If I could have one superpower … (plus bookcase photos)

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Many years ago, probably after a library sale or a buying spree at a used book store, I remember joking to a friend, “I’m buying books now to read in my retirement.”

Ha ha ha. Little did I know!

(Click each photo to zoom in.)

For a long time, I’ve grouped all novels and single-author volumes of poetry, essays, or stories in a big category I call “Imaginative Literature,” arranged by author’s year of birth. This is Imaginative Literature bookcase 1. There are a handful of books on the top that are just books about books, overflow from “General Non-fiction.” The rest of the bookcase is Homer through Virginia Woolf.

There are probably thousands of quotes and memes that diehard book lovers can relate to, including:
So many books, so little time.
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” – Jorge Luis Borges
It’s not hoarding if it’s books.
“Too many books”? I think what you mean is “not enough bookshelves.”
You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy books. And that’s kind of the same thing.
“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” – Stephen King
There is no such thing as too many books.

This is Imaginative Lit bookcase 2, which holds Franz Kafka to Muriel Spark. While Imaginative Lit bookcase 1 is in the basement (in the “yellow room”), numbers 2 through 7 are along the walls of the living/dining room. This bookcase includes all my Daphne du Maurier, as well as the first title of which I own two copies: Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt.

As a lifelong reader and bibliophile, I agree with all of those sentiments. But it’s also true that physical books take up space, and those of us who acquire books more quickly than we can read them might sometimes ask ourselves, “Do I have too many books?” If we own more books (particularly unread books) than we can ever read in our lifetime, it’s a reasonable question. If books are meant to be read, shouldn’t we stop buying books we haven’t read, and try to weed out some of the ones we’re unlikely to read in, say, the next couple of years?

Imaginative Literature bookcase 3 starts with the second half of my Muriel Spark books and ends with most of my William Goldman books. Apologies for the bright glare on the John Ashbery titles; my phone doesn’t have a superior camera and I am not a great photographer.

When I start to wonder if I have too many books–especially if I’m trying to find space for new purchases on already-crowded shelves–I’m always gripped by the same question: how do I choose? How do I decide which books I should give away?

Imaginative Lit bookcase 4 is the shortest one, only two shelves, but it holds a few favorites. It starts with the last few William Goldman and ends with Larry McMurtry, but also contains all my Sylvia Plath and Mary Oliver books. I shelve all of an author’s prose and poetry together, ideally in the order published or written though I’m not strict on that. I also include biographies of an author and criticism of their work alongside their books–again, Plath is the prime example.

It’s usually easier for me to give away books I’ve already read–because I didn’t like it as much as I’d hoped, because there’s a 98% chance I can get it from the library if I want to read it again, because I could order a used copy online for 50 cents, or because it’s in the public domain so I can get the ebook for free. If it’s a book I haven’t read, the decision becomes so much more difficult, because what if it’s a fabulous book?!?!?

Bookcase 5 has five shelves full of great stuff. It starts with Marge Piercy and ends with the first batch of Victoria Thompson. It contains all my Susan Fromberg Schaeffer novels, Louise Glück poetry collections, Lydia Davis, and Elena Ferrante. It’s also the first time where a prolific author has overflowed my romance shelves for inclusion in Imaginative Lit: Mary Balogh.

I had The Book Thief by Markus Zusak on my shelves for a couple of years, unread, before downloading the audiobook through the public library and finally reading it that way. Even though the novel included a book-related storyline (obviously, it’s right there in the title), that still wasn’t a guarantee that I’d like it. But when I listened to the audiobook, I fell completely in love with it. Although I hadn’t read the print book first, I was thrilled to know it was already on my shelves, because otherwise, I’d be adding this new favorite to my collection ASAP.

Imaginative Lit bookcase 6. I wish the photo were clearer. This starts with the second half of Victoria Thompson and ends with Paul Harding. Another romance author is on the bottom shelf: Victoria Alexander. This bookcase has the most duplicate copies of favorites: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, Legacy by Susan Kay, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and the second and third books of The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin. After taking this photo, I found a second hardcover of The Passage and instantly grabbed it although it’s over 700 pages. Yes, I’m an addict.

While I was shifting some of my books around a couple months ago–probably trying to find space for some new acquisitions, and dismissing the little voice in my head that suggested maybe I do have too many books and it’s time to get rid of a handful or two–I decided what kind of superpower I would want if I ever had that choice.

I want to have the power to pick up a book and to know, simply by touching it, if it’s a book I would love. Not merely like or enjoy, but completely love.

Finally, Imaginative Lit 7, which starts with Noah Hawley and basically ends with Mira Gonzalez. However, I decided recently to put books at the end where I wasn’t sure of the author’s birth year, as well as a couple of books by Christina Lauren, two people writing under one name. This little batch is shelved by approximate birth year based on my best guesses. Elizabeth Hoyt’s historical romances are all excellent, and also overflowed the romance shelves. So many great authors just on the top shelf: Jhumpa Lahiri, Michele Young-Stone, Myla Goldberg, and Steve Toltz. An embarrassment of riches!

It wouldn’t be like the cliched judging a book by its cover, which most of us already do to some extent, but would require me to actually hold the book. This superpower would be no help if I were trying to decide which ebook to read next from my digital collection, or searching through ebooks in the Kobo store or one of the library apps. It’s possible (and probably easy, even) to have more ebooks than you’ll ever read, but at least they don’t take up space in your home or get stained or dusty, or cause family and friends who aren’t readers to ask judgy questions about why you need so many books, whether you’ve read them all, if you think there’s any way in hell you’ll actually read them all, or why you don’t take up some other pastime that would enable you to become more physically fit.

As soon as I began collecting romances as a separate category from the “Imaginative Lit” that I’d been reading & buying for decades–and seeing how extensive some of these authors’ backlists are–I decided not to put them in the same order as my other books. To keep it simple, titles on my Romance Bookshelves are in alphabetical order by authors’ names. This particular bookcase holds novels by some of my favorite authors, so they run from Victoria Alexander to Theresa Romain. The top shelf is too short for books so I’ve got some CDs & audiobooks on it–including The Book Thief.

I’ve clearly been buying more books than I have time to read for decades, but my book-buying habits probably accelerated after I became a more devoted romance reader and started writing romance–or at least trying to write romance, though my first romance novel remains a not-quite-completed digital file. Many romance fans are truly voracious readers, and many of them enjoy other genres in addition to romance, depending upon their particular tastes and preferences. Romance readers know what they like, and when they find it–a series, an author, a sub-genre, or even a trope–they want even more of it. This is a great thing for authors.

This is the first of my two “general” romance bookcases. It starts with a handful of trade-size paperbacks shelved as a horizontal pile on the top left, then runs from “A” authors to “L” authors. Given that most romance novels are published as mass market paperbacks, the shelves on these two bookcases are the perfect size for this collection.

In my case, there are two specific aspects of my romance fandom that have led to my overflowing romance shelves. First, I’ve always tended to be a completist book collector: when I read an awesome book by a new-to-me author, I proceed to search out (and often purchase, though usually secondhand) a bunch of other works by the same author. I own at least 15 books by Daphne du Maurier, acquired over about three decades since I first read My Cousin Rachel and fell in love with du Maurier’s writing. (There are also two of her novels which I read that weren’t “keepers” and I eventually gave them away.) Some of these romance authors are very prolific, and my completist tendency runs up against the finite amount of space on my bookshelves. I don’t know how many books Mary Balogh has published, but I’ve read (or listened to) nine of them. I actually own physical copies of thirty-eight Balogh books–and I did have more but I’ve weeded out four other titles in the last couple of months. Not every book is a keeper, and different people will have different favorites, but overall, she’s super-good and her books are quality historical romances.

The second romance bookcase currently holds the rest of the “L” authors through the “W” authors. Did I mention that these two bookcases are located in my closet? That’s why you can see part of a bathrobe and the bottom inch or two of a few shirts. Although a few authors have migrated to the Imaginative Lit shelves in the living room, the original plan was to keep all the romance novels semi-hidden in my bedroom–or at least the mass market paperbacks–but the pull of books is often stronger than my ability to resist.

The second reason why I think reading romance kicked my book-buying up a couple of notches hearkens back to what I said earlier about falling in love with books. In this case, if it’s a well-written novel and the story and tropes hit a reader’s sweet spot, then you’re falling in love with a book that’s all about falling in love. In the same way that meeting someone new or going on the first few dates with someone you like can turn your days upside down and you can’t wait until the next time you see them, great romance novels can give you a similar kind of rush. I mean, any good story can provide that kind of excitement, but the conventions and mechanics of the romance genre specifically target the reader’s emotions. When a romance reader says, “This book gave me all the feels!” then you know it hit the mark. If I read a book’s description and it makes me want to immediately meet the characters, jump into their story, and find out how they’ll overcome the obstacles between them, it’s probably going onto my wishlist, if not right into my shopping cart.

This cool trapezoidal-type bookcase holds my “general non-fiction” books. It was built by my brother-in-law when he was in college. It actually has five shelves, but I managed to empty the bottom shelf so I left that one out of the photo. The books are approximately in Dewey Decimal order; you can see a few books are laying sideways and not properly shelved. A handful of the lowest-Dewey-numbered books–all of them about books and reading–were pulled from here and moved to Imaginative Lit bookcase 1 for space reasons. Both bookcases are in “the yellow room” in the basement.

The number of books in the collection “Your Library” in my LibraryThing account (at this moment, but subject to change when I add the two books I just bought at the TSCPL Booktique) is 1382. The number of books in that collection that are tagged “novel” is 853–nearly 62% of the total books I own. Another 178 are tagged “poetry,” almost 13% of the total. I have a collection I call “General Non-fiction,” a subset of “Your Library” that includes a bit of philosophy and religion, some education and social sciences, books about dealing with depression, and a smattering of history. It also contains 30 books with the tag “books and reading,” and about a dozen more with the tag “literary criticism.” Even when the collection doesn’t include fiction and literature, there’s a chunk of it that’s about literary works, books, and/or reading.

This is the “everything else” bookcase. Books about writing are on the top shelf, in alphabetical order by author’s last name. Memoirs round out the third shelf down, also shelved by author name. The rest of shelves two and three are primarily anthologies, in alpha order by title, and a smattering of literary magazines. The bottom shelf has a small section of books written by local authors, and finally, “other stuff.”

The final bookcase in the collection “Your library” (i.e. my library) is basically a smorgasbord, the everything-else-bookcase. This is where I keep books about writing, anthologies, a few writing-related reference works (like a book about copyright), a section of memoirs, books by local authors, and a group of literary journals I haven’t been able to part with, mainly The Paris Review and Poetry. There are also a handful of children’s books in the mix on the bottom shelf. Like every bookcase in the house, this one has books I haven’t read that still interest me, books I really don’t need to keep, and books that I adore and want to have with me always. If only I had that superpower, I could pick up each of the unread books and simply know whether I can give it away with no regrets or if it will be a new favorite.

Or maybe I should consider my overflowing bookshelves (clearly a “first-world problem” that I’m happy and lucky to have) from another perspective, and wish for “superpowers” I could apply more broadly: making decisions more quickly instead of agonizing over so many of them (including “Should I keep this book or give it away?”), and finding the ability to finish more of the projects I start. Hmmm…can I trade my personality and general state of being for an improved model???

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