We have, in our home, no fewer than 437 books, not including cookbooks, song books and poetry chapbooks, which would inch us pretty close to 500.
We have books crammed two-deep into bookshelves, lined neatly in cupboards, and stacked haphazardly on the surfaces of furniture in every room in our apartment.
Last weekend, Spring inspired us to join the collective airing and cleaning out of things, so as to breathe more easily with the windows open. Green buds suddenly and defiantly erupted into leaves all over our Midwestern town. We’d grown so accustomed to winter that we barely recognized the sound of songbirds.
JK and I looked around and determined to de-clutter. Away went the heaping basket of winter blankets, the drawerfuls of wool sweaters, and the synthetic-down coats suitable for hiking the tundra. We dusted and swept and sorted, until the sun turned afternoon-orange. We opened the windows and sipped iced tea through straws.
But something wasn't right.
An excess of 400 books isn't an excess at all for two people who'd rather read than sleep--plus, we're too broke for cable. But we live in an apartment slightly larger than a milk carton, and the books were taking over. They had settled down and started families. Book suburbs had sprung up in the bathroom, on the shelf below the toilet paper.
"I'll go through the books and figure out which ones to give away," JK offered.
"What are you talking about?" I said with dismay. "We can't give away books."
Giving away books with the intention of never seeing them again sounds as right and normal to me as deciding one day to give the dog to the neighbors. Since graduating from college, I have moved exactly 10 times, and each time the only thing I've insisted on carting with me were the increasing number of boxes labeled "Important -- BOOKS".
I’ve read most of them. Some I keep because I want to read them again (The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood; all seven volumes of Harry Potter). Some I keep because someday I’ll read them for the first time (like Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, or Don DeLillo’s Underworld). Many of them (the biography of Virginia Woolf; Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety; Quilting by Lucille Clifton) I keep because having them nearby feels as important as oxygen.
I love them, but I don't hoard them -- I've pushed books into the hands of friends more times than I can count. "Here," I'll say. "You must take this. You'll love it."
But always the assumption is that eventually the books will find their way back. This doesn't happen when you push your books into the hands of the guy taking donations at the thrift store.
JK nodded sympathetically. He loves books almost as much as I do. He has been known to excitedly call me into the room, just to recite a sentence or two from whatever he's reading. "Isn't that beautiful," he'll say.
So we compromised: He would go through his own books, leaving mine off-limits.
But then I guess I got a little carried away with myself. This afternoon, after bagging the last of the clothes destined for the thrift store, I glanced towards the wall of books in the living room. I had an empty paper grocery bag in my hand. "What the hell," I said to the dog. "It wouldn't hurt to try."
What criteria do you use when deciding which pieces of yourself to discard? I like book people. Book people think of their books as repositories for pieces of their souls, or mirrors that shine truths, or vacationlands filled with solace and adventure. I like book people because they see books as the closest thing to living beings that inanimate objects can become.
And so I scoured the shelves rather fruitlessly. I might want to read this someday... If I ever decide to write a book about criminals, this book would come in handy... But what if I want to go to Alaska and need to read this first?
A few times, I mustered the nerve to think, Well, maybe I don’t need this one. From the couch, the dog watched me with soulful, reproving eyes.
Seven bookshelves and countless pained sighs later, I had marked six books for the give-away pile (one short-fiction anthology; one novel I never could finish; one nonfiction book about race relations that, 11 years later, felt pretty dated; two memoirs that never moved past just the facts to the emotional messiness of real life; and one coffee table book of shamefully cute kid-with-pet photographs).
Then, because I couldn't help myself and also mostly because of the guilt, I looked through the six books again, willing myself to change my mind.
Books add contour to the landscape of a life. They make a home feel warm and inviting, all the people in their pages waving hello, waiting to talk to you. Books diminish reasons to feel bored or lonely. Books rescue and fulfill. When I finish a good book, I sometimes need to mourn—finishing a particularly good book can feel like losing a particularly close friend.
But I didn't love these six books. So I stuffed them inside the give-away bags and ferried them to my car. The thrift store around the corner—from which I purchased at least one of these six cast-aways—happens to be well-known for its vast book selection. It's like the neighborhood Barnes and Noble, except without the espresso bar.
And so I realized the silver lining here was even bigger than the cloud: Someone, most likely, would find these books and be delighted.
"A ha!" they would say. "I must take this home. I will love it."