Have you found, dear reader, that there has come a time in your life when you’re forced to cull your beloved treasures? Have you ever realized that it’s time to say “adieu” to your yellowing edition of Catcher in the Rye, once read so eagerly but untouched since age fifteen, or your grubby copy of Catch 22, replete with (traumatic) memories of boot camp and bearing an almost illegible name tag and serial number? That perhaps you don’t need all three copies of Wings of the Dove, acquired because each has a different cover illustation, or that your ten Georgette Heyer novels are now available (and easier to read) on kindle and no longer need shelf room?
Propelled by the possibility of a long-distance move, Janakay is now in that time of reevaluation and has spent a harrowing few weeks deciding who (so to speak) lives and dies in her book collection. Fortunately, as you can see from my photo, I have not been without assistance!
If you’ve visited my blog in the past, when I did occasionally manage to stay somewhat current, I’m sure by now you understand why I haven’t been posting for — my goodness, gracious me — can it be almost five weeks now? No posts since Halloween? Of course, I haven’t been sorting books for the entire last five weeks — there were some minor academic matters to wrap up, some lovely light reading to do (Louis Auchincloss is always good for this) and movies to see (if you’re a Scorsese fan you can’t miss “The Irishman;” “Parasite” is great and “Knives Out” isn’t bad but I’d advise you to skip “The Lighthouse”). Also, after I decided to at least consider a move, I fell into a period of near-catatonia, triggered by the very notion of discarding any of my beloved book collection (at the risk of sounding heartless, I can say that I’ve experienced the death of blood relations — well, some of them anyway — with less emotion!)
But amusements and psychological trauma aside, the past month or so has seen a great deal of bookish exertion on my part, with rivers of books (so to speak) flowing up and down my house’s too many stairs. I did (briefly) consider keeping everything, but quickly discarded that notion — there are just too many multiple copies and books that I no longer need (do those twenty odd books on Vermeer, Rubens and van Dyck deserve shelf room, now that I’ve finished my class work on Baroque art?); that I’ve read and enjoyed but don’t plan on revisiting (Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, for example, a fabulous novel but not one on my re-read list ) or that I’ve outgrown along with the hobby or activity that prompted their acquisition.
It’s been an emotional process, no doubt about it, saying good-bye to certain old friends, many of which are associated with very specific periods in my life (yes, I did read that copy of Catch 22 when I was not otherwise occupied in surviving boot camp and that battered old copy of Alice in Wonderland is still sticky with the adhesive tape a nine-year-old me used to repair it). There’s also the angst involved in acknowledging that most of my unread books will stay unread, at least by me, and facing up to the lost opportunities for pleasure and enrichment those books represent, of accepting that one is a finite creature who will spend her allotted time to read with other companions. And, of course, there’s always a certain chagrin in facing one’s mistakes . . . the “why did I buy that book” combined with the “why ever haven’t I gotten rid of it before now” moments! Have any of you ever faced such moments of truth or had to confront such bookish vulnerabilities? If so, how did you handle it?
Janakay, however, doesn’t want to be a weepy rain cloud here and mire us all in gloom, doom and desolation. Honesty compels me to admit that the sorting out process does have a positive aspect. In the broadest sense, I had to answer some very basic questions concerning why I read, as well as why I’d bother to have my very own personal library. What purpose does it serve? Home decor? Self-improvement? Laziness? (It’s easier to let the books breed in corners than adopt them out to good homes.) The desire to impress the neighbors with my two different translations of Rembrance of Things Past? None of the above?
Along the same lines, I necessarily had to formulate some standards (much harder to do than you might suppose) in order to decide what to keep or to discard. Should I, for example, toss classics by great writers such as Dostoevsky and Dickens (neither are big favorites of mine) to leave space for beloved fun reads by Georgette Heyer or Joe Abercrombie? (If you haven’t met Logan Nine-Fingers, you should. He’s one of the great anti-heroes of fantasy literature.) Should I keep a book I might read at some unspecified time if it means discarding something I’ve read and loved, but which is now out of print or otherwise unavailable? Is it better to keep an author’s “best” novel that I’ve read or her most obscure, which I haven’t?
Yes, dear reader, I’ve had a month of heavy thinking about basic aspects of reading and retaining books, activities that have occupied most of my energy since I first grasped that those little black squiggles on white paper actually meant something. On a lighter note, it’s been a lot of fun to read or skim big chunks of things I hadn’t thought about in years and to research authors as I’ve made my decisions (electronic availability for discards was an important factor). And, shameful though it is to admit, there’s also a Christmas morning element to the process, as I discovered some great stuff that I had totally forgotten about (that light green blob at the back of a shelf turned out to be a(n unopened) box set of Penguin Modern novellas!)
So how does Linda Grant, a British writer I admire more than I’ve read (some of her books were rather difficult “keep or toss” decisions) come into all this? In the middle of my winnowing process I was lucky enough to stumble across her essay, “I Murdered My Library,” published as a kindle single and worth every penny of its $2.99 (U.S.) price. Around 2013 Grant was forced to downsize her huge personal library (the product of a lifetime of reading) when she moved into a relatively small flat. All my emotions and thoughts — the grief, the guilt, the difficulty of choosing, the (yes) relief at imposing some type of order on an overwhelming number of physical objects — are there, expressed far, far more eloquently that I ever could. These are interspaced with Grant’s love of literature and reading, her thoughts on independent book stores and the effect of e-books on conventional print, and a great deal of humor and wry acceptance of the fact that we, as readers, are as finite as the texts that we love. Grant’s essay is a treasure for anyone who likes to read about books; if you’re downsizing or reevaluating your own book stash, it’s a necessity. I was so impressed by it, in short, I immediately moved two of Grant’s unread novels from my “discard” to my “keep” pile! (and, yes, I am aware of the irony of my action!).
After recounting her “crime” of book homicide, Grant ends her essay with the cry of “What have I done?” Since it’s time for me to sign off, I’ll end my little tale by showing you a visual of my very recent response to my own act of murder . . . . .
What’s that old saw, about the “more things change, the more they remain the same?”
27 thoughts on “Midweek Miscellany: Percy Murdered My Library (apologies to Linda Grant!)”
LOL. I feel *everything* in this post as I have such a massive amount of books needing this kind of attention soon. It’s the sentimental ones which are the hardest, but I’m gradually getting there. The main problem I have is that th eprocess is so slow as I simply have to spend time evaluating each and every book – particularly the ones I *might* want to read and the ones which are just pretty. It’s certainly not easy…. 😦
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Kaggsy — so nice of you to stop by, particularly as I’m behind on my blog reading and mean to pop over soon to check out your post on Philip Larkin. Without having read much of it, I love his poetry (it’s safe to say his Collected Poems will survive the upcoming purge of my poetry collection!). I just re-read his poem “The Mower” and found it as beautiful and devastating as ever.
Re the book “re-evaluation:” I agree that the sentimental ones are indeed the hardest to deal with (the Alice In Wonderful I mentioned in my posting will survive into my final collection! Catch-22 was tossed; I’m over it!). And, yes, like you I had to handle & frequently research every book to make sure I could re-acquire a discard if I changed my mind later (it was also an act of farewell. I felt I owed them that). Can you believe I actually made a list of all the authors and most of the titles, even of things I retained? It’s one of those activities that make me think I actually have a mild obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I hope you noticed my new copy of Isolde in my last px, you wicked thing you! One of your reviews also got me started on VSW (I’m awaiting a Virago Modern edition of Seducers in Ecuador & The Heir) . . .
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Oh my goodness, you are so cute. Great for Alice, one of my favorites, and I love that you made that list, that’s what I meant it’s so cute, the way you handled this and research to know if you could easily acquire what you are discarding is so clever. I believe I do that too, and I will soon, it’s reassuring. Plus something out of print, etc, gains in value and interest and becomes worth keeping.
I totally understand your hesitancy about reading more in translation. I (keeping up with my own untidy version of being obsessive-compulsive), will type a list of what I dream of acquiring from Madrid. Like you, I too am becoming aware of my finite reading time and I am coming to terms with many long classics that I won’t be exploring. Empowered by you, I will admit that Dickens or Eliot are not in my reading future. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s the competition I have talked about. There’s Spanish authors and other authors that I feel more drawn to.
As for the movies… Would you believe I have seen that Daniel Day-Lewis movie? With Pfiffer, right?
I’m going to try to watch any and all those Scorsese and I will come back to chat about them with you.
I’m jealous of you and of Kaggsy for different reasons, hahaha. Kaggsy because of how many important authors she reads, lots of women writers, art, contemporary, essay, poetry. And her amazing library.
You because you are bi-or tri-intelligent, all your knowledge of art, nature, history, Americana.
But what I love most about both of you it’s that no matter how seriously intelligent you are, it’s the ordinary events and your warm style in your blog, without pretension, intimate and funny as well, that makes me love to read your blogs, and to enjoy the comments and at times your conversation.
I did indeed spot Isolde and I do hope you like it! Vita is such a wonder author – I absolutely loved The Heir! Happy reading! 😁
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Joining in to say that I too feel *everything* LOL in this post. I do love to go through these moments of purge, they are usually tied to changes in my life. Right now I’m impatiently waiting. Waiting for new floors upstairs, which will force me to reconsider my books. But it won’t happen soon, so I’m pondering if I should do the book purge anyways. I have many books worth some money in the homeschooling community, and not just, books we’ve read or that will be wonderful if/when my girls ever have children. But that’s a long shot, and I’m not sure whether to keep them, -even for myself-, or sell/dispose of them in some fashion, -donating is another strong call-. And then MY own library. It’s an emotionally taxing time, but it’s also needed. I love facing who I’m becoming as a reader, and what I want to keep and part with, -even if I have the space, I need to do that evaluation. (I have cheap paper copies of classics I don’t see myself reading in that format, -if I read them at all). I also have my sister and her boyfriend coming this summer, and I totally think that, at this time in life, I deserve to order me books in Spanish from sellers in Madrid that they can positively bring to me. Online orders and local buying is something I’ll always do, and I feel that before that I need to do that purge.
I’m probably getting that kindle book on books for starters. And I do feel guilty. I want to try the other title of the two that you gave me. I’m feeling better at the moment, stronger emotionally -after two hard months-, and the two books you gifted me are truly beautiful. Even if I don’t read them yet, I can assure you they are not leaving my shelves.
Kaggsy also spoke highly of Philip Larkin, and I put a book of his poetry on hold. I’m looking forward to that one.
And THANKS for your generosity with the pictures. I’ve enjoyed them all. I too should take pics for my next post. It’s always so nice to see. Books and cats, and your chat. Life is so good!
I forgot to mention how much I also appreciate your movie recommendations. I’m a fan of Scorsese. I used to watch great movies. My friend let me borrow the latest of Malick’s movies and I haven’t watched it yet. I want to come back to watching good movies, but right now we have one TV that my youngest has appropriated for her room, and only a Netflix subscription. Movie theaters only show whatever is on at the time for the main public. I need to correct this situation 🙂 I have a Kanopy account, and maybe there’s still something worth watching on Netflix or Kanopy, I’m sure!
Silvia! Delightful to hear from you and to catch up a little. I noticed you have a new posting, which I’m saving for (probably) tomorow, as I want to enjoy it and am feeling a little frazzled right now (it doesn’t take much, these days. I don’t know how you manage so well, with a family, an active reading life AND a job. A woman of iron!).
Your attitude towards book purges is incredibly healthy and I just wish I had it myself; I find it incredibly difficult to send my books into the blue! Gifting is different, it’s not painful at all. Hence I was delighted that you wanted the two books I sent you (saved me from making more notations on my 20 page list of discards!). And, as I said, please don’t feel you have to read either, or that they’re permanently attached to your shelves. If you don’t like, or aren’t in the mood — just pass them along! One nice “Christmas morning” surprise in emptying my book shelves BTW was my discovery of two more Stewart O’Nan novels, which just happened to be the ones I most wanted to read. LOL, right?
Don’t you just love movies? I really like Scorsese, although I’m certainly not an expert and haven’t seen many of his films. My favorite is “Goodfellas.” Did you know he also filmed Wharton’s “Age of Innocence” with Daniel Day-Lewis? I saw it many years ago; not sure if it altogether worked but it was definitely worth watching. If you’re interested in The Lighthouse, don’t let my negative reaction keep you away. Many critics really liked it and, even though it didn’t work for me, I did find it visually very arresting. Parasite is great, even if a bit over long; very clever, very funny and some pretty pointed social criticism. If you like clever murder mysteries in the Agatha Christie vein you’ll probably like “Knives Out.” I thought it was a nice way to spend a dull afternoon, but perhaps a little overrated.
I’m so envious of your ability to read in two languages! What’s on your list to get from Madrid? I’m trying to read more translated literature, but I always feel that I’m missing something by being unable to read in the language in which it was originally written. The Challenges I’ve participated in this year have actually been very good in prodding me to take on some none-English authors, which is great. I just finished Zama, by Antonio di Benedetto for the Classics Challenge. According to the NYRB Classics folks, he’s one of Argentina’s greats but is little known here because his work hasn’t been widely translated. It was an interesting read, very surreal, very existential; although I wasn’t altogether sure what was going on at times I found it quite haunting. If life were longer, I’d probably start over and re-read it (it’s quite brief) but . . . as I said in my post, I’m becoming increasing conscious of the fact that my reading time isn’t infinite. Perhaps that’s why I’m turning a little more these days to the classics and attempting, with only mixed success, to resume reading at least a little poetry.
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Woman of iron… That what they called Margaret Thatcher, didn’t they?
My job is only subbing, and it usually allows me to read much of the time.
Next week I took an assignment for the whole week in detention in campus. I love it. The students there can’t use their phones. None of us can leave the room without being scorted. They are sent with some books of papers. They usually sleep or lay down their heads, or work some. I, guess what?, I read. I’m looking forward to “my punishment”, hahaha.
I don’t say this to make you feel better, I feel frazzled very often. There’s times when I am uncomfortable about the many things requiring my attention. But I too save my notifications and nice catching up for that moment at night so I can savor it.
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I had forgotten that dear old Maggie was indeed referred to as “the Iron Lady” or some such! Anyway, she was only running a country; IMO teaching (either full time or subbing) is far more stressful (I was a twenty-something drop out from a teaching program, so I had a great deal of respect for anyone working in that profession. I myself was totally cowed by the kids and all the work involved!)
I loved your description of your upcoming week as a sub; the detention section sounds a lot like my old job! (we COULD use our phones but, unlike your students, we frequently had to attend meetings, so I guess the punitive aspects balanced out). Hopefully, you’ll have some nice, quiet time to get through some fabulous reads! Anything in mind?
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Did end up cancelling detention and doing finals at a health class. I was busier but had time. I worked on Marco Aurelio’s Meditations, and a bit on Follow Me to the Ground book you gave me. But I am still not finished either, LOL.
When I was younger, I did move many times. I found better apartments or made big life decisions which required moving. But because I was relatively young, I didn’t actually have that many books (or even much furniture) to move. So I have not yet had to face your dilemma. I really didn’t start establishing a “library” until I was in my forties and already in the house I still live in. Also, what with the focus on de-cluttering of the past decade or so, I am less inclined to hang onto books and I cull fairly regularly – though I still have quite a few books…make no mistake! And most certainly I have asked myself “what was I thinking?” about certain titles and have weeded out the occasional multiple copy. I think in part those books are a result of purchasing so many books at thrift stores and library sales. The price point is usually so painless, my inhibitors are low. I will admit, however, I do have real trouble getting rid of any book I have not yet read. That happens only rarely and with some real internal arm-twisting. If I’ve read it, I have far less trouble donating it or passing it on to others if it wasn’t a favorite. Generally, I want my current shelves to mostly hold books by beloved authors, titles I hope to reread. For me that means keeping all the Dickens titles. 😀
Part of me, however, wants to win the lottery and buy a bigger house and have ALL THE BOOKS. All of Jane Austen in matching editions; all of John Irving because I used to love him so much, etc. I like to think about this theoretical library from time to time. I find it soothing to dream about. Maybe Borges was right and heaven is a library.
Were you really in boot camp? Which branch were you in? For how long? I know I would never have made it through basic training.
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Greetings Ruthiella! I must agree there’s nothing like a house move to trigger a thorough evaluation of one’s books (the prospect of such is the ONLY thing that got me moving here). I must admit I HAVE done something similar many, many years ago, when I did my last cross country move. I tossed many wondrous (to me, at least) volumes, keeping only the bare minimum. I mailed these (back in the pre-historic day, the postal service had a special book rate; I’m not sure it does any more) in about a half-dozen batches of four boxes each. My new apartment was on the third floor (double flights of stairs) and had no elevator. The newly installed Mr. Janakay was not happy.
I never regarded my random book acquisitions as building a library or collection or anything like that. Then, one day, I just had a roomful of books, then two roomfuls, then two roomfuls and three bookcases and so on (as you observed, price point is everything & I used to attend many library book sales). I really wish I had adopted your attitude and culled on a periodic basis — so much more logical and so much easier in the long run. As for decluttering — what’s that???? Although the books are the worst area, they are far from the only one where I display a certain lack of discipline. I think it has something to do with a time-triggered recessive gene in my mother’s family that begins to surface in middle age and becomes increasingly strong with time! One by one, I’ve seen the women of my family tragically fall victim to “packratitis,” amassing large numbers of the most godawful tchotchkes. I knew I was a genetic victim when, in my 30s, I starting looking for glass egg cups and toothpick holders at flea markets (I particularly liked the ones that had little feet on them or were decorated with a floral pattern. I retrieved a box of them from the basement this weekend and spent a happy hour or so gloating). Some of them, BTW, are really very cute . . . . Anyway, it takes severe self-control to handle the disease and I usually don’t bother.
Isn’t it fun to dream of a perfect library? Since I’ve always been cramped for space, my dream usually focuses on space and accessibility rather than content. No more triple stacks! No more piles on the floor! Areas where I can arrange my oversized art books alphabetically by artist, with separate areas for geographically distinct schools, so there’s no more unpleasing mingling of Spanish art with 17th century Dutch or Italian Renaissance (I’m afraid I can be just a wee bit obsessive at times).
Giving up an unread book is, aside from the obvious mistakes, a real killer. As I said, it’s more than losing the book; it’s saying farewell to a possibility. I think the only way I could do it this time was to make a list of my discards. In effect, the list is a denial that I’ve given up the intention of ever reading the discarded book; the list effectively says “not now but maybe one day.”
And, yes, I really was in boot camp, followed by three (not) delightful years serving my country typing & filing as little as possible (believe me, my country was better off that way). I ultimately rose to the exalted height of a PN3 (that’s Personelman Third Class, for you land lubbers) in the U.S. Navy. In those days it was quite different from the present; women comprised only a small percentage of the enlisted force, were not wanted and were encouraged to leave as quickly as possible and had very, very restricted job opportunities and postings. It was not a good career fit for Janakay. I bought my copy of Catch 22 in the base’s exchange and read it in the little bits and pieces of spare time while I was in boot camp (my discarded copy had white adhesive tape on the spine — you had to label all your gear — bearing my name and serial number). The book gave me great insight into the military mind! I also took a great deal of pride in displaying it on the shelf in my locker designated for personal articles, so that it was visible to the inspecting officer when she made her weekly rounds (as I said, the military wasn’t a good career fit!).
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How nice reading about both of you, how you made your libraries, what your thought process is when disposing of books, your dreams, and your Navy career.
I share with Ruthiella the fact that I never started to build a library until not my forties but thirties. I too bought mostly at library sales and used book stores. Online too. I have brought some books from Madrid.
But I am reducing my library to books I love and a good amount of books I haven’t read yet. Unlike you, I don’t feel bad about disposing of books I have not read. But it depends on what book it is.
My dreams of a library are tied to a different home. Don’t take me wrong, I love my house, but oh how I would love a home in a different area, less suburbs, and a designated room with built-in shelves, a nice rug and chair. And yes, I guess I would love to spend time at some used book stores in Madrid, and ship or bring all that shopping.
I listened to Catch 22. It started as very humorous. It turned serious. I think it shows the absurd and the severity of the military people and war.
I have heard military men who didn’t appreciate it in the list. And women who didn’t connect with it. It may be too close to military people for them to be at the proper distance to enjoy it. It’s the same reason why I, with two teen girls, can’t read Lolita and appreciate Nabokov’s tragicomic masterpiece.
Both your lives are very interesting to me. I would have loved seeing those egg holders, Janakay.
In the least. Sorry about the typo.
Wow. Love the bookshelves. So pleasing that there are still people around the world compensating for all those who have no books. As for books you haven’t read, I have to disagree with Silvia (comments) on this. I need both, I would hate to live without lots of books I haven’t read. I love my house to feel akin to a bookshop. But equally, I need plenty I have read too.
Cathy: so nice of you to stop by! And thanks for the compliment on the bookshelves (isn’t Ikea wonderful?) — they are the fulfillment of a lifetime dream! Mr. Janakay and I struggled for YEARS (in the nicest way possible, of course) for control of this particular room; after the (tragic) failure of his saltwater acquarium the space was mine!
Like you, my favorite home decor is “early bookstore!” I do re-read my favorites, so I like to keep the oldies, and I’m wildly optimistic about my energy level (I’m actually quite lazy, but like to think I’m not!) so I accumulate things I never quite get around to . . . . but after all, what is life for, if not to read?
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Ah yes, the unsolved case of the failed saltwater aquarium. A closed room mystery where books may be the only clue. At the moment we have our books spread over two places in Europe and Australia. In the former, all our bookcases are old, real wood and in Australia all Ikea. In fact we have the same corner one that you show in one photo except that we went for white.
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Cathy: so funny, about that Ikea bookcase! Isn’t globalization wonderful? Or frightening? I DID think about the white, but the darker “wood” went better in my space.
I have a few cherished “real wood” bookcases elsewhere in the house, and I do love the wood, but Ikea is just so darned practical!
I had to put some of my books in storage at one point and found it quite terrible! I could only do so after I had made a list of titles, with notations for many of the entries, which took forever, of course! Are you experiencing similar trauma with being parted from your darlings?
As for the mysterious demise of the saltwater aquarium, well, my lips are sealed . . . .
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We are torn. Our plan was to move most of our books to Australia this year, but how would we feel when we were back in Europe for 6 months without them? Then again, half and half is frustrating in lots of ways too. The good solution is to stop living in two places, I’m really looking forward to that!
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Ladies. Your conversation is wonderful. Globalization, wonderful or frightening?
And that dilemma of what to have in Australia and in Europe, it’s so difficult. Half and half is hard, and taking most of the books one place is hard too. However, if your place in Australia is more spacious, I’d eventually choose to have more books there. Is there a place you spend more time at? If that’s the case, I’ll have more books there. If you have less books in Europe, and travel more, Europe will be the place where I have less, so I’ll feel better about Europe being the place where I acquire more books, and read long ones, those I keep putting off. And Australia where my comfort lit and cherished books would be.
Maybe making categories, and deciding on numbers according to space and display, will help. Wood shelves display old treasures best, Ikea’s functionality can cope with more quantity of those categories you have many titles.
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To start at the bottom, I have warmed to Ikea. In fact, our place in Australia is small – not by European standards – but I was attracted to it by the fact that it has a lot of wall, whereas our place here is difficult, way too many doors and windows for a book addict. And I am turning the garage (which is under the main roof) into a ‘library’. 6m x 3m. Being so narrow, I’ve decided to pay for custom made Billy look alikes. Adjustable shelves, but less deep. Most books don’t need it, and those that do, can be shelved elsewhere. It is going to cost an extra $1000, but we will have about an extra 8 inches across, which isn’t to be sneezed at, I think. Once they are full, I feel like they look fine. And the other thing is, our place is low ceilinged, so the Billy plus the extra shelf you can get for it fits almost like a glove height wise. Not so much as an inch of wasted space.
All your analytical points on where and why: yes, all very sensible. I think also, we are only renting here and there is more chance we may have to leave the apartment, which lends me to the idea that having less books – and ‘stuff’ generally – is a good thing, it’ll make packing up and moving place easier if that moment comes….