I just tore my office apart. I bought a new filing cabinet and three new sets of bookshelves. In the past I've been a book hoarder, keeping every single research book I ever used, as well as novels I hadn't read in 10 years and probably wouldn't reread for another 10. So I'm trying an experiment. One set of shelves will hold DVDs and my published works. Another set will hold research books and art books. The third set will hold nothing but fiction, including graphic novels. The experiment is this: I can only own as much fiction as will fit on that last set of shelves. When I fill it and buy a new book, I have to get rid of an old book.
I got the idea from Brian Eno. At one point he owned exactly 200 records. Each time he bought an album he had to sell or give one away. Yes, there's something arbitrary about choosing 200 records or the space of one set of shelves, but that's part of the experiment's allure. I'm only partially in control. I have no idea how many books I'll end up with. The Satanic Verses and Gravity's Rainbow take up a lot more room than J.G. Ballard's High-Rise or Lauren Beukes's Zoo City. Maybe I'll cheat and start buying a lot more skinny books. Maybe I'll devote an entire shelf to jumbo reads such as Infinite Jest and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (for the record, I never read one and never finished the other).
What I hope is that, by forcing myself to jettison books, I'll break the habit of keeping everything that ever enters my office and end up with a collection of books that hold some special meaning beyond what I keep around to look smart for company. I don't want a learned person's library. I want something chaotic and eccentric, like a Rauschenberg found-objects sculpture. Instead of asking, "Why is there a stuffed goat and a tire on a painted platform?" I want visitors to ask, "Why is The Saragossa Manuscript between Clive Barker's Books of Blood and K.W. Jeter's Dr. Adder?"
I'm not worried about losing contact with old classics. I like Dickens, and reading his work has helped me keep going when I was stuck on a novel. But it's not like the world is going to run out of copies of A Tale of Two Cities. I can find a used hardback for a few bucks or download a copy to my iPad. And yes, I have a lot of ebooks. The experiment isn't about how many books I have access to but how many books mean so much to me that I want them around, lurking in the background like my cats.
The experiment might go nowhere. That's why it's an experiment. I might go crazy in a month, run to Goodwill, and buy back everything I've donated. But for now I'm having a good time going through the shelves book by book, making Keep These Until I Die and Why the Hell Did I Ever Buy These? stacks. Of course, books signed to me are exempt from the giveaway rules, as is the collection of '70s New Wave SF novels in my bedroom. I've given away three boxes and two bags of books so far, and I only regretted losing a couple enough to buy new copies. It's nice having floor space again. And it's nice not having shelves crack under the weight of all the rainforest books I bought while writing Kamikaze L'Amour and never looked at again.
Here are my questions for you: What experiment would you run in your life, and what's stopping you from doing it?