Shelf Lives (September 2023 Edition)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-09-17 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

One thing moving three times in around ten years taught me was how not to cling to things so aggressively. This past weekend I pulled everything out of the bookcases in my office and gave them another long, hard look, and sent another 20-30 volumes into the donations box. The most consistent theme with the books I purged is Stuff I Hung Onto Out Of Some Sense Of Obligation — things I was going to write about, or which I persuaded myself were "important", or some mix of the two. Now I look at them and realize any window of time I had to use them in the way I had in mind has closed, or that I've already taken everything I can from them and don't need to kid myself.

Around the time of the first of those moves, when I made my first really big purge, I was still in the habit of acquiring and hanging onto stuff I thought was going to be "useful" for this project or that project, or because it was "important" as a reflection of some taste I had at the time. The tastes were the first to change, but the habits around those changed tastes took a lot longer to change. If I buy something, read it, and don't enjoy it or can't see myself coming back to it, there's no point in concocting some larger justification about how I could "use" it. If I haven't come up with a justification by now, there won't be one.

After I shelved my Ganriki project, for instance, I purged a lot of the material I'd backlogged for discussion there. The few things I saved actually had personal relevance, something beyond wondering what people would think of my opinion of it. Cultivating and seeking opinions about movies or books or TV shows or albums — that is, for reasons that actually had little to do with my own affinities for them — now came in a distant second from actually creating things. It was all part of the process of figuring out what I really did gave a damn about, and in what light. A lot of times something I was evangelizing for would finally get a Western release, and would no longer be an obscurity or a rarity. Once that happened I lost interest in hanging onto my own copy of it. It was everywhere now. There was no point in pretending I was an archivist, when I knew full well I wasn't and didn't want to be.

I've known a few folks who have entertained experimenting with slimming their libraries down to a mere hundred books or so. I think I'm at around three times that much right now, down from, uh, quite a lot more when I made my first big change of address. But I'm not obsessed with a specific target number, and I'm not even trying to make sure everything fits into the bookcases I've designated for the space. I'm just trying to be honest with myself about what I do and don't care about, about what really does matter, what's really worth revisiting (or giving myself a chance to revisit casually), and what's just a nice idea that won't ever get acted on.

Here are some of the things that consistently survive the purges:

  • Art books, both for artists I admire (Sorayama, Giger, Helnwein, Tadanori Yokoo) and for treatments of interesting subjects (How To Wrap Five Eggs).
  • Biographical and autobiographical work, particularly that of musicians or visual artists or filmmakers whose works matter to me: John Cage, the Manic Street Preachers, Philip Glass, Moondog, "England's Hidden Reverse", Suicide, Skinny Puppy, Swans, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Kubrick, Miyazaki, Scorsese.
  • Books on artistic performance: Tadashi Suzuki's Way Of Acting, Derek Bailey's book on improvisation.
  • Material on Buddhism and Zen, but only above a certain level of sophistication or scholarship. Most Westernized/pop Buddhism is not worth writing about, let alone reading.
  • The philosophy of science (Karl Popper), and pedagogy (John Holt, Ken Macrorie).
  • Novels of personal distinction. Certain writers consistently survive (Philip K. Dick, Sembene Ousmane, Sōseki, Dazai, Akutagawa, Tanizaki, Kawabata). Every now and then I find a new one to add, but that is a small list added to only with reluctance. Many of my favorite writers are highly singular (Machado de Assis, Robert Musil) or have minimal output (Karin Boye, Jean Rhys).
  • Certain poets and poetry: Cavafy, Orhan Veli, ee cummings, Bob Cobbing.
  • Scholarly work on Japan, from its history to modern popular culture.
  • Graphic novels of distinction (Berserk, Blade Of The Immortal, all of Tezuka).
  • Works of nonfiction on key subjects: Frank Kitson's books on military strategy, Kenny Shopsin's Eat Me, Doug Hofstader's books on the nature of minds and thinking.
  • few books on the craft of writing. I mentioned Macrorie, but also Peter Elbow. Most books on writing I find too prescriptive to be useful, and prescriptive in all the wrong ways.
  • Unclassifiables. Stuff that fits no easy category and is all the better for it. John Cage's Silence, Codex Seraphinianus, Principia Discordia.
  • Anything that has deeply personal resonance. My childhood friend David Hirmes once gave me a graphic novel by Heavy Metal regular Juan Gimenez. I will never part with it. Ditto books by fellow authors and colleagues/friends — Steven Savage, Matt Buscemi, etc.

The choosier I get about what comes into the collection, the easier it is for me to decide what leaves. And to decide what matters, not just what seems important.

Tags: books reading