by James Wallace Harris, 3/21/23
I learned several things this week while entering over fifteen hundred books into my Goodreads database. The books I added were mainly acquired since I retired in 2013. One insight that impressed me the most was I was specializing in a limited number of topics. On one hand, I was disappointed by my narrow range of interests, but on the other hand, I was annoyed at myself for being scattered in my intellectual pursuits. You can’t get good at something if you try to get good at too many things.
If I judged my reading as a leisure activity it wouldn’t matter what I read. However, if I judged my reading as an education, then I was majoring in too many subjects. But here’s the kicker to this revelation. Before I started cataloging my books I assumed I was reading for fun and randomly exploring any subject that caught my fancy. It was only as I entered all the titles into the database did I realize that I have been specializing in several areas. And my immediate impulse was to read deeper into those topics and to go out and buy more books on those subjects.
Why was I chasing so many subjects when I’ve always wanted to be a master of one? Why would I want to do that? Yet, focusing on one would mean ignoring many things I want to know more about. That thought has started me to do a lot of naval gazing this week.
My original goal was to put all my books into my Goodreads database so I’ll know what I own to keep from buying duplicates when I’m at the used bookstore. So far I’ve found a shopping bag of duplicates which I gave to my buddy Mike. I entered all my books into Goodreads many years ago but didn’t update the database when I bought books or gave them away, so my Goodreads database was badly out of date. I had been putting this task off for years because I couldn’t figure out which books to add or delete from the system to catch up again.
My solution was to create a “shelf” called “2023 inventory” and reenter all my books linking them to that shelf. Then delete all the books in the system that wasn’t in the 2023 inventory.
After entering 1,506 books, which were all the physical books in the house, I had 3,159 total books in the database. That implied I could have given away 1,653 books, but then I realized that some of those might be Kindle or Audible books I own. Now I must go down the list of 3,159 books, and if they aren’t in the 2023 inventory, see if they are in my Kindle or Audible libraries. If they aren’t, I can delete them.
Doing all this librarian work has been rewarding in several ways. The work is revealing how my reading has shifted away from physical books to ebooks and audiobooks. This process has also revealed other insights about myself. For certain titles, and subjects I tend to buy both the audiobook and the ebook edition because that’s how I like to study them. And for some titles, I have the ebook, audiobook, and physical book. If I really like the book and subject, or if it’s fiction, and I really enjoy the story, I like getting into the book through all three formats.
I can spot my favorite authors because with some writers I’ve collected their books in all three formats. That also reflects a consolidation of interests, focus, and specialization.
When I used to go to parties I noticed that people tend to talk about things they loved most. The most interesting people were the ones who could expound deeply on a subject. Like most people, I just chatted about what little I knew about a zillion subjects.
I eventually observed that some people like to specialize and that some people even feel they are experts on their favorite subjects. It’s even fun to see two fans of the same subject argue over who knows more. I see from my data entry the subjects I’ve unintentionally tried to master. What’s funny is I seldom meet people interested in the subjects I’m interested in. Which is why I seldom talked much at parties. (This blog is my way of nattering about what I like.)
Thinking about people who know a lot about a little has led me to ask why I’d want to specialize in certain topics anyway? It’s not like I’m at a university trying to pass courses and get a major. I never go to parties anymore. I think it’s like my urge to catalog my books, which is a kind of anal pursuit, I also want to organize what I know.
There is a certain satisfaction in getting the biggest picture on the tiniest of topics. There is also satisfaction in collecting everything of a certain type. For example, I like westerns, so I collected my favorite western movies on DVDs. Then I started buying books about movie westerns. But after that, I started buying books about the history of the American West. I’ve done the same thing for classic rock and jazz music. While cataloging my books I realize I was gathering novels written in England between the wars, and books about their authors. That interest is also reflected in the TV shows I’m watching. Susan and I have recently watched all of Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, and we’re currently going through the seven seasons of the first television version of All Creatures Great and Small.
The upshot of all these cataloging revelations is I want to focus more on my best subjects. And abandon some lesser interests to put more time into my majors. After I finish this project I could write my tombstone epitaph – “Here lies Jim Harris, this is what he liked to read:” I mean, isn’t what we focus on one of the best descriptions of our personality?
I only have nine bookcases. And they are all full. I don’t want to buy more bookcases. Nine’s my limit. I feel that’s also an analogy for my brain. It can only hold so much, so if I want to get better at one subject I have to forget about another.
If I want to buy more books I have to get rid of existing books to make room for the new ones on the shelves. This tends to distill my collection even further into specialized subjects. It also means I cull crappy books for better books.
But there is something else to consider. I’m getting older. I’m running out of time. My mental abilities are declining, which limits how much information I can process. And my physical abilities are declining, which also influences my book collecting. I can imagine a future where I can only handle six bookcases, or even three, and maybe down to just one.
I put every book I own onto a Rubbermaid rolling cart one shelf at a time to take them to my computer to enter their data. That physically wore me out. I’m thinking of getting rid of the heavy coffee table books in my collection just because in the near future I won’t be able to handle their weight. And there’s another reason I need to start shrinking my collection. If I should die I don’t want to burden my wife with having to get rid of a couple of tons of books. And if I ever need to move to a retirement apartment or assisted living I wouldn’t want to deal with all of them either.
This week of cataloging my books has reminded me of which subjects I’ve studied over the last forty years, which subjects are my favorite topics, and that I want to thin out my collection.
Currently, Goodreads says I have a total of 3,150 books but I haven’t finished entering all my Kindle and Audible books. Amazon says I have 1,608 Kindle books and 1,544 Audible titles, however, many are already in Goodreads. I’ve just got to figure out which ones aren’t. Luckily, Kindle and Audible books don’t weigh much, or take up much space.
I’ve always wanted to make a list of everything I own because I assume it would tell me a lot about myself. This Goodreads list is a good start toward that.
24 thoughts on “What I Learned Cataloging My Books, Ebooks, and Audiobooks on Goodreads”
You entered 1500 books by hand??? Or did you have a list you could import? I have trouble entering 2 or 3 books at a time manually, I can’t imagine adding so many.
I found you on Goodreads – we have lots of books in common, though few both of us have already read.
What are the subjects you are most interested in studying? I tend to be a promiscuous reader myself, though science and philosophy/religion probably make up the bulk of nonfiction. However, those two fields contain a huge variety of subfields.
Based on our compared lists, i’m thinking Philosophy is one of your fields as well. Let me recommend The Catherine Project – a series of reading groups, not classes (some leaders are professors, others aren’t), held on zoom. Mostly philosophy/religion, some fiction. The focus is on close reading and discussion. I’m just finishing my second unit (they run 4 to 12 weeks, once a week on zoom) and it’s been great.
Your interest in philosophy is far deeper than mine. I see you are reading several books on Kierkegaard. I’ve only read a little of Plato and Socrates. I tend to read books that are somewhat philosophical by writers who aren’t philosophers.
I used the compare books and see we have read or own a lot of the same books. We both liked The Swerve.
I think we overlap most with the Best American short story anthologies. It’s interesting we have The Glass Bead Game on our to-read lists. I’ve been wanting to read that one for decades but have been put off by its length and complexity. Many of the books that I have listed to-read have been read. I just haven’t transferred my reading log to Goodreads yet.
i reckon if i have a headstone(actually, i expect i’ll wind up as landfill in potters field somewhere or other) it will read ‘ WISH YOU WERE HERE.’ i’m envious of you having that kind of space to work in and with; sounds like my old crib on the northwest side of chicago, circa 1983-1987. these days my place in san mateo is beginning to look like an annex of my storage locker, by george! for what it’s worth, herman hesse has a fixed and permanent place in my academy of the overrated, along with james joyce,ernest hemingway, and tom robbins; but i reckon that’s another list for another day.
But then Ed, who do you rate highly in your old wise age?
Yes, I entered every book in the house. It wasn’t that hard. I thought it was going to be. I got into a system. I’d put one shelf of books onto the rolling card and roll them to the computer. I’d enter them in, and then go get another shelf. On the first day, I did one shelf. The next three. I had 42 shelves total, plus books just lying around. I got it so I could do six shelves in one day. On the last day, I did more.
I’ve been thinking about going back to the Great Courses (now called Wonderium). I’ve subscribed a couple of times now. It has a number of philosophy courses.
Many thanks for your reflections, as always, Jim! What you write here reminds me of a remark by David G. Hartwell in his book Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction. He writes (as I recall) that SF fans tend not to be well founded, but rather tend to be multiple specialists, as it were.
Jim – the passwords don’t work for me anymore. I have several several passwords for “Wordpress” – I can get in to my own site pronto but that’s it anymore.
Anyway – I wanted to tell you that I think shopping at Amazon really restricts our choices. If you get a chance wander around a good big bookstore and see what’s available there. Really look at the individual books.
I tend to get stuck in history but the All-nonfiction group has opened that up (on Amazon) to science and psychology and maybe something else – biographies?
I agree, Becky. I enjoy browsing in second-hand bookstores for the curiosities I often spot there, which I probably wouldn’t see in Chapters-Indigo (the Canadian equivalent of Barnes & Noble).
Becky, I still go to physical bookstores. Most of the books I cataloged were ones I bought at the Friends of the Library bookstore.
We are kindred souls. I haven’t gone to as much effort as you to catalog my holdings.
I have “cleaned house” a few times, the last time being in the fall of 2017 when I sold my house and had to get rid of thousands of books.
I’m at it again but have a 6 by 10 storage locker loaded to the gunnels with boxes, boxes and boxes of books. But it’s time to declutter again and I have shifted in the last year or so to ebooks and audio books.
The problem I find which makes awareness of my biblioholism manifest is that not only do I have 2 and 3 copies of some books because I have forgotten I have a copy and buy another, but I can’t find the ones I know I have, somewhere.
I like to give books away but I don’t want to burden people or imply that they have to read them so I leave them in coffee shops and Little Libraries and for awhile did the Bookcrossing thing but that was too much work.
I, too, struggle with the generalist/specialist thing. I don’t consider myself an expert on much but when I start talking about a topic I am shocked at how much I know and the person I am talking to seems somewhat overwhelmed and I have to shut up.
I notice that some people read, read, read, and brag about how many books they’ve read, but I wonder what they do, if anything, with the knowledge they have gained? Do they apply it to their lives and has it helped them become better people?
I read this quote from Confuscious earlier today and the comment seems apropos
“To study and not think is a waste. To think and not study is dangerous.
Confucius was keen on learning from the existing world around him, but he also believed in critical thought. Learning and thinking are complementary: If we merely read a book and don’t apply it in our own way to the real world, we risk not forming any real original opinions. On the other hand, if we parrot ideas based merely on things overheard, or facts not thoroughly examined, we run the risk of inheriting and perpetuating misinformation.
I like your post and musing about book organization very much. Thank you for sharing your experience and work.
I’ve always wanted to do more with what I read. Blogging is one outlet. I also like reading deeper into a subject. One book will lead me to another.
Decluttering your storage locker will take some work!
Not to be morbid — and I hope the day is far off — but have you considered tagging certain paper books that you suspect might be valuable? That way, when the very probably non-reading heirs to your estate look at your collection, they won’t be tempted to just donate it all, take them to Half Price Books, or just deposit them in a rented dumpster but to sell them to a good used bookdealer. Such a dealer probably won’t take everything, but they’ll pay better for what they do take.
I’ve heard one too many tales of woes from such dealers about truly impressive and valuable collections just dumped or donated by heirs to Goodwill.
I used to have an inventory of all my books on LibraryThing. Then, in a very rush move, a lot of books got sold or donated, and there was no time to update the inventory. At least, the cd inventory is up to date. I still need to do the dvds. And all my wife’s books. I never inventoried magazines because the madness must end somewhere.
I joke with my wife that she should just take everything to Goodwill. I tell her some books are worth money. She tells me to mark those. I tell her that’s no fun, I want her to find the treasures.
What I should do is leave the phone numbers to book buyers. There are booksellers who will buy whole collections.
Penelope Lively: “About 3,000 books line the walls of my house. Most of them I shall never read again, but they must stay there. They define me; they remind me that I thought this, was interested in that; they reassure me, as I hurtle towards 90. Occasionally I shed a few books, but to get rid of many of them would be like discarding part of my mind.”
I’m inspired by you and Penelope. I thought I needed to purge my books, but that made me sad. I had a Florida-to- Wisconsin move in late 2021, which I’m still recovering from. I need to do what you are doing.
I would like to follow you on Goodreads also – how do I find you? I plan to kill my WordPress blog. I can use Goodreads as a book tracker and commonplace book.
I’m at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/1657830 but you have to be signed into Goodreads to see it. When you get there send me your link.
By the way, most people go from Wisconsin to Florida. Didn’t you like the warm weather, or did you miss the cold?
OK – I found you on Goodreads and requested to be added as a friend. Link to my books: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/107908577?ref=nav_mybooks
I am a cold weather person, could not acclimate to 8 months a year of a steamy sub-tropical climate. It may be an illusion, but I feel like I’ve found Norman Rockwell/Grandma Moses country.
I see we both liked Stoner by John Williams and Abide by Me by Elizabeth Strout.
Oh yes – I’m in the mood to start re-reading Williams. There’s a movie coming out in April based on his novel “Butcher’s Crossing” – I hope they do it right. https://www.imdb.com/video/vi3017783321/?ref_=tt_vi_i_1
I used to love the cold, but I just can’t handle it anymore. Unfortunately, my wife doesn’t want to move to Florida. I think I’d love all that hot weather. But then, I grew up in Miami. Memphis is a decent compromise between cold and hot.
“If I should die…” Clearly you’re a glass is half full sort of fellow, James:) I probably have 1500 physical books dating back 60 years, i.e. Tom Swift and Tom Corbett books. Heck, some of them I even reread, I just finished a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, and I’m reading Chandler’s The High Window, both of which were next to me on the shelf where my reading chair sits. So who knows what I’ll find next. But basically, they’re just old friends.
What a coincidence. The last Audible book I bought was The High Window. I love Chandler’s prose for his obsession with vivid details. When I was cataloging by books I found an old Tom Swift, the kind when they still had dustjackets, that I bought several years ago. I still haven’t gotten around to rereading it. So much to read, so little time…
After reading SF for a decade, Chandler and P G Wodehouse opened my eyes to the fact that writing itself could be entertaining in and of itself, independent of the story being told.
That’s true and I discover in the oddest places. Like MISS BUNCLE’S BOOK by D. E. Stevenson. It’s great to listen to.