If you don't use it, lose it. Your spirits will lift

August 6, 2004

Feel trapped under piles of books and papers? Susan Bassnett recommends a ruthless purge to set yourself free.

Every year when the students have gone home and the exam boards are over, I consider the state of my office. By the end of the academic year, we have all acquired more paper, and most of us have not had time to file it properly or, in many cases, even to read it. In my room right now are heaps of books, trays full of papers, a growing mound of less-than-useless glossy consultation documents that I presume are paid for by the taxpayer, and an assortment of odds and ends that I cannot remember how I acquired.

This year, however, the situation is not as dire as it has been in the past. The mound of books that teetered over my desk has gone, and there are lots of spaces on my shelves to accommodate some of the books on the floor.

When I come back from holiday in August, the roll of black plastic bags sitting on my desk will be unfurled, and the consultation documents, most of the contents of the out-trays and a good many files from the cabinets will be emptied into them.

I know academics who won't throw anything away, who compulsively buy books and stack them at home or in their offices, waiting for a time when they may be able to start reading.

The great Italian novelist Italo Calvino invented categories of books that are instantly recognisable to academics. My categories include: books I bought because I felt I ought to read them; books I use for teaching; books I have been given; books I don't want to read but can't throw away because there is a dedication in them; books written by friends or former students; books in languages I can't understand; books sent by unknown parties; books that might be useful one day; books that were useful 25 years ago and haven't been opened since; and books that I will never, ever read.

If you have piles of books that fall into the same or similar categories, you should face up to reality and accept that you are never going to need them all. Then reflect on whether someone else might find them useful. If you know who might want your books, parcel them up and take them to the person, school, hospital or whatever.

If you can't think of anyone, try another tactic. A few years ago, on the principle that one woman's rubbish is another one's treasure, I started holding Free Book Days - in which I pile unwanted books in the common room, notify students and let them help themselves. This has worked wonders - the gaps on my shelves this week are a result of Free Book Day at the end of term. Don't be deterred by the thought that you need to hang on to your books in case they are valuable. That's a delusion: they aren't.

As for papers, you must be ruthless. If you want to know how bad things can get, find a colleague who is not far from retirement and engage them in conversation about what he or she will do with the contents of their filing cabinets once their teaching career is at an end. This is a source of great anxiety for those people who have not weeded papers out regularly over the years.

Every two or three years maximum, go through your files and throw away anything you aren't using or are likely to use. Be honest. Do you still need your undergraduate notes? Do you need drafts of the manuscript you published donkey's years ago? Do you need all those old letters, and are you in breach of the Data Protection Act by keeping them? Do you need all those old minutes? When did you last refer to all your files?

The key point to remember is that your life is more than those old books and papers. Follow the example of the Queens of Clean on TV who sort out the homes of filthy householders who don't know where to begin. Your office is a place where you need to think clearly, and the best way to do that is to be able to look around an uncluttered space. You might even find your spirits lifting when you come in to work in the morning.

Susan Bassnett is professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, Warwick University.

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