On one of the ubiquitous episodes of Seinfeld that populate late evening television fare, Jerry Seinfeld asks why people would keep books once they’ve read them. Apparently Jerry either doesn’t read many books or gets rid of them after he’s read them. Or perhaps he reads only books that he’s checked out of the library. Let’s hope he reads at least a few every now and then. He says that once he reads a book, he’s not interested in keeping it, and that he has no use for a book once read. I don’t know if that’s the opinion of the real Jerry Seinfeld, though it might be the opinion of the show’s writer, Larry David.
I beg to disagree with Jerry. I keep most of the books I’ve read, and this blog entry is an attempt to explain why. I may not do a very good job, but here goes. One reason I keep books once I’ve read them is to show off to visitors how many books I’ve read. Granted, that may be somewhat egotistical, but it does let people know that I am reasonably well read, a personal attribute I’m not shy about revealing. Right now I have probably only 10 to 20 percent of all the books I’ve read over my lifetime, fiction and non-fiction. Many I’ve read were checked out of the library, many were in my parent’s collection when I was growing up (that’s how I read Moby Dick), and some have been lost in moving, donated to other organizations, or loaned and never returned. I remember loaning out Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and never got it back. (Where did the concept of “cold” blood come from? Blood isn’t cold.)
Another reason for keeping books, especially non-fiction books, is to use them as reference. Right now I’m working on the third section of my Anthanian Imperative trilogy and I’m using several selected personal characteristics of Adolf Hitler as a basis for the major antagonist of the book. Some of the books of the historian William L. Shirer have come in handy since he covered WWII and the events that led up to it, not from the Allied point of view, but from inside Germany. That gave him a good vantage point to gain insights into Hitler’s personality. (Hitler’s always a good model for a despicable tyrant.) I’m certainly not basing my character totally on Hitler by any means–that would be grossly unimaginative–and If you read my book you may not be able to point out what I made up and what is factual research, but the books of Shirer’s that I’ve kept in my collection show a personal side of the absolute ruler that doesn’t always come through in history books.
Another reason for keeping books is that I like to read and I’ll get tired of reading new stuff. Sometimes I’ll grab an older book and begin reading it again just for the sheer pleasure of revisiting an old friend. I’ve read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that way several times. Others, too.
I think another reason for keeping books around is for the simple fact of having books around. It’s satisfying to know I’ve read most of them. A bookshelf is a good piece of furniture to place against an otherwise empty wall. The dust covers are colorful, too.
Speaking of bookshelves, mine are becoming full. What does one do with a book for which no place exists? I haven’t reached that point yet, but it seems a relatively minor difficulty that shouldn’t keep me from buying more books. (I just got a new science fiction book yesterday.) I can always stack one book on top of another. Or stack books on top of the bookcase. I’d buy another bookcase, but in my small apartment, wall space is limited.
Why do you keep your books around?