Saturday, 28 October 2017

Books, more books and index cards


 British Library. Photo by Matthijs.

I love books, I have said it many a time. I regard them as lifelong friends and cannot bear to be parted from them.  My home is full of books, mostly mine though there are also several lying around that are regularly borrowed from the many libraries I am a member of.  But I am nowhere near the 50,000 volumes that semiotician and author Umberto Eco owned (see this excellent article on what  Nassim Taleb names antilibrary). That is an impressive personal research library, even larger than my local community library! My collection is limited to less than a thousand volumes, including some journals and I care about each one most passionately.  I used to have more books but somehow they went astray.

This is my current problem: I do not really know for sure how many books I have in total.  So I have decided to catalogue them. It's not something I particularly relish but I am doing it through an app called Libib, which you download on your phone. You also need to sign up for  an online account, totally free, and then through your phone app you can begin to scan the barcode of your books.  It's all fine when books have barcodes but I also own some, quite a number in fact, which are not barcoded at all. Those will need to be entered manually and yes, it is going to be a bit of a pain to do it.

I have already catalogued the books that used to be in my bedroom, which has now been turned into a guest room, since members of my extended family and various European friends (yes, I know that geographically Britain is in Europe and the British are technically European, but it definitely does not feel that way) have decided this is the time to visit Britain before Brexit turns the country into a forbidden land - travel to Britain is going to be full of red tape, post-Brexit. This article tells you about travelling from Britain to Europe, it is reasonable to assume travelling to Britain is not going to be easy either.

El Escorial Library, Spain. Source: The 20 coolest libraries in the world
Anyway, I could not bear to leave my books in that room, not that my very occasional guest would touch them or anything, but my books have to be with me all the time, I want to be able to look at the shelves and see the titles and feel reassured by their presence. I also read them (or reread them, or consult them)  whenever I feel like it, which could well be in the middle of the night, as I tend to have an irregular sleep pattern. The thought of having a guest in that room and not being able to sneak in at all hours to pick up a book  (and family member or not a guest is a guest, with their own need for privacy) prompted me to move the bookcases out of the room and rearrange all the furniture.

So I have been carrying boxes and bookcases from one room to another throughout the week, which meant books were suddenly all over since you cannot move a bookcase without first emptying it of its contents. The books  are now back on the shelves in just two rooms, the living room and my current bedroom and OK, I admit it, also the bathroom - but not in the kitchen, not anymore, though I have some cookbooks, a waste, I have been told, since I do not do much cooking. But having cookbooks gives me something to read while I am boiling an egg, vowing I will try the recipe soon enough. And those pictures are wonderful to look at!

I plan to scan all the barcodes doing each room systematically, then will tackle the non-barcoded books. Libib allows you to catalogue up to a 100,000 books for free, after which you need to go Pro. I don't think I shall ever need to switch to Pro, much as I would love to emulate Umberto Eco. Though I am pretty sure that within two or three years I shall have acquired at least a hundred more books, but adding them to my catalogue will be easy.

A home library. Photo: Paul Massey for House&Garden

I have now gone back to buying real books, after doing the Kindle, iBooks and GooglePlay thing.  I am fully aware of the great advantages of accessing books online and carrying them around on your  phone or tablet, but listen, I have an emotional attachment to the printed page, electronic books don't feel like books. Maybe it's an ageing thing? Generational? My best childhood memories are of well thumbed volumes, millennials might reminisce about their first iPad.

 I have also gone back to using index cards for my projects. I have Zotero and the Corkboard app, but again there is a feeling of great satisfaction in going to a reference library such as the British Library carrying my own index card box and filling each card with notes, using a pencil, since the British Library does not allow pens.

I recently bought myself a new copy of that wonderful little book written by Eco - you can tell I am a great admirer of his - entitled "How to write a thesis", which is not just for theses, but for any project you are doing which involves reading books and cross-referencing. The above mentioned article about Eco and the antilibrary discusses this very same book.  It used to be my bible, I had it way back and then the book vanished, most likely borrowed by some friend and never returned.

What a pain that is, when friends do not return borrowed books, I regard it as insulting - incidentally Libib allows you to keep track of who borrows what, which is handy.  There is another app which apparently automatically sends polite reminders to friends who have borrowed your precious tomes, but I cannot remember which app it is.

A view of the London Library. Source: London Library

Anyway I reread Eco's book with great gusto. Written in pre-digital times, it teaches you how to use index cards most effectively. I still have those I compiled when I was doing my PhD, they are in a large box, I had several sets.  They have moved house with me a few times. And no, I am not getting rid of them, are you kidding me? There is some solid work that went into writing them, hours of pouring over library shelves, hours of reflection, trying to connect ideas most succinctly. They are part of my life, even though my PhD thesis is now obsolete. Just seeing the box that houses them gives me pleasure. Marie Kondo, the priestess of decluttering, does say that if it gives you pleasure, you keep it. I definitely adhere to that principle.
After rereading Eco's very sound advice, I decided that Zotero's convenience notwithstanding, I would start working again with index cards. I was delighted to find that  they can still be bought,  I am clearly not the only lunatic who shuns the delights of electronic cross-referencing for laborious scribbling with pen and paper.
The other thing I like doing is writing notes all over my books - they are mine, after all. But I think I shall have to take this up in a different post.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Declutter before you die




A friend sent me a link to an article  recently published in The New Yorker entitled Five Ways To Declutter By Reckoning With Your Mortality Plus One Bonus Tip. I badly need doing it said my friend - meaning the decluttering of course, not the dying.
It's a good article, quite humorous.  I definitely love the container store tip.
But seriously this decluttering thing is much more complicated than it sounds.
I have written about decluttering  in this blog a few times, the last time  coinciding with when I decided to rent out my flat while I was in  Indonesia for a a few months.  I kind of had to: my guest was going to need space for her own possessions and I definitely had  much stuff that needed sorting (please note, carefully storing, not throwing away, unless absolutely necessary), not to mention a good clean.
 Overall I am not fully convinced that getting rid of one's possessions is conducive to happiness, goodbye rituals notwithstanding. Yes, I realise we can't take anything with us when we die, but surely it is the least of our worries? OK, other people will have to sort out our clutter - but let them. That's the way it works. It's also called inheriting - I inherited a lovely carpet from my mother, for example.
I am not advocating a life in which we are swamped by litter and chaos, definitely not, cleanliness is very important. What I am saying though is that we often end up getting rid of things that we actually need or which might turn out to be useful years after we acquire them.
There is also immense  pleasure in rummaging in boxes we have stored away, reopening them after a long time. Only the other day I found a jumper which was in mint condition and really pretty, which I had hidden away with the intention of getting rid of as it was in a bag full of discarded fabric, only forgot all about it - and am glad I did not dispose of it. Maybe I wanted to add something to it - a couple of years ago I got a sewing machine I soon fell out of love with, but never got round to it. Anyway, it is now back with the other jumpers.

Books are the other thing I simply cannot give away. I find the rule of not keeping any book you have not read rather silly. I might buy a couple of books and not read them until much later, that's the whole point of having one's own library, as well as the opportunity one has to read again those books  already read - rereading is an art in itself. Umberto Eco had a personal library of 50,000 volumes. When asked whether he had read them all he famously replied that he had not but loved the idea he could always find something new to read.
Very full bookshelves cheer me up. I am so very glad that my son, now living on his own, has inherited this passion for books. When I last visited he showed me some gorgeous volumes he had picked at Oxfam Books and began telling me about his plans for floor to ceiling bookshelves.
I once felt tempted to prune my library lured by the promise of  one of those services that seem to have mushroomed all over the internet which  buy unwanted books . I spent a whole day sorting my books into bundles then pricing them and packing them, only to realise I just could not get rid of them like that. I carefully removed them from the boxes and muttering an 'I am so sorry' aimed at my precious tomes  I lovingly lifted them and put them back on the shelves, where they belonged.  Books are friends, for life. How can we part with them so flippantly, just to 'eliminate clutter'?

Minimalist living from Yoga Journal

Minimalism is appealing,I definitely love looking at those beautiful pictures in blogs devoted to minimalist style, such as the one above, from an article on decluttering in Yoga Journal .  But it is not suited to everyone.
Decluttering is a bit of  fad, at the moment. Sure, we don't need  to keep all bits of papers we handle - but let's not get carried away with throwing things.  We might actually need those papers as soon as we get rid of them. Ever found yourself having to spend the good part of  a day on the phone to HMRC or the HR  department of a former employer  trying to locate records relating to your employment which you no longer have because you have chucked away payslips and bank statements and you desperately need the information, no longer accessible to you?
So yes, let's declutter, but sensibly.  And honestly, the last thing on my mind is to make a good impression on those who inherit my mess.  It is at it were, the privilege of dying - there has to be something good about it, after all. Who cares what happens or what people think of me when I am gone?  Everything truly becomes immaterial.