Friday, November 20, 2009

Shelf Life

There’s a wonderful short essay by Paulo Coelho in this month’s Playboy in which the Brazilian author explains why he’s pruning his expansive personal library down to 400 books. While he plans on keeping some books for sentimental reasons and others because he always enjoys rereading them (like I enjoy rereading P.G. Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred in the Springtime each year), Coelho says that he can usually find what he needs online.

But that’s not the main reason he’s getting rid of his books and it’s not why I recommend the essay. This is why:

“[A]s soon as I finish a book, I let it travel, give it to someone or hand it in at a public library. My intention is not to save forests or be generous; it is just that I believe a book has a course of its own and should not be condemned to remain immobilized on a shelf.”


Coelho notes the obvious conflict with self interest – he lives off the money he makes from book sales – but he argues that books (and their authors) are meant to be read and that a few more readers are more important than a few extra sales down the road. “So let our books travel, be touched by other hands and enjoyed by other eyes.”

With 20+ titles to his name (including the modern classic, The Alchemist), Coelho is the best-selling Portuguese author of all time and I’m sure he’s signed lots of copies of his books. But the books he says he likes seeing most are the dog-eared, many-times-resold copies that people bring to signings since this means, “the book has traveled like the mind of the author traveled as he wrote it.”

This essay came at a good time since Rose and I are currently thinning down our book collection. The issue is one of space not philosophy, but in either case, books have got to go. So tonight, as I take another 20 books I enjoyed off the shelf, I’ll try to remember what made each book special as I add it to the stack to give away, knowing that I’ll never open it again. And, with Coelho in my head, I’ll try to remember that I’m not getting rid of them, I’m letting them go.

5 comments:

Dana King said...

Very timely for me. I've set aside time this weekend to give away books so I can make room in my office for the constant influx. This makes it easier.

Rick Blechta said...

I've tried setting your books free, Charles, and the darn things keep coming back. I don't know what it is. A few days later, I go out to get the mail and there they are, hanging around the porch or roaming around the front yard. When I bring them into the house, they scurry into my office and jump up onto the shelves in their usual spots. It's uncanny. I can't figure it out. Frankly, it's sort of creepy...

Vicki Delany said...

I have a shelf full of Encyclopedia Britannicas. Anyone want them? I paid a lot of money for them.

Charles benoit said...

Rick - if you stop feeding them eventually they won't come back.

Rick Blechta said...

But after a while, the din they make becomes unbearable. I've used about half a dozen bottles of ink in the last year. I even tried the cheap stuff. Nothing works!

Maybe I should just keep them...