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The case against books


Nilanjana S Roy  |  New Delhi 

There comes a point in every booklover's life when you throw up your hands and say, "This madness has to stop."
That's usually the point where you're moving house because you need the extra shelf space. Some readers have permanently cluttered shelves for professional reasons""they are in academia, publishing, the media, the government, law or medicine. But most of us who suffer from shelfitis""the tendency of your collection to increase at a rate faster than the rate at which you can purchase bookshelves""are perfectly ordinary readers.
In my household, books multiply like guinea pigs""put two solitary volumes into one of our bookcases, and by the morning, there'll be another forty cluttering up the shelves. Most readers have a slower rate of accumulation, but if you're adding even about 100 slender paperbacks to your collection every year, you're in trouble by year five.
There is always a point in the life of the avid reader when you have to make a choice between your books and your sanity. Over the years, these are the tips I've been given by similarly shelfless readers.
1) Book Inspection Day: Every month (if more than 10 books come into your house) or every six months (if the number is less than five), set aside one day for bookshelf inspection. Weed out the books you've read and you may not want to re-read, and unless they're rare editions or books gifted by the author or a loved one, throw out anything that you haven't been tempted to read in six months and may not want to read for another three years.
2) One in, one out: Many booklovers I know swear that the only way to maintain sanity is to adhere to a strict rule: if a new book comes into the house, an old one goes out. This is a great way to test your changing literary tastes or test your real liking for an author. If the Hot Author of the Moment comes in, for example, what would you really jettison""Nonsense Rhymes, or Iconic Moments in the Experience of Consciousness: A Psychiatric Study?
If you're bringing in the complete Modesty Blaise novels, what would have to leave the house first""the complete James Bond, or could you possibly sacrifice John le Carre? The only problem with this approach is, bluntly, compliance. For years I had the greatest respect for David Davidar, my former boss at Penguin, who advocated the ruthless "Boot-a-Book" approach""until someone pointed out that Davidar had got the buying part down pat, but wasn't doing that well at the booting bit of the business.
3) Stick to hardback: Glenn Horowitz, a book collector who travels often to India, told me bluntly that this was the best way of dealing with book buyers' addiction. Hardback books take up more space and are often more expensive, forcing you to think about every one of your purchases (Carlos Fuentes or Salim Ali in hardback, yes; Stephen King in hardback, probably not). Paperbacks, for a book buyer like Horowitz, are strictly for disposable reading. The advantage of his method is that, at the end of a decade, you're almost certain to have a small, but well-stocked library""and hardbacks, of course, last longer and stay in better condition.
4) Use that library card: One of the worst habits affluent or even moderately affluent book readers develop is that we become shopaholics. We buy books when we only want to read, but not keep, them. We buy books out of boredom, to pass the time, or because we can't help ourselves. If you're using a good library, though, you can always buy a book if it seems like a "keeper", but you don't end up buying the ones who're merely passing fancies.
5) Go digital: After my book-buying habit had assumed nightmare proportions over a ten-year period, I began to ask whether the paper book itself was really necessary. On a close examination of my bookshelves, I realised that about 50 per cent of my collection was there only for reference. Many of these are now available as e-books, and my collection is slowly being digitised, which cuts down on the dusting. I'm also beginning to follow the 'Google Books' rule; if a book is available online in sufficiently reasonable form, it will only be bought in book form if the edition is rare enough or beautiful enough to justify this. Otherwise, I'll read Alice in Wonderland online rather than buy a cheap and unattractive copy that will clutter up my shelves.
The number of bookshelves we've ordered over the years may have made my carpenter a very happy and prosperous man, the dusting may require an army of house elves, but I haven't given up yet. Someday, the perfect library""a blend of an iPod for books with perhaps one bookcase of beautiful, handworked editions of really lovely work""may yet be mine.

Disclaimer: The author is chief editor, EastWest and Westland Books; the views expressed here are personal

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First Published: Tue, July 03 2007. 00:00 IST