How a rash decision taught me the true value of books in my life
Ten years ago, I gave away almost my entire library, about 300 books.
There were a few reasons why I decided to get rid of my lifetime’s worth of books. The major reason behind what I now call the Great Book Purge was because I was moving, and not voluntarily. I knew I might need to move several more times, in rather short order, and I was trying to plan accordingly. I was very angry about my situation and not in the best decision-making mindset.
If you’ve ever moved a large number of books, you know it’s back-breaking work. In all our prior moves before that point, the number of book-filled boxes seemed to outnumber all our other possessions. “Another box of books?” was a common complaint, especially given the weight involved. But this move was different. It marked the end of me owning a home and the beginning of me being a renter. For 13 years prior to that, I’d been adding to my book collection under the presumption that I’d never have to move again but, alas, I was wrong. I was desperate to eliminate anything that seemed like too much work, and in my irritated state of mind, that included all those damn heavy books.
“Are you sure about this?” my husband asked when he saw how many books I was boxing up. I assured him I was. Over the years, I’d heard a lot of complaining from him about the room my books took up. During the years in our home I’d filled four large bookcases with books. But as I boxed up books en masse, even he hesitated. He asked me the same question again, right before he and my son wheeled away dozens of boxes of books, which I donated to the library.
“I used to have that book.”
As it turned out, I was right about having to move more than once. And we moved into smaller houses, so I’m not sure where I would have put my massive collection of books. But I still wish I’d found a way to keep more of my library. Even now, I’ll be talking to my son about a book and painfully remember that I used to have it.
The collection I donated had been growing since I was a child. It included books that belonged to my parents, books given to me by friends, books I’d used in my writing group. It was an ungainly representation of my entire life.
Concurrent to that first move, I was in the midst of changing from working full-time as a writer to going back to an admin position in an office (a development that didn’t help my frame of mind). I figured I wouldn’t need all those books any longer since I would be busy doing stupid office things all day. What I didn’t account for was that I was still a writer, regardless of how many hours a day I devoted to it. I found I still wanted to reference certain books periodically, only now they were gone.
The Digital Rebuilding
At the time of the Purge, digital books were just beginning to gain traction. “I’ll just buy eBooks,” I told myself and other people (who were universally appalled that I gave away so many books). “They don’t take up all that space.” It didn’t take long for me to develop a Kindle habit, especially when I found that you could download samples before buying a book.
Over the course of the last ten years, I’ve accumulated about 220 eBooks and about 30 physical books, almost the equivalent of what I gave away. I love that I can carry around essentially my entire library on a Kindle, although it’s still disconcerting to be reading a book and get a message that my battery is low.
I also found that anything requiring deeper reading or studying remains easier with a physical book, although I’ve adapted. My son still generally refuses to read eBooks, insisting that it’s harder to absorb information and maintain concentration with a digital book. That gives me hope for his generation.
The Mystery of What I Kept
I didn’t donate all my books, but when I look at the books I kept I’m mystified as to why I kept them. Sure, there’s Anderson’s Fairy Tales from my childhood, a tattered Gone With the Wind from adolescence, and the requisite Cadillac Dreams since I live in and write about the Southwest. But why did I keep Tony Hillerman paperbacks? Over Angela’s Ashes? I couldn’t tell you now.
As with most decisions made in anger, the results of the Great Book Purge were mixed, at best. Sure, I saved some space and energy. But I lost a great deal of my own history.
I’ve actually thought I should clear out my shelves again to make way for future additions, but I’m hesitant. What should my criteria be? Should I only keep books I’ve read or intend to read, even if I’ve had them for a long time? What about gifts people gave me that I don’t want to read but that remind me of the person who gave them to me? And what about the children’s books that no longer apply to my fully grown son? Honestly, they’ll probably all stay. I don’t want to make the same mistake twice.
Writers are attached to books, magazines, and all forms of written words because it’s who we are. My husband collects tools because he’s a woodworker. My son collects computer parts because he’s a gamer and tech enthusiast.
I don’t see any end to my book collecting habits. I’m a writer and always will be, and a few bookcases stuffed full of useful, unusual, rare and sentimental books goes with the territory. I know I’ll have to move again someday, but not without my books. They’re too much a part of who I am.