One of the occupational hazards of my profession is accumulation. Somehow all too many of the books I’m supposed to be selling to other people wind up coming home with me. Yes, you’re thinking, you know all about that–the to-be-read pile on your nightstand is a veritable leaning tower. Well, my nightstand is a to-be-read pile. With a to-be-read pile stacked on top of it. I’ve forgotten what color paint is on my walls because there’s not a one that isn’t covered with shelves. Instead of having money deducted from my paycheck and put it into a 401K, I just deposit it right back into the store’s cash register and walk off with the stock. Over and over again. As terracotta warriors are to Chinese emperors, so are books to me.
Owning this many volumes (a point of pathology, not of pride) requires me to have a system of organization. Otherwise I end up looking at a new paperback and thinking, “Did I already buy this in hardcover?” or wondering why I have two copies of number fourteen in the Aubrey-Maturin series and none of number fifteen.
Many people use Goodreads to keep track of their collections, but I’ve never been very fond of it. It isn’t designed to catalog your books as much as it is to let you brag about them to your virtual friends, and God knows my friends don’t need me spouting off about books any more than I do now. Instead I catalog the contents of my shelves with LibraryThing, which is much better at keeping track of information about my personal library. It has all the same social networking functions of that other service too, if I want to use them. And it doesn’t bombard me with advertising.
Anyway, one of the things that’s fun to do when you have a fully categorized inventory of all your books is sort them in different ways. You find out all sorts of things about yourself. I might ask, for example, what’s the proportion of non-fiction to fiction in my library? Answer: not very high. How many of my books weren’t originally written in English? Answer: more than I’d expect. How many of my books were written by men, and how many by women? Answer: uh . . . hm . . . wow.
I’m ashamed to admit that ratio of male to female authors on my shelves is almost exactly 80/20. I was shocked when I first saw those numbers, I don’t mind saying. I’m not a big consumer of stereotypically male genres–politics, military history, espionage–and I’ve never in my life set a book aside just because it had a woman’s name on the front. If you ask me about my all-time favorite novels, books by women are among the first I’d name–Possession, Persuasion, The Puttermesser Papers and many others that don’t start with the letter P. Books by Shirley Hazzard, Penelope Fitzgerald, Marguerite Young–I could go on and defensively on, but I still have to face the cold statistics. If I’m trying to be an open-minded, wide-ranging reader, they prove I’m a failure.
Does it matter, though? Am I hurting anyone by slighting word-wielders on the distaff side? I don’t know about that, but I know I’m missing out on something, and now I know how big the hole is. My books show as well as anything the perniciousness of prejudice. Despite all best intentions and without any conscious attempt to discriminate, I’ve created an old boys network in my own home. This is what happens when decision processes play out “naturally,” when familiarity and comfort are allowed to play an outsized role when choosing among qualified candidates.
The problem doesn’t disappear over time. You (which is to say, I) have to actively redress it by seeking to add women’s voices to the chorus. Achieving equal representation of the sexes in my library obviously isn’t as important as achieving it in Congress or on the Supreme Court, but it’s a goal worth pursuing.
James Crossley is a bookseller and blogger at Island Books on Mercer Island. He supported passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, but he was in elementary school at the time, so his support mostly involved keeping the Free to Be You and Me album in heavy rotation on the family turntable.
The name of Crossley’s column, A Cup of News, was inspired by Elizabethan playwright and pamphleteer Thomas Nashe (1567-1601). “In literary circles he was hic et ubique as friend, foe, gossip, or critic,” says biographer Charles Nicholl. Nashe published his amusing opinions freely and frequently, acting as a kind of proto-blogger, offering to “carowse” to his readers a regular “cuppe of newes.”