My Old Kentucky Homesite

Cull Me Ishmael

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/29/2009

When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.
Desiderius Erasmus

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
Dorothy Parker

My alleged friend Srsny gave me nervous palpitations yesterday by sending me a link to a New York Times blog post called “Books You Can Live Without.” A number of litterateurs were asked to identify those volumes that they might cull from their collections if they found it necessary to thin the herd. I’m glad I wasn’t asked, because I’ve been going into a bibliophiliac panic just thinking about it.

As Srsny knows, my household is the repository of about approximately 3500 books. When my wife and I moved from Florida to Kentucky, I packed about 70 big boxes of just my own literary possessions, and another 40-odd of my wife’s. In the process, I did manage – reluctantly – to get rid of some duplicates, and to give away a few blatantly false “true crime” collections. But, basically, I kept everything I had. My little home office looks like a Barnes and Noble, only without any shelves for mugs or totebags.

My wife and I share almost everything we own, but not our books. She has her dictionary; I have mine. If we’re arguing about the definition, spelling, or usage of a word, we have to look it up in both places to see if the authorities concur. Neither of us thinks the other’s atlases are credible, because mapmakers have been known to be wrong. Both of us possess our own copies of the Peterson and Sibley guides to Eastern birds, so we have to check four sources whenever we spot an unfamiliar guest at our feeder. Why four? No offense, but we don’t trust one another’s books. Aside from redundant reference books, the only other volumes found in both our collections are The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, Eloise, and our 2002 stocking-stuffer twin copies of Leonard Maltin’s 2003 Movie Guide.

We have a strictly hands-off policy when it comes to our partner’s books, except during research emergencies and packing crises. Needless to say, even though I’d love to get rid of some of her sillier tomes, I would never dare to deep-six anything from my wife’s collection. She, likewise, intolerantly tolerates my dumbest books.

Obviously then, if there’s any culling to be done, I’ll have to hunt through my own shelves. To remind myself in the future of that possibility, I’m listing fifteen books that I conceivably could bear to toss into the literary trashbin.

1. Moby Dick
Despite starting this book seven or eight times, I’ve managed to remain Moby Dickless for the first sixty years of my life. The only way I can see myself finishing it is if someone happens to give me a harpoon for my birthday.

2. The Lord of the Rings in one volume
You’re not getting to be a hobbit with me. Fantasy is supposed to be fun, not pretentious, pseudo-religious claptrap. The only cool ring cycle is the one by Wagner.

3. Any one of my many Perry Mason mysteries
Every few years, when I go into a long-lasting funk, I fight my way out of it by reading about twenty Erle Stanley Gardners in a row. They’re all pretty much the same, except that the names are changed; the minute I close one of these books, I forget who the murderer was. So why shouldn’t I just read the same book twenty times?

4. Chess: 5344 Problems, Combinations and Games
Chess is not a good game for a person who has no spatial sense, so why would I think I’d be able to master it when I can’t even put my socks on frontwards? I’ll stick with Scrabble, where the worst thing you can do is place one of your tiles upside-down.

5. The Hero With a Thousand Faces
And not one of them interesting.

6. The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins is a great science writer, and has penned a number of excellent books for the intelligent layman (my favorite is The Selfish Meme). He can also chug out essays of great charm and literary merit (like the ones collected in Unweaving the Rainbow). But there’s nothing in this book that I hadn’t thought of myself at least forty-five years ago, when I was a skeptical teenager. The author’s thesis: it’s ridiculous to believe in any gods. Yup. What else is new?

7. A Concise History of Kentucky
The first paragraph of chapter one should give you an idea of how sophomorically written this book is: “One meaning of the word frontier is a border between places. But those borders can be very different at different times.” Passing itself off as a work of popular nonfiction for adults, this is essentially a textbook aimed at people who, although they themselves may be very different at different times, all read at a fourth-grade level. 

8. The New York City Cab Driver’s Joke Book, Vol. 2
I’ve taken thousands of rides in New Yawk City cabs, and not once has a driver told me a joke. Which is a good thing, because he would have lost his tip if he’d come out with some unfunny drivel he’d found in this paperback. Ten years ago, my son gave me this book as a birthday gift. We’ve both outgrown it now.

9. Match Wits with the Harvard MBA’s
The cover blurb says it all: “Test your financial savvy! You can win a bundle – or lose your shirt!” Now that we’re all shirtless, I don’t think a Harvard MBA has any information of value to offer me.

10. 100 Incredible, Provocative, and Fascinating Real-Life Cases: You Be the Judge
OK, I will. This book sucks.

11. The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche
I picked up this book used, and the choice of excerpts is fine. But there are a few things wrong with my particular volume besides the coffee stains and roach droppings. The bottom quarter of page 246 is blank. To tell the truth, I can’t really see myself curling up with Leibnitz, anyway, but if I did do so, I’d want to hang on his every word. There’s something else annoying about this copy, even worse than the missing paragraph. The previous owner chose to write pithy comments in the margins. I’m not convinced that “Meditations on First Philosophy” is helped by observations like “I agree,” “SO true,” or “right!!!!!!”

12. Profiles in Courage
In the current political climate, the title of this book makes me want to scream. Any senator writing a similar book today would have to call it Profiles in Getting Elected. Of course, my howling impulse isn’t eased any by the knowledge that John Kennedy wrote no more of Profiles than Sarah Palin did of Going Rogue. Still, as the titular author, JFK accepted a Pulitzer Prize for the work – having courageously paid ghostwriter Ted Sorensen to keep his mouth shut.

13. The Great American Bathroom Book
Been there, done that.

14. The Armchair Angler
That’s right, 400 pages of essays about fishing. I bought this when I was researching an article I wrote in the mid-90s about catching snook in Tampa Bay. That was the first and last time I communed with my inner Opie. I know that many people find fishing relaxing, but to me it’s an activity for the brain-dead. And really, how lazy do you have to be to just read about it?

15. Leonard Maltin’s 2003 Movie Guide
It’s seven years out of date, f’chrissake. My wife and I need to buy ourselves two copies of the newest edition.


6 Responses to “Cull Me Ishmael”

  1. I’m guessing no e-readers in your house?
    In your future?
    Nice to see a couple “classics – every high schooler must read” books on your list.

  2. Going:
    It seems about forty years too late for me to invest in an e-reader. Also, if I replaced my books with ether, what would I do with all my shelving? I’d have to buy tons of totebags — but what would I have left to tote?

    FYI: I don’t remember being assigned Leonard Maltin’s 1883 Movie Guide back when I was in high school. It must have been on the Extra-Boring Extra-Credit list, along with the complete works of Descartes and Melville. I do recall, however, that I got a few chuckles out of The New York City Hansom Cab Driver’s Joke Book.

  3. Wife just got a Nook and loves it! Shelves at our house are always in a competition between knick-knacks, clutter (is that redundant?) and books.

  4. Going:
    Wife just got a Nook and loves it!

    I understand that all women love a little nook now and then.

  5. Linwood said

    There’s a window within which a book must be read. I read Moby Dick as a young teenager, under my bedclothes after lights out, with the aid of a flashlight. Read it from front cover to back in one night. Likewise Candide. I remember laughing out loud, more than I’ve laughed at any book before or since (true, I haven’t read The New York City Cab Driver’s Joke Book, Vol. 2). I wouldn’t dare re-read either of them, as do-overs are always disappointing.

  6. Linwood:
    Moby Dick in one night? Where did you live, Norway?

    Sorry, but if I had to cull one more book, it would be Candide. I think Voltaire would have been a very boring cab driver. Of course, compared to Moby Dick, Candide is a regular riot. But so is The Old Man and the Sea (which is also cullable, as far as I’m concerned).

    For future reference: Swordfish are funny; whales aren’t.
    [Purists: I know Santiago hooked a marlin, not a swordfish. But would you rather have facts or a good laugh?]

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