It’s coming on New Year’s and now it’s time. I’ve let it go so long, the cull, but enough is enough. Though even as I type that word I recognize that much will depend on what is deemed “enough.” I’m talking about books, about winnowing the shelves, getting rid of things no longer wanted or needed.
It’s so easy to describe it this way, as if one were putting away the summer clothes. But as any book-person knows, there is nothing easy about the actual doing: pulling out a book, looking at it, quickly assessing your life—your memories and ideals—in terms of it. I’ve been making hundreds of such decisions here in the attic today. Each private confrontation—yes/no— has marked a further refinement of my sense of who I’ve become. Each has been a confrontation with time.
When I first acquired any one of these books, I was, I realize, placing a small bet on futurity, the imagined time of reading. I was also acting on some aspirational idea of myself—who I was, what I might further in myself by reading this—or this, or this. Holding each book now, looking at each cover, I can’t help but flash for an instant on who I was when I bought it. A student, a greedily ambitious reviewer who thought he had to read everything, a keeper of private devotions, a teacher thinking toward next term’s syllabus, a friend of this or that writer, a friend who was long ago gifted on his birthday by someone . . .
I look back on the morning’s decisions, all the “never agains” I arrived at, each a story. For instance, I’m not likely ever to meet up with my old, once-dear college friend who thought I should read The Red and the Black, which I then did read—but so many years ago, and which frankly I’m not likely to read again. Sad to think of the friend so long gone from my life. Sad, too, to see myself as someone who will probably never spend time with Julian Sorel again. Should I keep the book as a memento of that friend, that long-ago immersion and all the thoughts and feelings that went with it?
It goes in the maybe pile.
The maybe pile, as you might imagine, is much taller than either the keep or the donate pile. It’s easy enough to pounce on a sure keeper or a sure discard. I would never give away my Infinite Jest, though the likelihood of my re-reading it diminishes by the day. But also, why on earth should I hang on to these two volumes of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice? Though, it’s true, I can at a stretch picture myself at some point daydreaming over that ardently descriptive prose . . . another maybe, then. But definitely not this study of Cubism, and also not these essays by D. H. Lawrence, much as I can half-picture myself going back. But I do have other books by Lawrence. And if push came to shove I could order the book for $5. Done!
Back to the maybes. This is where the confrontations with self, and self’s future, come in. Those books I read for all those years of teaching—how likely are those future classes? And look, here is Malcolm Lowry’s Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid. I will not go back to it, though I surely will spend more time with Under the Volcano. But I like the look, the feel of it, the memories that have collected around it—not memories of the book so much, but memories of long ago working as a book dealer and finding it at one of the library sales I used to go to—memories of who I was when I was besotted with Lowry.
These maybes have to be resolved one way or the other; that’s the rule. So I try out a few of my more stringent criteria. Have I so much as opened this in the last five years? If the house were on fire and I had to grab and grab quickly . . . ? After a few forced decisions, I reach a point where the divesting gets easier. Okay, who cares? Go on—take them all!
But this is enough now. It’s time to be out with the old and in with the new. Auld lang syne.
This culling game, you see, has a Janus aspect, clarifying ourselves to ourselves via our imaginings of both past and future. We oust what we feel we no longer want or need, but at the same time what we decide to keep also says a great deal about what we still imagine for ourselves. And indeed, in some mysterious way, the psychological value of every book we do keep is increased by all the books we have voted out. Those books tell on us.
For years I’ve had the fantasy of a compact library in which each book has earned its rightful place, whether as a book I genuinely intend to read, or a book which I must re-read because it held so much. I would of course also keep books of proven private value. These do not need to be read again but are sure triggers of recollection—of a time in my life, a friend, a zeitgeist. I have only to glance at the cover of The Catcher in the Rye to recall the turbid moods of my teen years. One Hundred Years of Solitude finds me crouching in the aisle of Borders Book Shop in Ann Arbor in 1973. The opening sentence, with its “Many years later” construction, has made my head spin. Literature as time travel, as mythic dream . . .
So, what categories of books am I keeping? In other words, how do I see myself in these next years? I can say that certain preferences, possibly obvious ones, have announced themselves. Novels, for example, fall to the scythe far more readily than books of poetry. After years of binging on poetry, “getting it,” I hit a long period during which I had too little patience. Busy adulthood: assignments, children . . . I could no longer relax into the necessary receptivity. I was bent on things, living headlong. Now, for whatever reason, some of that earlier feeling—and appetite—have come back. I was excited to set aside collections by Szymborska, Bidart, Bishop, and many others.
But I was even more heartened to come upon my Rilke, Eliot, Stevens . . . The time has clearly come for spending time with my wise ones, for re-reading Four Quartets and The Duino Elegies. You might be getting the drift now. If younger years (many years) were exploratory, a search for whatever clicked, now is the time for living with my affinities. All those books I finished, thinking, _One day I will really come back and really read this . . . _for that to happen there has to be time and concentration. This understanding underlies the cull. The newly winnowed shelf expresses my will: to zero in, to go deep.
There are, of course, the writers I think of as holding special wisdoms for me: W. G. Sebald, Simone Weil, Czeslaw Milosz, Virginia Woolf, Walter Benjamin, Herman Melville, James Joyce, Henry James, Proust_ . . ._ I apologize if I’m serving up what sounds like a canonic syllabus. But there it is. I have for many decades read and reviewed my contemporaries, and I still keep up with the work of the moment by vetting thousands of submissions to AGNI. But privately I’m looking for the writers who will take me as deep as I can go. Emerson, Baldwin, Dostoevsky, Yourcenar, Musil—I know I’m forgetting dozens.
So yes, this day before New Year’s I spend inching along the attic shelves, hunching over one book and another, enduring the recriminations from my various younger selves, sighing over the hours wasted on the ones that never came to much, wondering just how much good I got from reviewing all those books. Wondering, of course, what becomes of the books we devoted hours to, careful hours with pencil and pad, the ones that now call up the barest trace of recognition. Was there good in that work? Does a residue remain?
Tomorrow I will load these boxes of relinquished books—a sizable portion of my past—and drive to the nearby donation bin. There, one by one, I will stuff them through the narrow slot, which I imagine as the reverse of the original occasion, when I ran my gaze sideways along the yards of whatever shelves, every now and then excitedly extracting a book from its place in the row.
Then, done, I will drive back home, feeling at once rueful and somehow clarified. As if I can now finally get on with whatever is next.
Sven Birkerts is coeditor of AGNI. He is the author of ten books: An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (William Morrow), The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (William Morrow), American Energies: Essays on Fiction (William Morrow), The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Readings (Graywolf), My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011), and Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf, 2015). He has edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Writers and the Muse (Graywolf) as well as Writing Well (with Donald Hall) and The Evolving Canon (Allyn & Bacon).
He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1985 and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. Birkerts has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Mirabella, Parnassus, The Yale Review, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. (updated 10/2022)