Monday, October 17, 2005

BOOKS: The Unbookening

Here's the problem: I have too many books.

I never, ever, in a million trillion gazillion years thought I'd ever hear myself say that.

I have always loved books. I love the way they look. I love the way they feel. I love the way they smell. I love the heft of them. I love books with pictures as much as I love the look of plain unadorned fields of black type.

As a poor kid who eventually became a poor grown-up, I never felt poor because I was so rich in books. In fact, books have always been a kind of currency for me. So the idea of getting rid of my trove of books has me feeling distinctly Golem-y.

Here's the problem again, in pictures:

Books are threatening to take over our not-small house. They're double-stacked on the main wall of shelves in the kitchen. They're piled up against the walls of our bedroom. They're massing on the backs of the toilets in both bathrooms. A teetering tower has recently, and mysteriously, appeared on the ottoman next to the sofa. And these increasingly messy piles and stacks and rows are hard on books. My books are acquiring a distinctly chewed-upon look, as if they've turned cannibalistic and are trying to devour one another.

To be truthful, though, the "creepy hundred-year-old used-book store" look is a look I really dig, but it's not fair to impose it on
Rusty Iron and young Master Sam. I need to make space for their books, which are not inconsiderable. And on a more mundane level, as soon as Sam starts crawling, which could literally start any second now, these tottering stacks of books are going to present a serious safety hazard.

Last spring, I did manage to get the shelves in the upstairs hallway in some semblance of order, but that was a job and a half because it required consolidating the books that were already there with all the books we evacuated from Sam's room (n
ée our former office). I sold/gave away three big boxes of books then, and it almost KILLED me.

I reckon we've got somewhere in the neighbourhood of three thousand books throughout the house. My goal? To slice that number cleanly in half.

But how to do it? How do you unburden yourself of the bulk of a book collection that you've spent more than half your life amassing? I've been mentally struggling with this for months, and with the help of my unseemly addiction to home organization TV shows, I've realized that I'm not hung up on the books themselves, but on the books as ideas.

Back when I was in university, if I was down to my last ten bucks and had to choose between a trip to the used-book store or a trip to the grocery store, I'd choose the book store. These books represent missed meals and long walks instead of taking the bus.

When Rusty and I moved across the country in our mid-20s, we sold practically everything we owned, except our books, which we had shipped out as soon as we had an apartment and a huge set of shelves... which was, for a month or so, the only furniture we owned. (We slept on sleeping bags and Thermarests in the living room.) The day the books arrived -- all fifteen boxes of them -- I stayed up all night shelving and felt hugely content when it was done. These books represent security and home.

I have all sorts of mini-collections within my collection. The complete novels of
Emile Zola and André Gide are from my "pretentious French philosopher/novelists" phase. All my novels by R.K. Narayan, Patrick White, and V.S. Naipaul are from my "earnest post-Colonial literature" phase. All the books by W.O. Mitchell, Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Hugh Maclennan, and Timothy Findley are from my "obligatory boning-up-on-the-great-men-of-Canadian-letters" phase. Even my Ayn Rand, Jack Kerouac, and Viking Portable Beat Reader still sit on my shelves, reminding me that, like most people who love books, I went through an "annoying Ayn Rand, Jack Kerouac, and Beat writers" phase. These books represent, for lack of a better phrase, my literary zeitgeist for the past twenty-odd years.

I will probably never read any of these books again, but on my shelves they stand as a reminder of how my interests and worldview have changed over the years. Some of my past choices may embarrass me (
Carlos Castenada and Judith Krantz, are your ears burning?), but regular doses of humility are the only things that make me tolerable to others, so I can live with that.

Deep down, I worry that, by getting rid of these books, I'll be forgetting something important about myself. I worry that my
tabula will become too rasa. And so long as I'm baring my soul here, I'll also confess that I worry that people meeting me and seeing my house for the first time won't realize that I'm ever so smart. (I must be! Look at all those books! Right?)

So here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to go through my shelves ruthlessly. (I mean it. I will be utterly without ruth. Whatever ruth I normally entertain will be sent packing for the weekend.) And when I'm done, the only books that will remain will follow at least one of these criteria:
  • They merit re-reading. (I'm a big-time re-reader. You could set your calendar by my revisits to Pride and Prejudice, Larry's Party, and Garden of Eden.)
  • They have vast sentimental value. (I'm probably never going to read War and Peace again, but you can bloody well bet I'm going to keep my copy as a trophy.)
  • They're part of a sub-collection that I don't want to dismantle. (Am I likely to re-read The Moon Is Down, The Long Valley, or The Wayward Bus? Not much. But I can't break up my nigh-complete set of Steinbeck's novels.)
  • I'm planting them for Sam to stumble over on his own one day. (If your child is going to read Catcher in the Rye or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, better that they do it in the safety of home.)
  • They please me aesthetically. (I have two copies of Animal Farm, for example. One is my crappy paperback version. It's for reading. The other is a hardcover special edition, with illustrations by Ralph Stedman, that Wing Chun and Glark gave me. It's for stroking.)
Then, before I do anything rash, I'm going to take all the unwanted books and store them in my basement for the winter to see if I miss any. And in the spring, I will... I will...

How the hell
do you get rid of over a thousand books, anyway? Giant yard sale? Used bookseller? eBay? Craigslist? Help!

Anyway. When it's all over, my reward for myself and all the precioussss books that survived the Great Culling is going to -- someday -- be a single, well-organized wall of this shelving:

I have such a hard-on for these Atlas shelves that every time I see a picture of them I have to get up and go for a walk to cool off. Look at those yummy end brackets. I don't know if you can tell from this photo, but that's tongue-in-
groove! Luscious. Seriously, if these shelves don't get you hot, you're not the person I thought you were.

The project starts now. Wish me luck. And if I'm not back in a couple of days, call 911. Tell them to look for my body under the stack of old Norton anthologies.


Tina said...

I went through the same thing before I moved to Prague. I unloaded, seriously, HUNDREDS of books. I only kept the ones I knew I'd reread multiple times. It was like pulling teeth, but it feels really good after you do it. Books? Weigh a TON. You feel much lighter without them. And there's always the library, and you can always buy more...

Anonymous said...

Good luck!

I think eBay would be a pain with that many books, but you'd probably get the most money out of that or Half Price Books never gave me much when I sold things there.

Maybe you could just set up a page of your own and auction them off so you don't have to pay the listing fees on ebay.

Shirky said...

the used book store people will usually come to your house and go through and pick what they want if you have enough.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Half-Price Books never really netted me much.

Ask Lisa Rage Diaries, I think she got rid of a bunch of books about a year ago.

Anonymous said...

One of my fantasies is to have a library... you know, like in old colonial houses, a whole hall filled with bokstacks only, and they're set so high you have to use that moving ladder...

Anonymous said...

First of all, I wish you much luck with the de-booking. . .it's a tough but necessary move. My suggestions for getting rid of your excess? Give away to friends/family to start, then the local library. With the current administration, they are usually hard up for books (even if they wind up selling them to raise money to buy more/other books). Next, shelters, daycare and other non-profits.

Finally, if you're willing to invest the time and effort, I've had great luck selling on Given the amount you're "releasing back into the wild", tho', you may want to limit the amazon venture to those select few that you think would sell.

Persevere! (you can always buy more!)

Anonymous said...

You can set yourself up as a bookseller on, though you would have to factor in shipping charges. Also, Amazon marketplace is another site for people to sell there used books.

Anonymous said...

So, a piece of advice for those wanting to get rid of books: never become a teacher--especially a Lit teacher. I moved a year ago. I had a yard sale. I got rid of 5 books. That's it. I convinced myself (and am STILL convinced) that some day in the future I might teach a class in which I will desperately NEED my copy of Oroonoko or the Narrative of Frederick Douglass or my 3 copies of the complete Shakespeare or that Norton Anth. of World Lit that my dog very obviously chewed on. These will SO come in handy one day! Like when I'm asked to teach some obscure, upper-level Lit class; and you'll see me standing there clutching a gnawed up Norton and 3 copies of Will. Whoo-rah!

Veronica said...

Goodness, woman! You weren't kidding about having a lot of books. Not that I should be surprised, as my parents' basement look similar. I aspire to have that many books someday. When I do I will also be lusting after such gorgeous shelves. Wall o' books. That's what I want.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how much those Atlas shelves are, but I'll bet if you sold 1500 books on eBay or you'd make a nice dent in the price tag. I'm just saying.

One criterion I use for getting rid of books is, "if this burned up in a fire, would I spend the money to replace it?" Surprisingly often the answer is "no." Also, the library really is our friend. Every library in the English-speaking world probably has a copy of Great Expectations -- what do I need one for, unless I love the book and can't imagine not having it in my immediate vicinity? I used to keep a lot of classics until I realized that I was never going to re-read King Lear and I just liked the way it looked on the shelf. Which is fine, if your shelves aren't suffering from literary gridlock. I keep things that would be hard to replace, rare and out-of-print books, but it's not like you're ever going to be unable to get a copy of Pride and Prejudice if you need one.

There's a thread on Chicklit about how to get rid of books, with some good suggestions. Next time I'm there I'll try to remember to bump it for you. -- Deborah

Tamara said...

I hate parting with books, even the evil books that I was supposed to read for grad school. But I finally decided that the library was a better home for many of them, especially with the move of doom coming up (my boyfriend is a book packrat and a comic book horder). I once read about this releasing of books into the wild program, and wanted to try it, but I couldn't give anything away.

Anonymous said...

This is so timely! I have just been thinking that I need to cull our book collection. My collection isn't as large as yours, but we have limited space in our apartment plus more books sitting in storage, so somthing has to give. Plus, if I'm being honest with myself, I don't treasure all of them (Anne Rice collection, get on out of here).

Once the painful sorting process is done and the books are gone, I think I'd feel a lot better.

Anonymous said...

You may want to check the link to confirm we're still doing this, but I work with a theater company that is accepting donations of used books to sell on Amazon as a fundraiser. (There's talk of us stopping this soon, because our office is starting to look like your house.)
Take a look at if you do a purge, or email one of us through the site and see if it's still on.

You may be amused by a sign I saw at City Lights Books in San Francisco -- a poster someone had made that read, "The buying of more books than one can possibly read is the soul's way of aspiring towards infinity."


Anonymous said...

I don't think it bodes well for me, personally, that after seeing pictures of your ever-growing book piles, I'm jealous that they're bigger than my ever-growing book piles.
Good luck with the book purge; hopefully, you'll be stronger than I could ever be.

landismom said...

Wait, did you come over and take pictures of my house while I wasn't looking?

This is a great post, and reflects almost exactly the way that I feel about my books (although you missed describing my trashy chicklit phase). This is the first house I've ever lived in where when we moved in, I thought, "I'll never be able to fill this whole house with books." Guess what? six years later, and I was totally wrong.

Alice said...

I felt the same way about my books when I left Canada to move to England four years ago - I saved my very VERY favourites, and gave the rest to charity. (I limited myself to 10 books to bring with me. That was a brutal decision.)

Now, I'm still in England and moving into my own flat and my mom? Is sending me all my books! 400 books that I haven't read in four years! Joy!

But that doesn't help you, does it? Good luck with the culling. It's always very hard.

Anonymous said...

Oh, man. I remember going through this when I moved to Scotland, including this bit:

Deep down, I worry that, by getting rid of these books, I'll be forgetting something important about myself. I worry that my tabula will become too rasa. And so long as I'm baring my soul here, I'll also confess that I worry that people meeting me and seeing my house for the first time won't realize that I'm ever so smart. (I must be! Look at all those books! Right?)

You could do what I did:

The college I attended does a trip to India every year, and they donate books to the schools there that need them for teaching English. Students that are going to India put three or four books in their luggage, because it means no shipping costs. I donated every one of my books to that cause. The ones that aren't appropriate (I had a few too many erotic novels to unload) were donated to the senior center for their used book sale.

(Of course, there's a funny end to this story: I don't actually live in the city that I attended college in, but a friend of mine does. She came up to visit, and I gave her all the many many many stacks of books, because she is nice that way. She wanted to repack them out of my dingy boxes, and went through all the boxes carefully. Apparently half of my books are now on her bookshelf. Yay!)

Low Flying Angel said...

You weren't joking! I have thousands but I am a bit "anal" for want of a better word as to how they're stored. I have bookcases in nearly every room and books must be upright and tightly packed. Otherwise they are arranged by size only on a shelf.
All my shelf space is always occupied so when I buy something new I give something old to charity so my books remain upright and contained.

Tammy said...

Whew. I'm so close. I think my zeal has frightened poor Rusty. I'll have a full report tomorrow. In the meantime thanks for the tips and the moral support. That and regular trips to the coffee shop around the corner for high-voltage mochas are the only things getting me through this.

Seriously, if I hadn't talked all big on my site about how I was finally gonna do this, I would have skulked to a corner in defeat... if my corners weren't all full of books.

This literary packrat behaviour -- it's a SICKNESS, I tells ya.

Tammy said...

Okay, I'm honestly not trying to pimp these Google ads, but how much do I love that the ad for this entry goes to a site that sells "stylish air purifiers" and mold tests. Ha!

Anonymous said...

I like the one entitled "Freezer smell." Heh.

Btw, I bumped that thread on Chicklit for you, Doppelganger. -- Deborah

Tammy said...

Thanks, Deborah! I'm heading over to check it out right now.

Now there's an ad for odor masks. Lordy.

Kat said...

I feel for you! I come from a family of pack-rats and book worms, our house has more book space than people space!

Good luck! You have our sympathies. Do write about it, I can just imagine how I’ll have to go through this once my family migrates to Canada (in about three year’s time).

I promise to gain strength and inspiration from your experience no matter what the results are!
Be strong!

Anonymous said...


I wandered in randomly from somewhere - I think I started at Tomato Nation, but I'm not sure - and enjoyed your page. Your baby is very cute :). Anyway.

I have a big, big, thing for books. I read a lot and it's always been a problem. However (I'm a bit new-Catholic about this) since I joined I've found it a lot easier to get rid of books as soon as I've read them: I have a different attitude about them, and I've probably got rid of about 200 books this year as well as sorting through all the ones left at my parents' house. I still pick up a lot of cheap second hand books, but any that don't make me want to do a little dance go on to a new home. Some of them vanish for a while, but it's a lovely feeling when they turn up having been "picked up in a church in Oregon" or "taken to Finland" (I'm in Switerland). :)

In someways, though, it's like having a massive library at your disposal - I know if I'm really craving something a bit unusual I can just ask for it and someone will send it to me - so I think I'm probably reading more. People giving you books is a bit of an occupational hazard - like my boss just gave me a box of about 15 books "for that bookclub thing".

If you'd like to see it in action, my bookshelf is here:

Elizabeth/causicangel on LJ

Em said...

Oh my God. Breaking from study for just a moment, I've been meandering over the archives here and just hit on this one...and I can see myself in ten years.
The Norton Introducton to Literature is sitting by my hip, with freshly high-lighted passages in preparation for an essay or two...(I will NEVER look fondly back on English 125--not anymore...) and I can't even look directly at it now. It scares me. I'm going to die because I go regularily on a Sunday morning to a tiny book-mart where everything is a dollar and this is going to cause problems later, isn't it?

Tammy said...

Em, I wish I could tell you something different, but yes, this is going to cause problems later. I had exactly the same tendencies as you 15 years ago, and look at where I am now. But hey, it's a hell of a toboggan ride!

Anonymous said...

People tell me to go to the library, it's cheaper. Just reading them is not the point! :) So sad, but it sounds like you're taking precautions to make sure you can handle it. There's a neat site out there that promotes releasing books out into the wild, for someone to randomly find, and hopefully, read and enjoy. You could maybe send a hundred or so their way... it's a fun idea.

jgodsey said...

you have my sympathy. i went through the same issue when i moved - may i suggest a couple of things?

for non fiction/text books. if you can get the information off the internet. you don't need to own the physical book.

unless the book hold some personal meaning for you, like the kind you pull down off the shelf at the spur of the moment. check it against internet stocks, if you can replace it very easily, say under $5 or $10 - then you don't need to own the book all the time.

downgrade - replace HC's with paperbacks, single editions with omnibus editions, sell expensive copies and buy reading copies. Library of America editions rock. 1 book taking the place of four.

narrow your focus. i used to have hundreds of cookbooks on many topics, instead i choose 1 TYPE of cookbook and got rid of nearly everything else. now my collection is more specialized.

i still have hundreds of books but when i go to cull the shelves it is easier to have parameters.