I’m starting to develop a twitch.
Until last weekend, it had been over a year since I’ve seen some of my books. I packed them all – carefully, lovingly, slightly tearfully – into boxes back in January of 2016, as we prepared to move out of our house in Elma, New York, and into temporary living quarters a few towns away while we planned our bigger move back home to Washington, D.C. Our new apartment was very small, and many of our possessions were headed for storage – including my books. I set aside a small pile that I wanted to keep with me, and Steve – not realizing that they were intended to make the move to the new apartment – packed them too. Oof.
I’d never lived in a place with no books before. (The kids’ books were making the move to the apartment, but that’s not the same, as my lovely readers will surely understand.) I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have at least one full bookshelf to call my own – in fact, I don’t think such a time existed; even in my board book days I always had lots. Of course, it’s not like I was lacking reading material while my books were in storage – thanks to that miraculous little slab of plastic called a library card, I had access to almost any book I wanted. The main central branch of the Buffalo library was only a short walk from my office, and I was already in the habit of strolling over there a few times every week to pick up and return books – so I simply continued on as if my own beloved books were not piled in a dark storage locker. Thank goodness for the faithful little library card, right? Virtually every book I read from January through July of last year was borrowed.
Of course, I consoled myself by repeating over and over again the mantra that “it’s only six months.” In six months, I hoped to be unpacking a new rental house in northern Virginia. Naturally, the books wouldn’t be the first things out of their boxes. I always get the kids settled in their rooms first. And I have to unpack the kitchen so we have a way to cook. But then – books!
I was reckoning without our movers. Ohhhhhh, our movers. Because the book boxes were marked “storage” – where they’d come from – the movers assumed that they were unimportant. Into the basement they went. And not just anywhere in the basement – into the darkest, most inaccessible corner, behind the boiler, with piles of furniture and paintings in front of them. Do you know those Loony Tunes moments, when a cartoon character’s eyes bug out of his head? That was what I looked like when I realized where my books had gone. And they’re so in accessible that, while I’ve gotten to a few boxes – by climbing on top of things and basically diving into the corner – there are many that I simply can’t get until the basement is cleaned out – a daunting task that, between work pressures, travel, and the need to get the living spaces livable (and keep them that way)… just doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.
Rest assured, I complained about this. Steve would tell you that the complaining was constant, endless, and dramatic. (MY BOOOOOOOOOKS! I MISS THEM SO MUUUUUUUUUUUCH!) Recently, he suggested that I have plenty of books and am, in fact, doing just fine.
Take a moment, if you need one. I certainly did.
In a sense, he is right. I do have plenty of books – a few months ago I unpacked about half of my collection, thanks to my willingness to climb over things and stick my hand into unfamiliar boxes. And even if I read every book that is currently on my shelf, I would still have the library. I have twelve books checked out right now – so many that I almost don’t have time to read my own books, because my well-documented library stack problems have followed me throughout my adult life.
One of my New Year’s resolutions was to “trust in abundance.” I wrote that I “hope to let go of the need to be fully-stocked and trust in the fact that I have everything I need, and access to even more.” I was talking about my pantry and my closet, to be sure, but also about my bookshelves. As it happens, I do have lots of books (even if many of them are squirreled away in a dark basement right now). It would take me years to run out of reading material if I just read from my own (completely unpacked) shelves and never bought new books or borrowed from the library. I’ve been trying to follow Project 24, Simon‘s goal to only buy 24 books in 2017 (a rate of two a month, which is my usual goal, only I am not allowing myself to utilize any of my exceptions) and I’ve been very disciplined about not buying books as a result. And if I happen to fancy reading a book I don’t own, odds are that my library system will have a copy, or I can wait a few weeks until the month turns and I can buy it. I As you all know, I just got my books unpacked, organized and shelved – hurray! – but even without my complete book collection neatly lined up on my shelves, it’s true that I’m not going to find myself with nothing to read.
In the spirit of trusting in abundance, I’m also making a concerted effort to purge some books from my shelves – if I have duplicates, for instance, or if I’m not likely to want to read the book again. I know my limits, and there’s no way I will be able to pull off a true purge in which I take several boxes of books to Goodwill. But a book here and a book there, tossed atop the stoller and walked to the library donation box – I can do that. A bookstagrammer I follow mentioned that she has a policy of only keeping a book on her shelves if she gave it three or more stars – books she didn’t like, or that were only okay, have no place in her limited shelf space. Inspired by that, I recently grabbed two Ian McEwan books (part of my “letting go” this year has involved coming to terms with the fact that, other than Atonement, I’m just not a huge fan of McEwan – and that’s okay!) and a duplicate copy of Barchester Towers – and off they went to the library, to make someone else happy.
I’m getting to a point in my life as a reader and human where I want to live in smaller spaces and be surrounded only by things that are actually special. I’m trying to pare down and curate my life in many respects. (How many small frying pans do I really need?) On my bookshelves, that looks like keeping books that I have really loved (four and five-star books on Goodreads, for instance), books that I can honestly see myself re-reading, books that are particularly beautiful, and books that I want to be part of my permanent collection even if I’m not likely to re-read them. (Although that last category shouldn’t really encompass very many books.) It looks like jettisoning books that I didn’t love and won’t re-read, and most duplicate copies (with rare exceptions for duplicates in which both copies are beautiful and/or sentimental favorites – for instance, I have four copies of Little Women and will keep them all, thankyouverymuch, because they’re all beautiful, three are part of sets, and one I’ve owned since childhood).
The true challenge with this book-curating project is going to come when it’s time to pare down the kids’ shelves – for instance, when Peanut starts reading longer chapter books and isn’t asking for picture book storytime every night. There are a few books that I thought were junk and that I couldn’t stand reading over and over again; those I’ll have no trouble tossing in the recycle bin (they’re not in good enough shape to donate). But how will I be able to part with the kids’ books that are beautifully illustrated, or that I have sweet memories of reading aloud with my arms wrapped around one or both babies? I know I’ll never be able to get rid of Time of Wonder or the Paddington or Fancy Nancy books, or my favorite Dr. Seuss books, or Nugget’s Richard Scarry collection, or the gardening themed stories that Peanut and I read as we plan our container garden, or… well, I have years before I have to worry about this, so I’ll just table it for now. And keep accumulating books, because that’s what I do.
Do you try to curate your bookshelves?