intellectual vanity

i saw this article in the guardian over the weekend and thought it was worth ruminating on it a bit here, since it also followed through on a conversation i had with friends over dinner on friday night. natasha tripney over at the guardian books blog wrote about “the unvanquishable bookpile.

i have pretty much had the “unvanquishable bookpile” since i could read. it varies in height, weight, dust collected, and number and genre of volumes included based on my proximity to a library (or libraries), my ability to afford bookstore prices (used or otherwise), and whether or not i’m in school. during my time at simmons, i have to say the bookpile was most often made up of irish history or historiography reading i was woefully behind on. you don’t want to know how much of it i managed to catch up on — really catch up on — before finishing my thesis. we’ll just say it was a percentage.
now the mix is better. there’s still a lot of irish history because, well, it’s what i do and i love it and i can’t imagine not reading more about it because that would be silly. but now there’s the new stephen king novel (100 pages in), wolf hall (2/3rds of the way in) and some other assorted random stuff, mostly culled from the “new books” shelves at the library because “ooh, that looks cool.” it may be; it may not be; but now that i’m not reading against time for my thesis, i can find out.
if i’m closer to a library — or more than one since i currently have lending privileges at three, one academic and two public and both public ones are part of ginormous lending consortia — the bookpile expands geometrically. it’s so easy to follow up on interesting book reviews, footnotes that look intriguing, or recommendations from friends.
having book feeds continually dumping new and interesting stuff via google reader or oldfashioned email isn’t the most helpful thing, either. pretty much every day there’s something from the guardian or bookninja or tor that just cannot be passed by. this is what the goodreads list is for, i figure. i dump it on there; if i come back across it in six months time and still remember what it is and why i put it on there, i’ll see about finding a copy. it’s the same theory as the bottom 100 on my netflix queue. every now and then i pass through the list and if i have no idea why it’s there, out it goes.
and then there’s the whole question, as ms. tripney notes, of how you find what you’re reading. this is why the bookpile never, in essence, gets smaller. as far as academic reading goes, the pile is never going down. there’s always a footnote or a reference or a related field or a new theoretician — at least someone you haven’t heard of or haven’t read or haven’t read enough of — to follow up on. i think this is why it stays continually fascinating. and there’s always something new to read that makes you want to go back and re-read something old because now you have this great new idea for how it could be interpreted or applied or used.
this, of course, leads to book-sluttery of major proportions. not only bookstores, but used bookstores. not only used bookstores, but $1 carts — of which boston is all too full! not only used bookstores and $1 carts, but amazon’s used section. and not only amazon’s used section but powell’s and the book depository–and–and–and– and a continual shortage of bookshelves, in my experience. thus the unread book pile, not shelf or case. you don’t have enough shelves. there are never going to be enough shelves.
and that’s fine by me. yes, there are days when the book pile must be sorted and shelved or at least maniacally dusted, but for the most part i’m content to have it there. after all, there’s probably something really awesome in it somewhere.
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