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How many books is too many books?

By March 19, 2019No Comments

Source : The Hindu – SUNDAY MAGAZINE    –    Jerry Pinto

Books have an infinite capacity to change how we think and live, but they are also finite objects with dimensions

There was a time when I knew exactly how many books I had. I carried a list around because I wanted to know because my budget for books was my budget for living. I managed everything else so that I should have money for books and I didn’t want to duplicate books. How can you duplicate books, you might ask, if you have only two or three hundred? Easily enough if you find a book by P.G. Wodehouse called The Cat-nappers , enter into a long haggling session with the road-side second-hand book-seller, finally arrive at a decent price, get into the train, find a window-seat, take out the book and discover that you have bought the American edition of Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen .

Today, I am not sure how many books I have, and I would buy that version of the Wodehouse just to see what the editors had got up to. There are dozens of books I have bought, some from the streets, some from the shops, ‘just to see’. This was not the way it was, not the way I was. I would only buy if I could be reasonably sure I would keep the book. This means knowing that I would return to the book, would want to read it again.

Perhaps the change has something to do with the way my relationship with books has changed. To begin with, re-reading is a luxury these days. Those books are clamouring for my attention and when I am done, most of the time, I know I will not return to the book and so I have to look for a place for it.

Now this should be easy but it is not. Many of my friends who have lost their parents call up and say that they have books to give away, could I please find a library that would take them. Sometimes this is because they know I am a trustee of the People’s Free Reading Room and Library, sometimes it is because I am a book person. Most of the time I have to tell them that most libraries don’t have room.

Imposing monuments

It is true that the great libraries of the world were built by donations, but it is also true that they were built at a time when it seemed that people and politicians and even kings believed in making books available to the public. Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III, for instance, was impressed by the public library system in the United States, and got William Borden (classmate of Melvil Dewey, who invented the Dewey Decimal System) over to help develop libraries in the State of Baroda. You look at the buildings that housed the libraries built back in the day and you can see that they were meant to be imposing monuments to learning. Perhaps they were also meant to impress the user into a position of subservience and quietness and respectful silence, but they were built so that more books could be added as you went along.

But even those big buildings have their limits. Books have an infinite capacity for changing the way we think and the way we live, but they are also finite objects with dimensions. You can end up with too many books and then you want to give them away. You’re done with Ayn Rand? But then so are 10,000 other people of your generation, and they have all been giving their copies ofThe Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged to the same libraries you’re thinking of. And so most libraries can give you no guarantee that the books you give them will end up on their shelves. After all, they have to invest a certain amount of time in accessioning a book, entering it into the catalogue, classifying it and putting it on the shelves. If it is not read, it will have cost them that much money in time of human labour.

Most heartbreaking are the once-loved collections of aunts and fathers and grandparents which are now simply no longer wanted by the younger generations.

Book hunger

Sometimes they take the best books, the first editions if they are intelligent, or the books that look like they are old and expensive if they are not. Then they ask you if you know a place which will take the World Book Encyclopedia of 1964 or the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1975.

“It’s a full set,” they say. “And things have not changed that much, you know…”

No? I want to say. Then perhaps your children could use it?

Anyway, sometimes it is possible to find recipient libraries because we are a nation of book hunger, but often it is difficult to find ways in which to get books—paper can be remarkably heavy, as anyone who has tried to heft a schoolchild’s satchel will know—to the mofussil.

Thanks to Marie Kondo and her kind, there is now much interest in getting rid of things. This was not so in an earlier generation where everything from bits of string to old underwear was kept because it might ‘come in handy some day’.

The resultant clutter was enormous, as anyone who has tried to clear up an older person’s house will know. Libraries then find that they have been handed everything from laundry lists to college guides to the classics.

The urge to clean out has one concomitant problem: you have to put the clutter out of your space, and if it does not go into someone else’s where it will be used, it will become dirt.

Can a book be dirt? If it is in the wrong place, it is. My solution is to give my old books to places which have jumble sales. If an Indian is willing to pay something for a book, it is in the right place. In a reader’s hands. Again.

The author tries to think and write and translate in the cacophony of Mumbai.

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