On Abundance, Shelf Purges, and Having “Plenty” of Books

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

11 thoughts on “On Abundance, Shelf Purges, and Having “Plenty” of Books

  1. I love to read about books, and I also love to hear about people paring down their belongings, so this post was especially interesting to me since it covered both topics. I think you’re going about this book-selection process absolutely the right way. (Also, picturing you climbing over mountains of furniture to reach your books made me giggle.)

    I feel like I’m an anomaly, being a huge reader but owning a very small number of books.

    • You have at least one compatriot in the “great reader but don’t amass physical books” camp – my friend Rebecca does virtually all of her reading on kindle and Audible. I think it makes sense for her because she travels so much, but she also is very much a “value the story over the book” sort of reader – absolutely nothing wrong with that! – and she prefers the electronic format. I think there are probably many people who love to read but don’t own large numbers of books – either because they like to read digitally, are heavy library users, or as in your case – both!

      I know you do a lot of library reading on your phone – wish I could do the same! That’s impossible for me because I can’t look at my phone for more than a few minutes without getting bad headaches, so I find it very hard to read a book on my phone. My mom had terrible headaches all of her adult life, and it seems I’ve inherited them from her. I have headaches at least once a week – usually more frequently – so anything I can do to avoid them, I do. Unfortunately that means I only read a book on my phone very infrequently.

      I’ll keep you posted on my bookshelf curation! 🙂

      • I’ve never thought of it in terms of “valuing the story over the book,” but that sounds exactly right. That, and the fact that I rarely re-read books. Keeping books I don’t plan on reading again just doesn’t make sense. That’s why I like hearing your book-ownership thoughts, because while they’re different from mine, it makes complete sense for YOU.

        I didn’t realize you get headaches so much. How debilitating, with your busy home and work life. I can see why you’d want to do anything you can to avoid them.

        It’s unfortunate that you can’t read books electronically for any length of time. Do you have the same problem with a Kindle? I don’t remember if you own one of those. I still think they’d be easier/lighter to carry around with you on your commute than bringing a physical book every day. But that’s your decision…obviously it’s working for you!

      • I heard that phrase “valuing the story over the book” in the context of one of those debates that raged a few years ago about whether or not crafting with books was appalling. People who valued the book as an object considered it desecration to cut it up for a wreath, and people who valued the story said – so what? I think I fall somewhere in the middle. I definitely appreciate a beautiful book as a physical object, and when I’m adding to my library I like to get things in the nicest edition I can, hardcover if possible, because I want my books to look good and last a long time. They’re part of my home décor as well as being entertainment, and they give me great happiness in both respects. (And if I have a book on my shelf that doesn’t look nice, or doesn’t match the others in a series, it grates.) But if the story isn’t good, that won’t save the physical book for me. I won’t keep a book just because it’s a beautiful object – it also has to have been a good read.

        Yes, I get terrible headaches – actually, that’s part of the reason that I was unhappy in Buffalo. I have all kinds of triggers, but barometric pressure changes are a particularly bad one, and when the sky is overcast or it’s raining, I usually have a headache. So I got them more frequently in New York State (the same was true when I started getting them as a teenager in Albany, and then in college in Ithaca) – down here, where there are more sunny and warm days, I don’t get them as often. I have other triggers, too – stress, too much sugar, not enough sleep, too much screen time, etc. – but the weather doesn’t affect me as badly.

        I do have a kindle, and I can read on it without a problem. I think the difference is (1) it’s a bigger screen than my phone, so I’m not straining my eyes at it, and (2) it’s not backlit. (I have the kindle paperwhite, which I got for freeeeeeee! as a Lexis promotion that was given to everyone on the library committee at my old firm.) I like reading my kindle and I am pretty well-stocked on it, but I’m usually so underwater on my library stack that I rarely read books I actually own, whether they are kindle books or hard copies. I’m trying to change that, though, because I own so many good books and I want to read them too!

  2. We are so alike when it comes to purging our books! I have a really hard time doing it, and feel pretty good about myself for getting rid of just a few at a time. We have a Little Free Library on our street, so I like to take most of my books there and think about who might drop by and pick one of them up to take it home.
    I also had a very hard time paring down the kids’ books once they got too old for them. And there’s no denying it now – they are definitely all too old for picture books. I got rid of so, so many – I felt so proud. But you would never know it based of the number I still have packed away in boxes. My husband tries to persuade me to get rid of more by telling me others could be enjoying them, but then I think ahead to when I might need them again someday.
    Anyway, it’s always nice to know I’ve got company. 🙂
    I liked seeing the pictures of your library! And, of course, your beautiful bookshelves.

    • You definitely have company! Books are the hardest thing for me to reduce. So many of them are more than books – they are friends. Lately I have been trying to think of it more as “curating” than minimizing. I’m bearing in mind the William Morris quote “Keep nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” On that basis, I just added my copy of All the King’s Men to the donate pile. I had been keeping it because it was a classic and I had enjoyed it moderately – but my copy was an ugly, beat-up paperback, I didn’t love it, and if I ever feel compelled to re-read it – unlikely, even though I am a re-reader – I can easily get it from the library.

      But the children’s books – ahhhhhh, that’s going to be tough. I think you’re perfectly justified in hanging on to whatever children’s books you want to hang on to!

  3. For multiple reasons, I’m glad you’re back in an area where you get less headaches! That is huge. Also, you can rent Kindle books from the library, too (maybe even some of those you’re checking out as hard copies). 🙂

    • Heh – funny you should mention checking library books out on kindle! I’ve had “figure out OverDrive” on my list for years – literally, years now! I’m sure it’s easy enough to do, but I’ve set myself up a fine mental block about it! I just had to get a new library card, because I lost my old one, and maybe that will be the prompt I need to finally find out how it’s done.

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