I have a problem that needs fixing. I am a bibliophile with limited space on my shelves.

I have put off this problem for a long time wishing that it would go away by itself, but now I urgently need to make space for new pages which will inevitably encroach upon my small apartment.

One way to fix the situation would be to get new bookshelves with more space. Another way would be to pile the books I have amassed in some sort of crystalline close-packing form in storage ottomans. To a certain extent, I have employed both tactics, but short of moving into a larger home –and I dread the thought of lugging around the books I’ve already amassed – the fact remains that the dimensions of my physical space will not change.

I do read words in digital format on the multiplicity of devices I have accrued, and this certainly has made carrying around hundreds and even thousands of books convenient. However, many of the real books I own have a history of their own, have been out of print, or were bought second-hand for a pittance. In addition, none of the books I own in Bangla are available in digital format. Others, like my marked-up copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, have sentimental value.

For the longest time, I thought of shipping some of the books I’d already read back to the home I grew up in. I’d love to revisit some of those books, but am also quite certain that I won’t be able to do so anytime soon. For as Richard Ford astutely noted, “rereading’s actually an expensive and baulky luxury, since our roads are already lined with all those books we haven’t even read the first time and that have a first claim on us if we could ever get to them.”

I was never overly concerned that it would cost me more to ship the books than it cost me to purchase them in the first place. The worth of a book has no direct relation to the price that was paid for it. However, in the end, I decided against having my bulky books shipped across the oceans to a house, which I will visit, perhaps, for a couple of days every few years, a house which is no longer my home.

So, the problem remained and I decided that the only way to tackle it was to discipline myself and to clean up my shelves sorting out what I would give away to others. Well, that was much easier said than done. Giving up old magazines took little time, because I could convince myself that with the steady flow of information in more current issues, I would never have the time to revisit the old ones. Books presented a more difficult predicament.

There were books I had bought but never read. There were books that I had read, which I promised myself I would read again. There were books I wanted to nibble on from time to time. There were ones I wanted on my shelf for no particular logical reason. And there was my bound dissertation which was a reminder of an era of my life more than any reference: it had a very short shelf-life in the world of scientific advances. I literally had to have a conversation with myself when deciding the fate of each one.

For even though I prided myself in being a swift reader, I knew it would be impossible to pay attention to every book on the shelf. Just as a starving man wants to keep a pantry full of various types of comestibles, ever since I’ve been employed, I’ve created a smorgasbord for my omnivorous reading habits. I always dreaded not having a choice and as a consequence I have hoarded.

The fear that I would have absolutely nothing interesting to read was not entirely unfounded. After school was out one summer, I had been so starved of reading material, that I spent weeks reading random entries in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, an act which in hindsight, is probably only a few notches above copying the text word for word (performed by the fictitious Jabez Wilson in the “The Red-Headed League”). At the time, I had clearly run out of books to read and the means to restock my shelves.

Thinking of Encyclopaedia Britannica does bring back memories! You of the Expedia, Wikipedia, and crowdsourcing generation have no idea the aura of prestige owning a set of Micropaedia, Macropaedia, and Propaedia conferred on the owner. Just as hosts show off their fine china or DVD collection these days, my father showed guests our bookshelves. It was not Collier’s, Funk and Wagnall’s, or the World Book encyclopedia that we owned: we owned a set of Britannica. It was The Encyclopaedia and it damn well took up an entire wall.

That is just how things were back then. We went to the Encylopaedia when faced with intractable geeky problems, and we left usually unsatisfied.

In a perverse way thinking of the Encylopaedia Britannica gathering dust on a bookshelf in the home I grew up in, its pages now yellow and the information obsolete, made the task of sorting the books I need to part with much easier.


6 thoughts on “Shelf-space

  1. Very well put across.
    I had a similar problem in my heyday. So long as I continued to toe the corporate line, space took care of itself at the drop of a hat, for, without realising the circumstances, I was being kicked upstairs, with more commodious accommodations till…….
    Had to pack 90% of my books in ploy-lined wooden crates and leave the lot in my ageing/ ailing mother’s house.
    Had to burn the entire lot, tearfully, four years later, for the more active bookworms got the better of the entire lot.
    I made a habit of filing many books away between my rabbit ears.

    1. Good post. Most of the magazines I subscribe to have online archives that go back many decades (and Harper’s goes back to 1850). I agree that reading old issues is fun and informative.

      If you’re interested, please check out my project on old books and magazines:

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