I know what some of you are thinking. Never! Sacrilege! No such thing! These were not my responses. I nodded, resignedly, and said, “I know. I know.”
We do indeed have too many books. How do I know this? Because for days – nay, weeks – now, I have been ruthlessly culling books. I’ve been pulling books off shelves and staring at them and saying things like, “Where did this come from?” and “Why did I buy this?” and “When will I ever, conceivably, read this again?” The Husband has been doing the same, and we now have a pile of what looks like hundreds of books in the middle of the living room floor, waiting for the second-hand bookstore man to come and sort them and judge them and, we hope, pay us for some of them.
Purging books is a painful business. Why? Why is it so much harder to let go of a book, even a book we don’t particularly like or a book whose purpose has been served, than it is to dispose of most other things, even more expensive things – an article of clothing, a tchotchke, an electronic gadget?
A friend recently told me that she regularly tries to winnow down her book collection and can’t do it, because even the books she doesn’t like or has never read symbolize something: her independent intellectual life, which is so different from the life lived by everyone else in her working-class immigrant family. She described pulling a collection of Joyce Carol Oates stories from a shelf – a collection she’s never read – putting it on the “discard” pile, and then pulling it back out and returning it to the shelf. ”I bought it when I began university,” she said. ”It was a book that signified the person I was becoming, a person who read contemporary American literary authors. I can’t stand Joyce Carol Oates! But I still have that damn book.”
I find myself feeling exactly the same thing as I stand before my shelves staring once again at that copy of Swann’s Way that I have tried to read four times. On my last attempt, I trudged 300 pages into it before giving up. Every time I do a book purge, I consider getting rid of it. This time I was successful! Why? Because I have bought myself the newish Lydia Davis translation of Swann’s Way, and so I can still be the sort of person who has Proust on my bookshelf, and who can firmly believe that I will one day be the sort of person who has actually read Proust.
(Repeat for: Ulysses, The Voyage Out, about twenty back issues of Granta, Barack Obama’s memoir, and so forth.)
Other reasons I struggle when giving up a book?
- It has a personal inscription in it, even if a) I’ve never read the book, or b) I didn’t like the book, or c) I no longer like the person who gave it to me.
- It was given to me by The Husband, mostly because I know he will be peeved when he finds it in the “discard” pile.
- It might, possibly, contain an article, short story or chapter that I might, possibly, use in a course that I might, possibly, design one day.
- I loved it once, even though I will certainly never read it again.
One of the biggest problems is my collection of children’s and young adult books. I keep some of them because I still love them and can imagine re-reading them from time to time. Others have sentimental resonance. But I have far too many, including some I’ve never read all the way through. I sometimes consider paring the collection down, but I have a fantasy that I will one day propose, and have approved, a project for a reading zone at my college. This reading zone would be a quiet room full of books appealing to teenagers, and I would re-design my Preparation for College English course around it. I would bring my struggling second-language readers to the reading zone and present them with shelves and shelves full of books that would instantly grab their attention because they are made to do so, unlike the dusty dun-coloured hardbacks in the library. How can I get rid of these books when it’s possible that I can someday bring this project to fruition? Never mind that it will never be approved, for a thousand reasons. I need to cling to these books just in case.
I know: some of you will say, “Why on earth would you want to get rid of any of your books? Who cares what the movers say or how much it will cost to move them? Books are sacred! Hold on to your books!” (This is more or less what my father said to me on the phone this afternoon.)
But here’s the thing: I love books, and I find them beautiful, and I become very attached to some of them. But they aren’t sacred. They’re things.
This seems to be a great point of contention for some people. For example, I’ve been reading a lot of home decor magazines and blogs lately, and a lot of attention is paid to books as decorative objects. This upsets some readers. A lot. Check out this post on my favourite design blog, Apartment Therapy, in which the writer argues for the practice of organizing books by colour, and some commenters respond with rage verging on apoplexy.
I’m not sure I could bring myself to treat books with quite that degree of objectification. (Besides, I don’t think it looks all that nice.) But there have been moments of my purge in which I have given myself pause because I have wondered if my house will look sad and empty because it will be less bursting with books. If, god forbid, my house will look like less of a READER’S house.
And these moments have confirmed for me what I have suspected all along: books are stuff. They take up space. And the more space I devote to the ones I don’t really care about, the less respect I am showing for the ones I really love. So I have to be ruthless to be kind. Kind to myself, kind to our budget, kind to my house, kind to my movers, and kind to my favourite books.
Are you able to treat your books with both the love and the firmness they deserve? When a book has had its day, are you able to let it go? Or do you love your piles and piles of books as much as you love each book itself? Do you wish you could liberate yourself from your mountains of books, or do those mountains make you happy? I always feel lighter, if a little saddened, when a pile of books makes its way out the door. I rarely miss a book once it’s gone, and in the age of Amazon, I can be pretty sure that if I do, I’ll be able to find it again. If your home is full of books you don’t love, maybe it’s time to start saying goodbye.
But according to my movers, I’m no one to talk.
Image by Marja Flick-Buijs