia in it). Most of what he’s scanned is nonfiction he might want to look at for research purposes—Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital, for instance—but has no special need to keep around in print form.
I enjoyed talking to Halavais about his project. He’s a bibliophile, and he feels a little bad about what he’s doing. “I’m over a thousand books in, and even now I get that—especially with hardcovers, for some reason—that gut feeling of ‘Will I be judged by the book gods for doing this?’” he told me. “Destroying books is very difficult.”
I’m not likely to try it myself any time soon but what Halavais is doing doesn’t bother me. I may be in the minority, though. One person who commented on the article found the slice-and-scan idea “abhorrent.” Another said, “I find myself both fascinated and horrified. I’ve thought about digitizing some of my 4000+ books, but could never muster the strength of will to destroy them in the process.”
Could you do it? How attached are you to your books? Which ones matter most to you and why?