Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Libraries: The First Cut Is The Deepest

In 1887, Augustine Birrell explained that “Libraries are not made; they grow. Your first two thousand volumes present no difficulty, and cost astonishingly little money” but “After your first two thousand difficulty begins.”

When I started collecting, just shy of a hundred years after Birrell wrote this, both observations were still true, although he does not explain the connection between “growth” and “difficulty” quite as clearly as I would have liked.

I definitively had very little difficulty accumulating a room full of books but, when I got to about two thousand, difficulties certainly began. The difficulties Birrell has in mind (you can read his essay here) are a combination of money, haste and taste.

Money is always a problem when you have champagne tastes on a beer income, but the main difficulty I faced—whether I was living below the poverty line, as I did for two decades, or above it—was and still is, space.

Since thousands of volumes “present no difficulty,” and “astonishingly little money” to accumulate, “an ordinary man can in the ordinary course, without undue haste or putting any pressure upon his taste, surround himself with”—more books than he has room for.

And since libraries grow, and grow, and grow—sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but always and forever growing—they do need pruning every now and then, if—like fruit trees—they are going to be productive, and retain any kind of “shape.”

I have pruned my library a number of times over the years, many more times than I would have liked. I have pruned when I was poor and needed to sell books (will I ever stop regretting selling my first edition of Lyrical Ballads?), but more often I pruned when I had simply run out of space.

I have consoled myself on each occasion, that the pruning has forced me to be more selective than I would otherwise have been, and so more focused in what I collect, thus improving my collection as a whole.

While there is obviously some truth in this, and so the fruit-tree metaphor is a good one, I still mourn the books I have been forced to prune. Perhaps, as a result, the word I have always used is based on a much bloodier metaphor: “cull.”

Below is the story of my first library pruning / cull. This first cull was by a very wide margin, the most savage of all, so it looms largest in my memory. I am telling this story now, so I can tell another (about a specific book, in a separate post here), but I may tell the story of other culls in future. To tell the story of my first library cull, I have to tell the story of my first library.

My First Library

I started actively collecting books in my early teens. I was given a little pocket-money, but I earned a little more, mowing lawns and doing garden work in the neighborhood; later it was paper rounds, and supermarket shelf-stacking. I spent most of it on books.

I was very methodical about my book-buying. I would get the local paper on a Wednesday, and would study the garage sale listings, and then consult the street directory to work out the maximum number of garage sales—those that mentioned books—which I could reach on my bike, on a single Saturday morning circuit. On Saturday, I would head out shortly after seven, ride for about an hour, then work my way home, going from one garage to another, seeing what I could buy.

When I think about it now, my geographical range was enormous and still impressive. My range of purchases was far less impressive; I would buy science fiction, fantasy, and anything to do with the supernatural, with a very little literature and history thrown in when something piqued my interest. Most of what I bought was cheap pulpy paperbacks, but I picked up a few older hardbacks too.

At about this time I would also, on occasion, tag along with my mother on shopping trips to Hornsby or Chatswood, so I could make a hasty visit to a paperback bookshop or op shop. (I recently found a few surviving books bought on these trips—Bram Stoker and “Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult” paperbacks—but that is a subject for another day.)

In my mid- to late teens (especially after I left school), I earned more money, and ranged further, catching trains to visit secondhand bookshops all over Sydney, spending whole days trawling bookshops. I was buying more paperbacks, but mostly hardbacks, and a few antiquarian books, and focusing more on literature and history.

Once I started working full time, I bought even more. My first real job was working in the city as a storeman and packer; my five-day paycheck was about one hundred dollars. I have a few random records for my purchases at this time: my copy of Dante’s Inferno, illustrated by Gustave Doré, cost me $75—most a full week’s wage. Adam Alexander’s Summary of Geography and History, Both Ancient and Modern (1809) was $55.

Most of the other books I bought at this time were twenty to thirty dollars each, but I bought them four or five at a time, leaving nothing much in the bank by the time I quit. (That the price on all of these books would be the same today, over three decades later, shows what a poor investment this was!).

I did somewhat better at saving at my next job, but I also started buying what might be called “real” antiquarian books: 16C classics, 17C and 18C literature in English, private press and limited editions; I also bought some new books: leather-bound reprints, slip-cased facsimiles and coffee-table books. After my gap-years working (and collecting), I went away to university in Hobart, leaving behind a room full of books.

I returned after a year of studying English Literature, Latin, Classics and Medieval History—with even more books: adding scholarly editions and serious works of reference to my still-growing library. With space at home exhausted, and with transporting any number of books to, or from, Hobart being very difficult, I (stupidly, idiotically, rashly) decided to dispose of most of the books from my childhood and adolescence, especially my garage-sale finds: the pulpy paperbacks, the science fiction, fantasy, and the supernatural.

If I had gone to university in Sydney, I might have carted these books from share-house to share-house, getting rid of a few here and there, gradually winnowing the bookish chaff from the wheat. Instead, chaff and wheat alike went to Ashwoods and a few other bookshops in Sydney, while my most prized books were posted to Hobart—at enormous expense.

I began to regret this cull almost immediately, and so I began to replace some of the books I missed the most only weeks after selling them. But I had no catalogue of the books I had disposed of, and no substitute for one: no purchase receipts, reading records and no systematic photographing of shelves.

(The few photos I do have from before I went to University show only a little of a few of my shelves, and these photos are so blurry that you can only make out about half the titles.)

As the years have passed, my memory of my first library of garage-sale and op-shop finds has faded somewhat, and I stopped looking to replace the books that I sold so long ago. But I still occasionally find myself in a bookshop, with a familiar-looking book in hand, unsure whether this is simply a book I have seen many times, in many other bookshops, or whether it is one of the books I had had in my first collection.

Although it is satisfying when I am sure that the book in hand is a copy of a book I once owned, I usually don’t buy it just to satisfy my nostalgic impulse. Likewise, whenever I am driven by my nostalgic impulse to examine an old photo of my books, and find myself newly able to correctly identify a blur—presumably, after recently seeing a copy of the book in a shop somewhere—I do not race off to buy the book.

Instead, for some years now, I have simply added the titles to a list of my pre-University books that I have been maintaining. The list costs me nothing, and allows me to satisfy my nostalgic impulse without cluttering up my shelves with books I would never now want to buy or read.** (Of course, I do buy the ones I do still want to buy and read.)

Like book collecting itself, it is astonishing how easy it has been to accumulate a lengthy catalogue of my pre-University library, without “putting any pressure upon” myself. The 750-odd books I have identified probably represent less than half of those I had at the time. But what my catalogue tells me is that, of the more than 1500 books that I must have had before my first cull, I kept only about ten percent.

This figure explains why “prune” is not really the best term for my first … “library sale” (?). If you remove ninety percent of a fruit tree, all that remains is a stump. Even “cull” suggests a less drastic act of slaughter, that leaving ninety percent of the herd on the blood-soaked earth.

While—in raw numbers—I probably disposed of more books in later culls, the percentage disposed of has never approached that of this first cull. As I explained at the start, this is probably why it looms so large in my memory. That, and—as Cat Stevens rightly says—“The First Cut Is the Deepest.”

**I got the idea for this catalogue (as a substitute for re-constituting my entire first library) from Don Astlett’s Freedom from Clutter (1986): an excellent book. At one point, I had two copies—but, in time, I found the strength necessary to dispose of one.

[REVISED 2021.04.22]

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