I have to get rid of some books.
This is not just a matter of spring cleaning, a ritual from which I have long ago declared books to be exempt. This is more serious: We may have to move.
Let me start by saying that moving hundreds of miles from one end of the state to the other is not exactly one of life’s lovely moments. In fact, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
So this time we are planning ahead. We are taking action tinged with regret, but necessary nonetheless. Doing things like cleaning out closets and selling stuff on eBay. And yes, culling the book collection.
It would not be too much exaggeration to say that my library is my prized possession. It is something like an extended family in which individual volumes are brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, each with his or her unique internal and external stories. Internal as in the pages and words between the covers, external as in memories of when and where I read them, not to mention my particular stage of life at the time and how they affected me emotionally and changed the way I think about things. Even recalling how I acquired each book is a story in itself. Some of those stories are pretty boring (Barnes & Noble), others are lost to the sands of time, while still others are never-to-be-forgotten moments involving library book sales, incredible finds in dusty piles and books borrowed and never returned.
Some people say their books are their children. I won’t go that far. I don’t make enough money to support several hundred children.
The hard part of this little exercise is determining which books stay and which go. I’ve been approaching this problem by means of triage. I have favorites that I would never think of setting loose, while there are others that I must admit were obtained in ill-considered moments of weakness and (sotto voce) were never actually read. (Gulp!) I feel like a bad person even making this admission. At any rate, the former will stay and the latter will go.
In between these two categories are books that I enjoyed years ago. Perhaps I still smile when I notice them sitting on the shelf. But I know deep in my heart that I will never reread them. These are the hard decisions. The pleasant memories associated with these books will remain with me whether or not I continue to own them. For I will always own them; they have been incorporated into who I am in a way that cannot be deleted merely because a copy no longer sits in a bookcase in my house.
Some of these middle category books will be sold, given to friends or donated to the thrift shop along with the aforementioned ill-conceived purchases. Others will find their way into packing boxes sealed with tape and labeled in black marker, alphabetically by author. They will be loaded into a truck, transported to another city and unpacked in the next place we call home.
I know I will keep the literary greats — Mark Twain, Flaubert, Shakespeare, Steinbeck — along with many obscure books that I have come to love for quirky reasons that I cannot always elucidate. Our collections of novels by Carol Shields, John Grisham and Anne Tyler will follow us wherever we go. My fat reference books that weigh many pounds, of course.
But what of Garrison Keillor, John Irving and Barbara Ehrenreich? No. Enjoyed at one time, I have moved on and will free them to be enjoyed again by others. What about Bill Bryson and Stephen Jay Gould? I’m still not sure. As much as I love the former’s travel writing and the latter’s explanations of the mysteries of the natural world, I know I could do without them. Nevertheless, I have a sneaky suspicion that they will be coming with.
I will probably relieve myself of a number of books about computers and the Internet, although I will undoubtedly keep a few. These are subjects that ought to be updated daily, and I know I will acquire more recent works as time goes on.
Novels are more difficult to decide between. I will never get rid of my Salingers, but what of Lorrie Moore, Barbara Kingsolver and Ann Hood? I’d love to keep them, but I have to get rid of something. I just don’t know whether it will be the works of these particular authors.
Have you ever heard of a collection of short stories titled Plan B for the Middle Class by Ron Carlson? How about The Fruit Cocktail Diaries by Carmody and Hayduk? Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan? Microserfs by Douglas Coupland? These relatively obscure titles are favorites that I do not plan to part with, not only because I have already hauled them across a continent, but also because I love them.
Many will be appalled at the titanic titles and authoritative authors that I will dismiss with a pat on the binding and a last wistful look. How could I bear to part with these defining novels when I am keeping such dreck?
For me, selecting books to cull from my collection will always be a bit of a Sophie’s Choice. In the immortal words of Simon and Garfunkel, any way you look at it you lose. But when the pressure of moving day approaches, choose I must. And as I bid goodbye to forgotten volumes covered in dust as well as some old favorites, I am comforted by one thought that remains in the back of my mind.
I can always go online and find another copy.