The Bookshelf Collapsed

I like my reference books and cookbooks in paper, even while I like my entertainment in ebook form. There’s something about using the physical memory of how far in, or underlining, highlighting, crossing out and writing and aside, that helps me to remember the information. (Or, in the case of the cookbooks, you can find that my crockpot chili recipe has about 7 more spices added, tomato sauce crossed out and tomato paste written in, “drained” written next to the canned items… because the end result is the perfected form of the cookbook’s basic suggestion.)

As I’ve moved from place to place over the years, I have often given away books – and sometimes gotten them again because I didn’t realize how much I’d use them. Others accumulate, because I think I’ll use ’em, or may need this or that hard-to-find information or recipe. But when I was putting the latest cookbook on the shelf, it collapsed.

Don’t know why. That cheap chipboard has held up through being disassembled and reassembled across five moves, over ten years… okay, maybe I know why. But after I went to the local itty bitty town’s hardware store and cleaned ’em out of 1.5 inch right-angle brackets, and ensured those shelves will have to disintegrate in order to collapse again, I did start taking a long look at what books I really use, and which ones I can let go.

I’ve kept all the cookbooks with stories. Lowbush Moose and Other Alaskan Recipes – great book, full of hilarious stories about the people and places in Alaska as it was transitioning to statehood. (Tired Wolf and Smokehouse Bear complete the series, and are also awesome. Good recipes, too.) I’ve kept the ones for research (Rocky Mountain Wild Foods Cookbook), and the ones that work with our current diet… and one of good South African comfort foods, for when my love really just needs an “I love you” in the form of bobotie and kerkpoeding.

While I was at it, I started on the next shelf down, with the writing reference books, taking out the ones that proved blah and keeping the ones that proved useful. Well, more useful. There are some where the purchase price of the book was worth the one sentence of insight, but I’m not going to keep the rest of the book for that.

Ones I’m keeping:

The Copyright Handbook by Stephen Fishman, J.D.
The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
The Positive Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
The Negative Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
Meditations on Violence: a Comparison of Martial Arts Training and Real World Violence by Rory Miller
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Reni Browne & Dave King
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain
What Every Body Is Saying by Joe Navarro

What reference books do you keep and use?

—And now, for the part where I encourage you to entertain yourself and support the author!–

For those of you who like to listen to your novels, I’ve got not one but two new audiobook releases for you!

Peter’s second in the space opera Maxwell series, Ride the Rising Tide, is now out in audiobook:

Trapped in the Dragon Tong’s search for a lost legend, Steve Maxwell finds a way out by enlisting in the Lancastrian Commonwealth Fleet.

If he survives long enough to earn a commission, he’ll be able to hunt down the pirates who killed his mentor. To get there, he’ll have to slog through rain-swollen swamps, dodge incoming fire on a ‘peacekeeping’ mission, and face down a gang of angry smugglers. Even far away from enemies, a mistake can turn a spaceship into a deathtrap.

It’ll take resourcefulness and courage to succeed…but Steve hasn’t come this far in order to fail.

On the Western front, Rocky Mountain Retribution is also now audiobook for you:

In the post-Civil War West, the railroads are expanding, the big money men are moving in, and the politicians they are buying make it difficult for a man to stand alone on his own. So, Walt Ames moves his wife, his home, and his business from Denver to Pueblo. The railroads are bringing new opportunities to Colorado territory, and he’s going to take full advantage of them.

Ambushed on their way south, Walt and his men uncover a web of corruption and crime to rival anything in the big city. And rough justice, Western-style, sparks a private war between Walt and some of the most dangerous killers he’s ever encountered, a deadly war in which neither friends nor family are spared.

Across the mountains and valleys of the southern Rocky Mountains, Walt and his men hunt for the ruthless man at the center of the web. Retribution won’t be long delayed…and it cannot be denied.


  1. I have to do this bookshelf clearing too.

    one of ours collapsed years ago and we went through and put T brackets on the back, it hasnt budged since

  2. You’re asking me to *choose*??! [gnaws lip] Well, how about the first five to come to mind:

    –Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms (this thing is like crack, once I open it I’m stuck for the day)
    –Cassell’s Latin Dictionary
    –Roget’s Thesaurus (the paperback version, with all the corners worn round)
    –Times of London World Atlas (1926)
    and if I ever find it again, Funk & Wagnall’s Complete Dictionary (1972)

    The only reason my bookshelves haven’t collapsed is that most of the books are in boxes…

    1. I agree on all of these, particularly the first – “see also” was the major cause of “Three in the morning? How did it get to be three in the morning???” before hyperlinks.

      I’ve pretty much tossed all of my “standard reference works,” except for the Handbook of Mathematical Functions. There are things in that that even the $$$ software packages have no clue about. Admittedly, I’ve only cracked it open maybe half a dozen times in the last decade or so, to look up approximation series, but I think I paid maybe five dollars for it at a library book sale when I was a teenager. The rest is just getting fiddly bits done with an ordinary spreadsheet.

  3. Laura and I were literally just talking about this, so I’ll just steal my list from that conversation. There’s some overlap with your list. In rough order of how much I like them:
    Techniques of the Selling Writer – Swain
    Scene & Structure – Bickham
    Writing to the Point – Budrys
    Writing the Thriller – Skillman
    Million Dollar Outlines – Farland
    Characters & Viewpoint – Card
    Creating Characters – How to Build Story People – Swain
    Self-Editing for Fiction Writers – Browne/King
    — Kept For completeness, but not as much recommended:
    Write Characters your readers won’t forget – Litore
    Description – Wood

    1. Ah, Dave Farland! I forgot to put him on the list because I have Million Dollar Outlines in ebook, and I was staring at the thinned bookshelf when I typed the list.

      The other ebook references I have and use:
      Rachel Aaron’s 2000 to 10,000
      Libbie Hawker’s Take off Your Pants! (How to outline)
      Kristine Kathryn Rush’s Discoverability and her The Freelancer’s Survival Guide
      Dean Wesley Smith’s Writing into the Dark

  4. I hate when shelves collapse. I tend to go with real wood shelves strongly constructed. Can’t wait till I can set my physical library up again. Probably in a couple years the way things are looking.

  5. Unfortunately, chip board will eventually disintegrate. I hates it! I hates it forever!

    Cough. Anyway, I’ve used pine shelving board for bookcase project. Relatively inexpensive and hold up quite well.

    As to reference books . . . I have two bookcases and one half bookcase where I’m sitting, and most are references. They range from two copies of the CRC Rubber Book to books on repair; gardening; agriculture; computer algorithms and programming; astronomy; building; history; the Norse language; Spanish; World Almanacs; three manuals for tree identification; a book on weather; AP Style and Libel Manual; some motherboard manuals I need to toss; hymnals; a book on antique firearms; a book on mythology; a book on electronics; books on hunting and fishing; somehow a book on bush craft ended up in the living room bookcase; books on construction techniques; books on knots; and so forth and so on. These are all bound books, too. And yesterday I thought of three it would be nice to have.

    These are just in the closest bookcases. Elsewhere there’s theology and ancient history and a old textbooks which come in handy at times, and so forth and so on. I think we have a total of seven bookcases, both full and partial. And except for the defunct manuals in this one, I don’t see myself getting rid of many. There’s always some odd question and “I think I saw it in such-and-such book” and away we go.

    For some reason, the bound copies of the writer’s references are mostly in the living room bookcase. Dictionaries. Thesauruses. Editing. But the bulk of these books are on Kindle. I think you all see why. Was thinking of checking out refurbished large tablet prices for use as a PDF reader, which would be very convenient. There’s all sorts of public domain gold out there in PDF format.

    1. Well, mind you, I wasn’t going to bring up the four bookcases of military history & philosophy, much less everything else in our house, because that’d take… well, probably a scanner and an excel spreadsheet. My husband alone has an entire bookcase dedicated to research for the westerns. (And that’s not counting notes from trips to museums. Gotta love Texas – if you want to see the real gun, the real wagon, and the real saddle for that time and place, there’s a museum in Texas that’ll have it! And if it’s in a small town, that Studebaker wagon probably gets rolled out of the museum and hitched up at least once a year for a parade, so it’s in good working order, too!)

      1. If we merged your husband’s collection with my husband’s collection we’d probably have the start of a comprehensive library of military history.

        And he doesn’t even have the excuse of beinf a writer.

        1. Who needs excuses? They’re books he finds interesting, that’s excuse enough! (At least, until you move. Then Peter and I had to think down to the excuse of “I’ll reread it, or it’s out of print and I’ll never get it again if I let it go…”)

          1. We home school. We horde books like dragons horde gold.

            The problem that always arises is what do we do with the crappy books? They are books. It’s wrong to throw them out. But they are not good to read. It would be wrong to give them away. It would certainly be wrong to sell them.

            These are not to be confused with the books that may be perfectly good books for someone else, but not for us. Those are easy to give away.

            1. Those are the books that you turn into the secret compartment, the jewelry box, the wrapping paper, the paper art sculpture, the “learn to rebind a spine” project…

              I mean, fun with surgical tools! And art!

      2. Have all sorts of miscellaneous notes here, from a militia court martial circa early 19th Century to copies of documents from the Archivo de Indias.

        BTW, it’s sort of grim, but inevitable, so I’ve already made arrangements for books and notes in my will. Didn’t like the idea of them being simply tossed.

    2. Oh, I forgot the CRC… I remember I had to move it to the opposite end from the Handbook way back before I inherited the good wood shelving. The two of them together in the middle had put a definite curve into the chipboard.

      Wonder where I put it, though – I know I still have it somewhere. A lot of it is now (easily) found online, unlike the Mathematical Functions book.

      1. The Mathematical Functions book is why I have two CRC books. I didn’t know of the existence of the Mathematical Functions book, and that was essentially what I was looking for at the time. But these are nice. The older of the two is printed on thin India paper.

        1. Someday, with sufficient disposable income, I am going to track down the rest of the volumes. There are at least 55 of them in the Applied Mathematics series, considering that’s the number of my functions book.

          Somebody mentioned steel shelving…

  6. I may have to replace my copy of Lowbush Moose. I think that would be worth having, even though I use internet recipes more often than books, these days.

  7. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten rid of 2/3 of my books. When we moved into downtown Seattle, I had sixty packing boxes full of books, but our new place simply didn’t have enough space for them all, so I needed to lighten the load.

    Twenty boxes were easy to get rid of. Books I regretting reading, books I was never going to read, obsolete technical books, books I had two of, etc. When it still didn’t fit, I painfully got rid of ten more boxes of books I liked but was sure I’d never reread. (The first twenty were worth only $20 at Half-Price books, but the next ten fetched $120.)

    That was about the same time I started reading on a Kindle. Since then, I’ve bought ~1,000 new books–all but one or two of them electronic. In that time I’ve eliminated ten more boxes just because we needed a bit more wall space here and there. (The books are really on shelves–not in boxes–but that’s the unit that works for me because it’s how they travel to the used bookstore and that’s when I count them.)

    But I think the future isn’t going to be 20 boxes of books–it’s going to be just one or maybe two. A box or two holding books signed by authors I liked and reference books with equations, big maps and/or important color illustrations. For everything else, the electronic form is so superior I’d be tempted to buy a book all over again rather than reread it in paper form.

    1. I’m anticipating doing a clean-out of the shelves, myself. I already cleared away one large bag of authors whom I read one time, authors who have since annoyed me (Looking at you, Garrison Keillor) and authors whom I will likely never read again. Took the bag full to Half Price books, thinking that I would get at least something for them, as just about all were hardbound, in fairly good shape, and with intact dust jackets. Got a whole 25 cents for the lot.
      After that – we’re just going to take them to market events and sell for 50 cents or a dollar. My daughter has a whole bunch of romances, somewhere out in the garage, and there are other books which I just don’t think I will ever read again.
      But the historical reference books – they stay. I use them too often, and I have a better collection than most libraries.

    2. Work on the new house is still proceeding, but we’ve known since we started that only a fraction of the books will be able to make the move with us. Other than a few favorites, none of the fiction is making the move. Of the nonfiction… much of the engineering stuff I can get online now. Not as convenient for me on a screen, but for something I only use on occasion, okay. I’m only keeping the things I use often. If I wind up needing them again, I guess I’ll have to re-buy them.

      There’s probably some serious money there, now. But I’ve been boxing and taping, and they’ll go to a friend who will sell them on eBay for whatever he can get. It’ll help them out financially, and I won’t have to deal with idiots trying to sell them myself. The various local libraries don’t want nonfiction donations unless they’re current cookbooks or travelogues. Everything else goes in the dumpster.

  8. I never had much (in comparison to bibliophiles here who have had real income, time and space), and I’ve boxed up a bunch of stuff I couldn’t live around in this space.

    I kept available: Some texts on Thermodynamics, Fluid Mechanics, and other useful topics. Wheelock’s Latin. The Machinery’s Handbook.

  9. Truth, I haven’t cracked a textbook since I escaped PT school. For my writing, the science etc. was either so basic or so crazy out-there, I did all my research on the intertubes. I still have them, but I don’t look at them.

    I have many woodworking books and magazines, full of design ideas and whatnot, and when I’m building things I commonly check them. Details are important in woodworking. I also have the Grand Combined Database of the Fine Woodworking magazine on a DVD, that is a magnificent resource. Searchable!

  10. Collapsing bookshelves, the cure is to use 3/4″ plywood instead of Swedish farticle board, glue and staple the shelves into dadoes in the sides, and put a 1/4″ plywood back on them. Circular saw can do it, if you don’t have a table saw. That was me, back in the old days. (The old days really sucked, you know?)

    Adjustable pins are for dainty glass shelves with teacups on them. Books are heavy. Use a dado joint. No router? Circular saw and a chisel will do it, just takes longer. My advice, buy a router. They’re cheap. (I use a dado saw set in my huge-ass table saw, because doing it the other way pissed me off so bad I spent the money.)

    The plywood back stiffens the structure, making it easy to move. One on each end, carry like a canoe.

    If you put an adjustable foot on the front of each side, the shelf will lie against the wall very securely. If you have children though, the wise man will screw the shelves to the wall. Because kids climb bookshelves to get things on the top shelf when Mom and Dad are not there to scream at them.

    For those concerned about cost, a complete shelf can be made out of a single sheet of plywood plus a sheet of cheap-ass flooring underlay. Even the crappiest plywood can be sanded smooth enough for paint, with a judicious application of spackling or drywall compound. Those usually are not that handsome though. Furniture-grade veneer plywood is something like $60 to $80 a sheet at Home Depot. Stain and varnish, for joyous goodness. ~:D

    Moving, you are on your own. I’m never moving again, if I have anything to say about it. Too many shelves.

    1. Ours are screwed to the wall not because of children (although, good point), but because I lived in earthquake country too long to be comfortable with something as tall and as heavy as a bookcase not being secured to the wall.

      Moving? Disassemble everything as far as practical, then line the moving truck with what won’t come apart.

    2. For the backs of bookshelves, you can upgrade really awful backing with a pretty wallpaper or even fabric. HGTV has some weird ideas, but that one’s kind of fun.

  11. Steel is always good. 3/4″ plywood is good.A reinforced concrete floor or 2×12 joists are desirable. For board wargaming magazines, there is no substitute for steel filing cabinets. Yes, I have a few books. As I approached retirement I bought a house and upsized.

    For these reasons, I would not live in earthquake country…at least, my books and games would not.

  12. We haven’t reassembled from our move last year, yet, do the question is a little awkward. But really, there’s only about three references I find really important.

    Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book, the one from 1951. (My MIL gave me her spare.) I own a huge number of cookbooks, mostly gifts… this is the only one I use.
    Legal Terminology Explained and Civil Litigation and Procedures. I kept all of my books from paralegal school, but these are the only two I use. (And the definition book mostly for comic ideas.)
    What to Expect When You’re Expecting (and In the First Year.) A bunch of overblown panic included, but I found them occasionally useful if I filtered that out. (Honestly, I haven’t found anything pregnancy/child related that comes anywhere near the level I think is appropriate, so…)

  13. Since you’re here and my husband was wondering recently, will the 5th Maxwell book ever be in hard copy? I read on Kindles, he prefers paper and is holding out for such. I asked at Peter’s blog around Christmas and he thought it would be in paper shortly. But I haven’t seen anything.

    On topic, I keep the non-fiction mostly in hardcopy, but we’ve been cleaning the (triple stacked) fiction shelves out gradually. So far while shelves may be bowed under weight, nothing has actually fallen. (yet.)

    1. Yes, it will. It’s been delayed by overload at my publishers, so I’ll probably bring out a cheap Amazon edition in the next few weeks, to tide people over until the publisher can catch up.

  14. I’ve gotten rid of about 3000 books in the last few years. About 2000 were in the “never need again” category, and another 1000 were “replace with ebook”. If I can get rid of another few thousand, then I’ll probably be down to something that can fit into someplace I can move to — but it’s getting harder to get rid of them, since the “never need again” cull keeps getting more difficult.

  15. I had a weird reaction to this post: I simultaneously thought “Wow, what a pointless and stupid post” and “Hey, I found this post very touching, I’m glad I read it”. To be fair, I’ve been sick the last couple of days, and I’m on a steroid treatment right now, so perhaps that’s having an odd effect on my mental processes.

    I thought I had nothing to say about what reference books I have, but after reading others’ comments, I realize I *do* have a few things.

    First, are computer manuals. I use PHP and MySQL at work, but I don’t have manuals for those. PHP is a stupid language, and so I’m satisfied with reading stuff online about it. I have books on a JavaScript library called Angular, but those books are already severely out-of-date, which gives me the impression that Angular developers don’t know what their model is, or what they are doing…

    Naturally (ie, doesn’t everybody?), I have a lot of math books that will probably have to be buried with me, because no one will be able to pry them from my cold dead hands.

    I also have a lot of computer books that I *wish* were my computer reference manuals. Books like “Starting Forth”, and “Let Over Lambda”, and “The Meta-Object Protocol”. I *wish* I could afford “On Lisp” (just go look at the prices!) or even “Practical Common Lisp” or “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Languages” or “Practical Common Lisp”. I have them in electronic format, though, but as one person said about SICP, “I bought the book because the principles are eternal; who knows how long this ‘internet’ thing will last?” I also have a book called “Data Structures and Algorithms using Turbo Pascal”, which I picked up when a professor was clearing out his office, and I’m keeping, because SICP says “You can do so much more with Lisp than Pascal. Choose any Pascal textbook and compare the table of contents with this book, and see for yourself.”

    Why, oh, why, do the most powerful — and most fun — computer languages also have to be the least popular? Sigh.

    Having said all this, I’ve *always* wanted to be able to carry books on a little device I could carry with me; when I was in college, I even purchased a Casio Casseopia for this purpose — although actually getting textbooks for the device was a hopeless cause. I am convinced that with the right software, and three tablets all synced together, research using these things would be fantastic. I despair that we are nowhere near having the right software, and that I have no time to go beyond just the thinking stage. If only I could just get Patreon or GoFundMe funding…but then, to get funding, I need a proof of concept…but to get a proof of concept, I would need time…which I would have, if I could only get funding…

    Another sigh…

    1. I have the Common Lisp book. Haven’t opened it in 20 years; I’m not even sure where the box it’s in is. If you want it, drop me a note at tigersizer at gmail.

  16. Chicago Manual 15th edition. Citations, how to capitalize things, and punctuation of Odd things. And to drop on spiders.

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