Ex Libris: The Counting of the Books
By Steve Donoghue
If you’re lucky – and if you aren’t selflessly devoting your time to things like emergency medical services or highway safety or the long-haul trucking on which so much of the rest of the season depends – the holidays represent an island of rest. True, you might have lots of traveling to do, family rounds to make along with their concomitant obligations, but if you’re lucky, the daily jangle of hours and schedules and deadlines has largely fallen silent and might even stay that way until the new year.
It’s certainly like that in the publishing-writing world. All the dozens of hard-working publicists I deal with every day under normal circumstances have set their email auto-replies, left their desks, and have long since made it to their distant destinations, ensconced with family and friends, blissfully unconcerned with upcoming titles or placating needy editors and freelancers. Editors and publishers have likewise dispersed to parts unknown. Deadlines are set for the new year. The year’s normal “EOB” – end of business – has been replaced with ICW – it can wait.
That in itself is a wonderful gift, when you think about it. It’s become a truism to point it out, but it’s nevertheless accurate: in our normal lives, most of us live a ‘plugged in’ existence like something out of a bad science fiction story from 60 years ago. We carry our emails, phones, and workplaces with us wherever we go. One result of this has been to make us all more productive than our hardest-working grandparents could have imagined. But another result, inevitably connected to the first, is that we’ve lost the clear sight of when we’re working and when we’re not. Unless you honestly, unironically love your work, that’s not healthy.
So it’s a pure blessing when the holidays roll around and suddenly so much of that jangle just stops. It’ll start back up again, but for now? For now, in addition to the joys of friends and loved ones and seasonal cheer, there’s also the simple happiness of no-strings relaxing.
Like everybody else, I keep a rolling mental list of things I’d love to do, if I were ever presented with just that kind of deadline-free period. My list is less ambitious than that of most people, I’m guessing – I’ve long since abandoned any daydreams about learning how to cook or crochet or garden. I’m a little too old to be sharpening my tennis game or brushing up my tango skills. You couldn’t lure me onto the ski slopes if you used an entire jar of MegaStuff Oreos.
But books? As you may have gathered from reading this column, I’m always interested in books.
One of the projects I’ve been putting off for a while is that dreaded word: inventory. About five years ago, I decided to down-size my personal library – and to take it seriously this time, not just continue to pick and peck around the edges. My goal was to reduce by fully one-half what was then a fairly sizable collection.
I set some ground rules. First, obviously, I’d totally exempt my ‘work’ books – the wide bookcase filled with galleys and advance copies of upcoming books, the stock-in-trade I use as a book reviewer and Books section editor. In these pandemic-altered days, that bookcase usually has about 300 books on it (as opposed to the 1000 of pre-COVID days), always in flux, with titles extending some six months out from the present moment. If ever there were a bookcase that “didn’t count,” that was it!
Another rule: all doubles had to go. I’m OK – barely – with keeping multiple different editions of the same work, provided there’s some significant differences (editor, notes, edition, etc.) between them. But the idea of keeping two or three identical copies of the same book? On the flimsy pretense that “I might need it later” or “I might want to give somebody a copy”? Nope.
Same thing with gift books. For decades, I’ve warned people NOT to give me books as presents. It virtually never works out, and it leaves me with lots of well-intentioned gift books I don’t want. They all had to go, every last one of them.
Using rules like this, I managed to get rid of a fairly large amount of books in the last five years, and I took advantage of the holiday calm to walk around the shelves, iPad calculator in hand, assessing the state of affairs at the end of 2022.
The results? Well, this Christmas I had 4697 books on my shelves – which, I’m happy to report, is indeed about one-half the amount I had when I decided on this project. Roughly – which is about the best I can do when it comes to math – I went from 10,000 books on my shelves to 5000.
But in the meantime, another statistic had come charging onto the field: e-books! In my Apple iBooks library, I have 4119 books. In my Barnes & Noble Nook library, I have 3009 books. And in my Amazon Kindle library, I have a whopping 7882 books. That’s 15, 010 e-books. So while I’ve been cutting the size of my library in half, I’ve simultaneously been tripling it.
Which I can certainly live with! My e-books require no dusting, no boxing, no heaving and toting. They give no haven to mice or silverfish, no papercuts, no sneezing fits. One of them weighs the exact same amount as 15,000 of them. They all come with me whenever I go anywhere or have any obnoxious wait to endure. They can proliferate from now until Doomsday without a single complaint from me.
And the new inventory goal is obvious: let’s see if I can’t get that 5000 down to 2500 in just a year.