Sunday, May 23, 2010

Too many books

Having accumulated many, many books [he quotes Ecclesiastes: “And further, by these, my son, be admonished; of making many books there is no end, and much studying is a weariness of the flesh”], Walter Russell Mead is culling his collections at home and at his office. Here he describes the criteria he has found himself using for the office collection:
...[A]s I dump dozens of books from my shelves into the ‘don’t want’ boxes, I’m struck by the sheer uselessness of the overwhelming majority of them. Volumes of political science essays written at a point in the debate that is already forgotten; grave studies of the state of the world economy in 1993 or 1997; labored studies of the policy-making process (mostly) by people who have never seen policy made and think that collated memos tell the real story of American foreign policy; ambitious attempts to catch the spirit of a moment in international affairs: all worse than useless now, most not even having second-hand sale value. ....

The books that I end up keeping seem to fall mostly into three categories. First and foremost, at least for me, are the good history books. ....

Good history lasts in a way that even good policy analysis doesn’t. That’s one lesson of my book cull, and it confirms my belief that young people should not waste their time trying to stay up to the minute on the latest policy or ’state of the world’ chat. These books come and mostly go like mayflies; people in their teens and twenties should be spending their time building up their general historical knowledge rather than following the twists and turns of the contemporary debate. As they take on more senior professional responsibilities in their thirties and forties they will have plenty of time to immerse themselves in the minutiae of policy reviews and the attempts to capture the spirit of the moment in print. (And, if they’ve spent the earlier years wisely, they will be able to bring badly needed perspective to the discussion of contemporary issues as their careers hit their stride.)

The second category of books that last (and I’m excluding fiction, poetry and literature from consideration here; it’s the office, working collection that I’m culling most intensively) are the books that say something concrete and important about a subject of lasting importance. ....

The third category of ‘keepers’ are books that, whatever they are about, manage to say something real and important. Adam Smith, Max Weber, Karl Marx, Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Bagehot, Thomas Aquinas, Ibn Khaldun: these are thinkers you want to keep with you. You may not consult them every day, but you want them at hand when you need them. .... [more]
There is little point in keeping books that you will never read again, either for pleasure or as reference. Just before and right after I retired I culled my library. Now, five years later, I need to do it again. Fiction I will not re-read needs to go, as do most of the reference books because Google makes it ridiculously easy to look things up. My library doesn't come close in size to those of several of my friends, but, nevertheless, it contains a lot of useless possession. [The picture shows a few of my books.]

Literary Saturday: Culling Books - Walter Russell Mead's Blog - The American Interest