If life is finite, your book stash must be too.
I think that hoarding books is a stand against mortality. If we've read them already, we might want to read them again. If we haven't read them yet, we might want to. Looking around at my shelves and boxes, I want to believe I will have time before I die to read them all, maybe again and again. Even if my current rate of reading means I'd need to live three lifetimes. To admit that I can't read all these would be to admit that at some point I'll stop reading. Difficult to imagine.
I recently some changes to my personal book hoard, and culled three boxes of books from the stacks. I decided to get rid of all the books I've read that I do not want to read again. That helped. But it also hurt to say goodbye to these objects. I'm tech-positive in so many ways, but like so many writers and readers, I am in love with the physical presence of books, and I have a hard time getting rid of them. A hard time embracing Kindle, and hard drives.
To make myself feel better, as I was sorting through the books I would let go, I decided to make another stack of books that I would never let go, that I would fetishize in the extreme. I made my inspiration shelf of books I've read that motivate me to write, a little shrine to their actual selves, a space for them to take up unapologetically in the world. If I must be mortal and my reading experience must be finite, then let's make it exquisitely finite, limit my great books to one shelf only. These are the books that are important to my life, at least, right now.
Here's my list, in no particular order. For some, it's the scope of the book. For some, it's the daring. The personal connection. The theme. The innovation. For a few it's just the time it was in my life, and how much it affected me. This is not a list of great books, or a list of personal favorites, but these are the books I can look at and feel something in me reaching. So, it varies:
Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The very copy I first read in high school. I have read it maybe 20 times, and in this copy I can see all my teenage notes.
House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman.
Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Penrod by Booth Tarkington. A book I read again and again when I was a child, before I understood the irony, before I understood racism at all.
My Horse and Other Stories by Stacey Levine
You're a Bad Man Aren't You by Susannah Breslin\
Between Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson
The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence
Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
The Most of P.G. Wodehouse
We the Living by Ayn Rand
A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
Dubliners by James Joyce
Candide by Voltaire
So, I've broken it down to these 20 volumes. If I add another, I think I should subtract one -- that's how the brain works best. My own two books are not on the shelf, but I hope my next one will be. It's what I aspire to: to write something that belongs in my brain with these.