Essays

How to Start an Intentional Book Collection

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I love the idea of books traveling, of giving books away. I like to imagine the life of my old books with more than one loving home. For many years, I was part of BorderSenses, a nonprofit that promotes literature and art. In those years, one of my favorite projects was what I called the BorderSenses Traveling Bookcase. It was not really a bookcase, but a suitcase we would bring to farmer’s markets and community events. The suitcase was filled with books written by local authors and the products of community projects. We would give the books away in exchange for any other book people wanted to donate. Years later, I helped co-found a literary press, Veliz Books, which had as one of its goals creating more opportunities for Latin American literature to travel to the U.S. The name, Veliz, is a word in Spanish that means “suitcase.”

One of the greatest gifts my husband has given me was building a little library we placed in our front yard. Even after several years of having it, I still get excited when I see someone leave with a book in their hands, especially if it is one of the books I put there. It would be fair to say that one of the joys of my life has been to see books travel. Yet, people who know me are not surprised to learn that I have a book embosser that reads “Ex Libris Minerva Laveaga Luna.” The truth is, there are books I could never let go. If you are looking for considerations to curate your personal library intentionally, I hope mine will help you:

Consider Old Books You Would Like to Revisit

There are very few books I have read more than once. I am always surprised when I see my mom reading a book I know she has already finished. “But there are so many new books out there,” I tell her. She agrees that there are good new books, but the ones she rereads are good too, she says. Books we reread have the capacity of reminding us of past versions of ourselves. Favorite books contain characters we loved and would like to remember. I’ve heard people explain rereading a book as visiting an old house where they once lived. As we go through each room, we remember details we had forgotten, spaces and experiences that brought us joy. Why wouldn’t you want to return?

I do not have the practice of reading books more than once, but I do visit the ones I love by opening them at random and reading fragments. Sometimes I reread passages when I am working on a story or an essay that needs inspiration for a specific element, such as dialogue or imagery. Other times I open an old book because I find myself missing my language, the way it used to be. I miss words no one uses anymore, but that are intrinsically connected to memories of my grandmother and a dear grand-uncle. The smallest shelf in my house is the most important. It is by my bed and it has the books I would rescue if there was a fire. Among others, that is where Rosario Castellanos and Juan Rulfo’s books are. Their words are like photographs of a time gone, pages filled with a vocabulary that brings me back to my childhood in a few sentences. If there are books you would like to revisit, even if you don’t read the full book all over again, those are books that are worth keeping.

Consider the Idea That Piles of Unread Books Speak Well of You

There is a Japanese word used to describe the act of collecting books that will not be read: tsundoku. The term tsundoku refers to the act of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up without reading them. We tend to think that the most valuable knowledge is that which we already have. However, there is also the idea that the books we buy with the intention of reading, even if we don’t get to read them, reflect an understanding that there is still much to learn. This understanding, an important recognition, is one that would make Socrates proud. A pile of books that we want to read shows the humility that comes from true knowledge.

In his book “The Black Swan,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses Umberto Eco’s personal library as an example of what he calls “an antilibrary.” Eco owned more books than was possible to read in a lifetime, but he saw the shelves with unread books as a representation of knowledge he should remind himself he didn’t have. Taleb argues that a personal library should contain as much of what we don’t know as possible. Kevin Mims explains the idea brilliantly in his article “All Those Books You’ve Bought but Haven’t Read? There’s a Word for That,” which appeared in The New York Times in 2018. Mims explains that a person who is no longer expanding their personal library may have reached the point where they think they know all they need to know and that what they don’t know cannot hurt them. In contrast, “an ever-expanding library understands the importance of remaining curious.” 

Consider Your Legacy

In general, for me, the decision of what books to keep in my personal library boils down to two considerations: Will I look for that book and read it again (even if only fragments)? If the answer is yes, the book is a keeper.

My second consideration is: Is it important that one day my son, my niece, or my nephew, read this book? I am well aware that in this case, I have no control over whether or not they will read the books I am keeping for them. As it is, I see my son starting his own personal library with books I have never read. He has his own taste, independent from mine, and although he usually reads the works I recommend, I don’t know if he will have time to read all the books I envision will enrich his life. Nonetheless, the ones I keep for him represent my hope for all he will experience.

Books Make Great Gifts

One of my philosophy professors in college used to say that the greatest thing about having something is that we always have a gift to give. On more than one occasion, I have been happy to have held onto a book that although I knew I would not read again, I kept because it was the kind of book I knew would make a good gift. Books that are inspirational or that are good company in difficult times, make for great gifts. During the pandemic, I gravitated towards books that dealt with grief as I tried to understand and overcome my own losses. Some of those books are also the ones I open at random and read a few pages of when I feel the need for their company. Other books from that group, I have given to friends who may need the company more than me. 

An intentional book collection starts with the disposition of bringing together titles that are united in some way. Mine started with novels and short stories because when I started writing, that was all I wanted to write. But it was through those authors that I also learned to appreciate poetry and nonfiction. I also like going on adventures and reading books that bring me peace and calm. An intentional book collection for me does not mean having only one type of book, but collecting books with the overall objective of building opportunities for myself and those I love to find the right words at the right time. I collect books as hopes for future moments, to remember a story or a character I loved, to remind myself of what I wish to learn, to build bridges with the young people in my family, and to have gifts for my friends. An intentional book collection does not need a strict set of rules, only the certainty that there is a good reason for it.

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