Book Purge 2016

I have established an unfortunate habit of forming emotional attachments to objects with considerable inertia but little to no measurable worth. (Witness the 30 year old sofa I moved to four different apartments, two of them second story flats with narrow Edwardian staircases, the 1973 Oldsmobile which remained parked for over two years on the opposite coast, the roughly 60 pounds of thrift store clothing and costumes I haven’t worn in at least 5 years zippered into clear plastic bags and shoved into the cubbies above my closet.) By far the most prominent example, though, is my collection of books. Stacked two and three deep on bowed shelves, piled in the cabinet of my nightstand, lined up between risers under the foot of the bed, and generally strewn behind me as I move around my apartment, they are slowly swallowing up my living space like gathering snow drifts.

Overfilled bookshelves
Earthquake hazard? You decide.

There’s nothing objectively special about what’s on these shelves. They’re not first editions or rare texts. Most can be found in any public library in America. An embarrassing number have not been opened since college. A more embarrassing number are still unread.

They have traveled though—extensively. In suitcases that consistently failed to meet with airline weight requirements; in duct-taped boxes mailed to school in the fall and home again in spring; in the back of a truck full of event tents and helium tanks bound for the Special Olympics; in moving vans and u-hauls and the trunks of cars driven caravan style between nine different residences across the greater Bay Area. It wasn’t that I couldn’t let them go; I never seriously considered it. I’m not sure it even occurred to me.

I learned to treat books as talismanic objects even before I could read them. They were an imaginative focus and, as I grew older, a symbol of personal ambition. As a teenager I carefully displayed my collection according to author, genre, and personal preference. Certain shelves were more prestigious than others. I’d take comfort and inspiration from looking at the spines lined up just right. I’d pull down a favorite and spend an hour rereading the best parts, sometimes just standing there beside the shelves, but more often sprawled out on the carpet in front of the hall heater or pacing tight circles around my bedroom (because reading was too exciting to sit still for, obviously).

In the string of dorms and shared apartments where I spent my 20s, I attempted to preserve that strange combination of familiarity and safety, passionate admiration and excitement by keeping my books close. This was not terribly successful. I don’t know quite what I was thinking. I must have assumed that at some point I would grow up and live in a real house with actual storage space—built-in bookshelves down one side of a cozy living room, perhaps an office, or even (swoon) a library. With that came the half-formed idea that my books would stay with me throughout my life. A question would arise and I’d go to the shelf and pull down a reference to search out the answer. Not that I have a lot of reference books or anything. I’d feel lonesome or nostalgic or bored and pull down one of my old favorites—a paperback, probably, but the edition with the best cover art, and the spine broken in all the right places. I’d loan books to friends and foist them upon my someday children at age appropriate intervals. (After I died, I suppose my books might give those hypothetical descendants an exclude for a cathartic fight, or maybe the collection could be auctioned, donated to a grateful and deserving public institution, or sold to theaters and real estate agents as set dressing. Failing all else my corpse could always be burned on a pyre made of paperbacks.) What I expected, basically, was an old house, full of books and children, with a massive kitchen garden, set in the middle of someplace beautiful.

I’m sure this vision must be common among my particular subspecies of North American nerdy girl–former history and creative writing undergraduates, nature lovers who haven’t quite reached the multi-day backpacking level, people who form friendships based on mutual love of obscure (or embarrassing) authors, and those who thought a library degree was a good plan.

I still want that house. What I’m realizing though, is that between that house and where I am now, a lot of other things will probably happen. My coping mechanisms (which are many) have gradually shifted from comforting to stifling. I don’t need a safe place full of things anchoring me to earth. What exactly I do need isn’t quite clear, but I think it has something to do with flexibility, and openness, the willingness to expose myself. I’m not one of those Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up freaks, but…

I need to be light and mobile. I need to use up and throw away what I can, box away the things I want for my whole life, and find what’s next. I need to throw a bunch of shit out. Seriously, look at those sagging shelves.