At the Back Fence Issue #276

September 3, 2007 

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

Getting It Together

As I told my husband a couple of days ago, I just finished “Phase III” of my office reorganization. After he asked how many phases there will be, I replied, “Maybe four…or perhaps five.”

All this began early this summer when we embarked on some updating to the interior and exterior of our home. After removing the full-wall bookcase that housed many books – along with our TV – in the den, we realized we didn’t want to put it back. We preferred the open space, and though we never planned for it, we ended up with a low console I designed to house all the entertainment unit equipment, and a TV hung on the wall. Yes…when we plan to make one change, it almost always snowballs into more, far more expensive changes. Thank goodness for all those AMEX points accumulated over a period of years or we’d never have been able to pull that one off.

Without that huge bookcase one of my questions became, “What’ll we do with all the books and tchotchkes that no longer have a home?” Another thing that seems to happen whenever we make changes in decor: we simplify and get rid of “stuff” we accumulate. As I get older I’ve come to admire a more spare style of design. So, we organized throughout, culled things we didn’t need, pinkie swore that we’d stop buying decorative vases and bowls, and I started to go through books.

See, in addition to taking down that bookcase so the room could be painted, we’d also removed it so that we could re-carpet the den. And not just the den – my study, too. Those are the two rooms in the house that remain carpeted, and, of the two, my study was in worse shape because it’s verbotten to anyone but me, and I never seem to have the time to keep it orderly. Too many books – not enough shelf space.

I faced a daunting task of scheduling painters, carpet-layers, an electrician, handy-man, tree surgeon, plumber, roofer, and “patio guy” so that everything could be done with the knowledge that we were visiting our daughter in Vermont in June and wanted to keep the house in one piece for our house-sitter, and the fact that I was scheduled for surgery in July. During July and August we also knew we’d have relatives coming to stay a couple of times, and my mom would be here for a week while I recovered from surgery. So I need the house livable when company was staying, and also wanted to have as much done as possible prior to my surgery date, which mean that, basically, once we returned from Vermont, we had to pack up things from five rooms as though we were moving. Given that my study was a horrendous mess, I didn’t know if we could pull it all off.

It took two full days for me just to pack up my study. We incorporated part of the original bookcase from the den into my study once the carpet was installed and the paint was dry. Before one of our nieces arrived for a visit with her youngest son – a five month old – I had just two more days to remove all the packed up boxes and bags from our daughter’s room (they would be staying in the Rock ‘N’ Roll suite), and unpack them and reorganize everything so that my study would finally, after all these years, be functional enough that I could maintain its upkeep and not face a disaster at least once a year, generally before Thanksgiving when we have our fullest house of the year.

Although I actually had more shelves on which to store books, the new design didn’t allow for a desk per se, just a place for my computer, printer, scanner, phone, pens, and notepad. My husband insisted, and though I fought him, I eventually acquiesced. I think his devious plan all along was to not give me a large desk area because every time I’ve had counter space in my study, it’s become a mountain of crap in no time. His passive aggressive insistence forced me to re-think how I work, and already I’m working cleaner.

Until now, i’ve stored the books I keep in various places. Whatever could not be shelved was stored in those under-the-bed boxes that don’t fit under my bed, but they did fit under my desk and some deep shelves. I took a new approach given that I no longer had an “under my desk”. I shelved everything instead: erotic romance on my highest shelf so as not to be a beacon to teens; then romance novels, horror/urban fantasy, young adult fiction, women’s fiction, historical fiction, non-fiction, and “other”. I endeavored to keep space on each shelf so that other “keepers” could be added. When I finished, I counted…I had something like 650″keepers” in my library (if it earns B- or higher, I keep it).

Originally I kept books graded C+ or higher, and all books that were parts of series, regardless of my grade for them. Some years ago I made the decision – for space reasons, again – that unless the book earned at least a qualified recommendation from me, it was outta here. Did I ever regret that? Well…a couple of times I’ve had to buy a book a second time. For instance, my original grade for Elizabeth Lowell’s Only His was a C+. When I went on a Westerns kick some years ago, I bought a used copy and liked it much better the second time around. As for getting rid of books that are a part of a series? That took longer. It was just last week that I handled the last vestige of that particular personal quirk – after years and years and years, I finally put poorly graded books in Anne Rice ‘s extended vampire series in the “trade” box.

That was Phase I. Next up was Phase II, for unread books, using the other shelves – those that line my study’s walk-in closet on three sides, as well as the rest in my study. I knew I’d have plenty of room, but tried to cull as I unpacked the boxes and bags of unread books. Trad Regencies took up six shelves of a narrow eight shelf bookcase alone and Harlequin Presents another two shelves. Unread erotic romance went into the closet, again, away from teenage eyes. The rest of the books simply went into alphabetical order by the same classifications I used for read books – ie, romance, ya fiction, etc. I was astounded to find out how much room my unread Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb collection took up (nearly three fairly wide shelves), particularly considering how many of her books I’ve already read, and kept!

I accomplished as much as I could in the two days allotted, but four or five extra shelves needed for the units were on back-order at the Container Store. So what was left was dumped into those under-the-bed boxes and stacked up in the corner. That’s where I was when it was time to end Phase II. My niece and baby were here and my mom was coming in a few days, and though I’d not finished everything, I’d gotten far enough that I wouldn’t be able to weasel out of finishing the job when the shelves came in and I was recovered from my surgery.

Though the shelves came in at the start of August, I wasn’t well enough to tackle Phase III until about a week ago. First I tried to finish updating my book database with books I’d read recently but hadn’t recorded. I wouldn’t actually put them away until I reviewed them for my blog and entered them into the database. I now have several reviews scheduled for publishing over the next couple of months (these books were generally ARCS and are just now starting to be released). Then I hit a snag…I couldn’t find a couple of the books I’d read, and the whole “are they print versions or e-book versions?” question bit me on the ass. Added to my “to-do” list was the creation of a new field for my database so that I could input their location. Obviously, if the books earned less than a B-, they were traded. But now I realize I need to add a “Print/Electronic Book” field for next year’s database…and if I have time, I may go back through this year’s as well.

By the time I’d finished Phase III, I only needed to unpack one more under-the-bed box, although several stacks of other books remain in my closet, where I dumped them after the carpet layers but before the painters since the closet didn’t need painting. Well…there’s also a basket filled with books that I generally keep next to my bed, and those need shelving too.

Phase IV, which needs to be done asap, should take care of the stragglers in my closet, as well as that one box. But if it turns out that my closet, which currently houses unread books Authors A – K, can’t handle all the stragglers, I will be doing additional culling as Phase IV and those final stragglers will become Phase V. I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t find those two books I’m looking for, but hopefully they’re among the stragglers. If not, I’ll probably spend time I don’t have looking elsewhere in the house for any place they may be hiding.

Not all my books are in my study, although with the additional shelf space, my goal is to have all of my books “close by”. That basket in my bedroom? It’s for all the romances I plan to start, or do start, but then stop reading early on, for some reason or other. They are eventually “re-shelved” in my study. My husband’s books, non-romances, first editions, antique books, older books, political books, art books, “coffee table books”, and other “books for company” are located throughout the house, in bookcases in our bedroom, living room, and now, back bedroom, where we’ve taken our playroom and made it into a guestroom/study. Of my books, the only ones I don’t plan to move into my study are the art books, coffee table books, and books I wouldn’t mind lending out, which comprise part of our “books for company”. All those Anne Rice and Calvin Trillin books that used to be in the den? Now they’re with me.

As for my e-books, E-Bookwise allows its users to store all books bought through E-Bookwise and Fictionwise online on a personal bookshelf. Those not purchased through them, though, I keep in computer files. Because I own far more e-books than fit on my dedicated reader, I am constantly removing something to make room for something new, although some books have a permanent home on the device (including all my Jane Austen books, and my favorite erotic romances). Because unlike my real study, my hard drive is huge, I never delete any e-book from my computer, regardless of how much I may have disliked it, mostly because…well, you never know. Another long-term goal…perhaps Phase VI? To better organize my computerized e-book files. I started to do that last year, and got as far as setting up sub-directories and moving files for authors I’ve bought several times in e-book format – Elizabeth Lowell, Jillian Hunter, Jo Goodman, Rhyannon Byrd, and Jaid Black, for instance. But eHarlequin messed up my original system, though, because their books must be purchased in either Microsoft Reader (lit) or Adobe (pdf) format. Since it’s an easier process to translate a book in rtf format and then upload it onto my e-Bookwise, I always buy lit files when ordering through eHarlequin. Unfortunately, doing so lands them in a file and directory of Microsoft and/or eHarlequin’s choosing.

As for my database, this year’s version includes the following fields:

  • Grade
  • Title
  • Author First Name, Author Last Name
  • Copyright Date
  • Publish Date
  • Genre
  • Sub-Genre
  • Full Length or Short Story?
  • Anthology Title
  • Series Name
  • Date Read

This is almost the same set-up as last year’s database, although I separated the catch-all field I’d been using for either anthology title or series name and set up two unique fields instead. As I mentioned earlier, next year’s database will also include a field to let me know if the book is a print version or electronic one.

I started my database long before there was an AAR. Why do I keep such elaborate information on the books I read? Well, it helps that I’m obsessive by nature, and that I’m in the business of talking about books and what I read. It prevents me from buying books twice, and provides me the sort of recall I need for writing this column…and participating in AAR’s other polls. It’s something I’ve done for so long now that I can’t imagine stopping. I know others keep even more detailed information, either computerized or via hand-written journals, but I also realize others don’t do anything. As a champion list-maker, it’s just a part of my nature.

Ever since I started to read romance, I’ve glom bought, which means that I’ve made many mistakes and over-bought. As a result, after about three or four years, I started to cull my collection, starting with an expensive mistake. I’d heard how terrific Bertrice Small’s Skye O’Malley series was early on. At the time they were available only in trade size, and this was before Internet bookstores had taken off. Instead, I worked from a series of UBS owners from around the country whose phone numbers I’d collected from friends in order to get the series. I was very happy when I’d gotten all the books…until I actually read my first Bertrice Small…and then my second. I hated her writing and immediately traded the whole, expensive – and entirely unread – series!

As a result of the Small disaster, I cull about once a year. This time there’s less to cull since I’ve bought fewer books in print than in previous years – mostly due to their availability in electronic format. There are also fewer to rid myself of because now I have added shelf space. Regardless of the reason, culling, even though it means losing money on the deal – feels immensely freeing. It’s a “good riddance!” kind of thing for me. What did I cull this year? Well, last summer at RWA in Atlanta, I ended up sending home a huge box of freebie books. Turns out my eyes were bigger than my stomach, so to speak, because most of those fill this year’s cull box.

As for my library…well, here are the conclusions I’ve drawn. Since I was recovering from surgery at the start of August, I never made an August book order. And after putting my hands on nearly every book I own, I don’t think I’ll be ordering any in September either. That may seem odd given that this year has been a real boon for me in terms of DIK reads; three 2007 romances landed on my “all-time” keeper shelves. Even so, right now I’m eying backlists I have for many favorite authors with more enthusiasm than any new books that might be on sale soon. Most of these books harken back to the supposed “golden days” of romance, and as I read them, I’ll be writing about my reading experiences with these oldies but goodies. And then there are those newer authors I’ve collected and want to read more of as well. Even with this most recent culling of books, I’m hesitant to count all the unread books in my study…my guess would be I’ve got roughly a thousand books tbr. It seems wiser to read through a chunk of those before buying more, no? After all, I’d really like it not to be true that I’ve go so many books I’ll be dead before I can read ’em all.

We’ve discussed personal libraries before, but I know I’m not the only one to take stock of things once a year or so (or more). By talking about our books, how many we have, and how we care for them, we’re defining ourselves as readers, and that’s always a good thing. Because for many of us it’s an annual process, and because not all of you have participated in this discussion before, my questions for you today are:

  • Do you maintain a book collection, and if so, how is it organized (if at all)?
  • How much space in your house is devoted to books?
  • How often do you “work” on your library, and what is your process?
  • How big is your tbr? What is the biggest it’s ever been, and if it’s smaller now, how did you cull it?
  • If you have both an e-book library and an actual library, how do you know where to find what?
  • How do you store your books…and do you store keepers differently than those tbr?
  • Do you maintain any sort of written or electronic records of your reading? Please detail.
  • Do you ever back-list read, and if so, what is the longest period of time you’ve devoted to doing so?
  • What is your biggest glom mistake in terms of effort, the number of books, and/or the cost?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

Post to the Archives for this Column

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)