I own, just, a fuckton of books. It’s been a bad habit of mine since a young age, one which has basically only become worse as my childhood allowance became the tips from my college bartending gig, which has since become the big boy paychecks of my corporate programming job. I simply own too many books, even after multiple boxloads have been taken to Half Price Books (which, for the unaware, is a godsend of a store for bibliophiles in the American South).
So, with this in mind recently, and thoughts of moving in the near future in my head as well, I decided to do something about it, and in the process, really spend some time thinking about the way that books exist in my life.
With this goal in mind, I have decided to enact what I’ve decided tentatively to call The Purge. The goals of The Purge are simple: read more books, trim down my collection of books, and to build an increased pool of inspiration from which to pull while making games.
So, the terms of The Purge are these three rules:
1. To purchase a new book, I must first read 5 books
The first rule of The Purge, and the key foundation upon which this whole system works, is that I must immediately limit the amount of books coming into my home, such that they do not outpace the amount of books that I’m reading and, hypothetically, selling and getting out.
Five is a semi-arbitrary number. Reading five books should, I think, take me about a month, and if I had to guess, I’ll probably get rid of two in five (more about that later), meaning that my collection will shrink over time with this rule in place.
The other nice thing about this rule is that it directly pairs my book purchasing rate with my book reading rate. I get to keep buying a ton of books, so long as I’m also reading a ton of books, and that makes sense.
2. If I can’t finish a book in one go, it is immediately sold
I have quite a few books on my shelf that I started and just stopped at some point, for some reason, perhaps because I lost motivation, perhaps because some new shiny distracted me, or what have you. No more. That represents lost productivity and time, because you know if and when I go back, I’ll have forgotten everything and have to restart from square one. For the purposes of working through my backlog, and in the interest of keeping my desire for new books satiated through rule 1, this cannot happen.
So, harsh as it may sound, if I’ve started a book and just, for one reason or another, cannot finish it without starting another book in the meanwhile, that book gets added to the sell pile. It should be noted that I can take pauses from reading a single book, but the second I pick up another book instead, that first book is done. This rule is designed to be flexible enough for life: sometimes I might just not want to read, or I’ll have something else I’d rather do, and that’s not the book’s fault. However, if I do get in a reading mood, and I end up reading something else, well, that is the book’s fault, and away it goes.
3. After finishing a book, I must genuinely consider whether or I want to keep it
I am neither of the opinion that holding on to a read book is useless, nor of the opinion that I should hold on to every book I read. Rather, I consider a shelf full of books a sort of trophy case. When looking at a book on the shelf, merely reading the spine is frequently enough to evoke memories of the story, of the characters, of the cool ideas contained therein.
I work in a naturally creative field, one which encourages pulling from as many sources as possible to create novel ideas. Books are profoundly useful towards this goal, as each can encapsulate so many ideas, making them ripe for the creative plunder. Having a bookshelf full of books serves as a fantastic reminder of all of these ideas, allowing me to quickly recall the ideas worth using or reworking in each book.
So, once I finish a book, I have to consider what purpose it has on my shelf. Is it full of ideas I find inspiring? If so, keep it. Is it just, generally, a useful resource (such as a book of mathematics, programming, or algorithms)? Then, yeah, that stays too.
There’s a metric that has maybe been meaningfully absent in this measure of whether a book stays or not, and that’s if the book is good.
This is to cover two cases that would be detrimental to my cultivation of a good, useful bookshelf. The first is the case of a book that is definitely good, but doesn’t really do anything for me. This is the way I feel about The Chronicles of Narnia series: it’s good, seminal even, but the world it portrays and the characters and the ideas all sort of just bounce off of me. I’m not likely to be pulling from Narnia anytime soon, but if I decided to keep good books, it would sit on my shelf pointlessly, instead of potentially making its way to someone who’d genuinely appreciate it on a greater level than I do.
The second case is equally detrimental, and it’s the case of a book that I didn’t quite enjoy, but contains interesting ideas that I might want to pull from. I have a much more recent example of this, the book I just finished, Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit.
Ninefox Gambit is about as ambitious as sci-fi gets. The world is set up as unmistakably alien, as the fundamental forces of mathematics and physics are not constant, but instead, can be manipulated through what are called “calendars”: strict regimens upon which this entire society is based. For certain sci-fi technologies to work, certain calendrical effects must be enforced, meaning people must follow certain rules, perform certain rituals, even celebrate on certain days and, controversially, torture sacrifices in certain ways.
It’s an astonishingly interesting idea, one which plays with the idea of reality itself being formed as a matter of consensus, not just the perception of it. It’s a sci-fi portrayal of the concept that the fundamental structures of society can affect the people who live in it, and of the friction that occurs when people of differing lifestyles interact. For the hexarchate in Ninefox Gambit, when a heresy breaks out in the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a key border outpost of the empire, a declaration of war is not merely an act of xenophobia, it is a necessity, as the defensive systems on board the station will literally not work unless cultural norms are reestablished.
While this world is, ultimately, fascinating, Lee absolutely makes no attempt to try and give readers a frame of reference, a commonality with which to understand these things. Instead, Lee just charges forth, hoping that you’ll be able to use context clues to piece together very loose language into a cohesive understanding of the world, and sometimes, it’s simply very easy to completely lose grasp of what’s happening. I had to reread pivotal scenes of the book, scenes I could tell were supposed to be extremely meaningful moments, simply because I didn’t understand what was happening.
Despite all of this, Ninefox Gambit will have a place on my bookshelf for the forseeable future. The gusto with which it abandons the familiar in favor of creating a truly alien world, the way it uses this far-flung sci-fi to discuss very real, human ideas, and the sheer imaginativeness of the characters, technologies, and societies of the book are the equivalent of a creative barrel of gasoline, fuel that I can burn to power new ideas for years to come.
This sense, that creative fire, is what I hope to cultivate in my bookshelves through this Purge. By the time I’m “done” with this (which, of course, is a fool’s errand, but I will march forward as best I can), I hope to have shelves of books that no longer taunt me with how few of my books I’ve actually read, but rather that spark inspiration within me on days where I have none. I want to have shelves of books burgeoning with memories and ideas and creativity, to serve as a monument to the creative field as a whole.
Those books that I relinquish, meanwhile, will make their way to a used bookstore, where maybe they will wait, until a bibliophile of different tastes than mine shall discover them and read them and be inspired by them, for while everyone is, in my opinion, an engine capable of great creativity, to continue the metaphor, each engine just runs on different fuel.