I never, ever, in a
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 (née 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.)
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.