I grew up in a house without books and now one of my standing jokes to visitors who gape at the library-like appearance of my home is that the main motif of my decorating scheme is books. I’ve never counted them, but I just now did a mental inventory, estimating seventeen six-level standing bookshelves throughout the house. The nearest to me right now has over thirty books on the top shelf. So doing the math, I guess that makes us the proud owners of something like 3,500 books.
We have made several long-distance moves in the last ten years, and each time, books and papers have doubled the weight (which is to say the cost and effort) of moving house.
I mention this because for the first time, I’m yearning to lighten my load. I am going to sell, recycle and give away the books I don’t need. The recycling pile will be pretty easy to assemble, I think, because there are quite a few books on these shelves that no one could possibly want: pocket guidebooks fifteen years out of date, twenty year-old calorie counters, thirty year-old textbooks. The pile of books for selling will mostly be novels and nonfiction hardbacks I’ll never want to read again, but which could be welcomed at bargain prices by new readers. The rest someone may want to take home from a Friends of The Library sale at fifty cents a pop: things like copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves and the Sunset Western Garden Book that have been superseded by several updated editions but not made entirely obsolete.
Books in active use, those which continue to give me pleasure–those are the keepers. My cookbooks, of course, the novels I love, the ones that I delight in lending to friends and that I plan to reread someday, the sacred texts and philosophy books I consult over and over again, the memoirs and histories I search through now and again to remind myself of a particularly apt story. My guess is that these would amount to perhaps a third of the books now in my possession.
I probably own an equal proportion of books that were boring or stupid the first time or have by now outlived their usefulness. Some sound impressive or, taken in groups, suggest an expertise I would like to claim: I have a whole shelf of books about art history, say, or city planning. I have many shelves of so-so novels, forgettable and forgotten. I can’t remember the last time I opened any of the books in this category, nor imagine when the next time might be. In fact, contemplating divesting myself of unneeded books has made me think about why I kept these for so long.
The answer seems clear. These books are in some sense trophies. Their existence on my shelves makes only one statement: credit me with reading this. I think this has been a powerful motivator for me in schlepping this tonnage of paper from one city to the next over so many years. For a self-educated person like myself, one who lacks academic credentials, books serve as diplomas, the verification of my right to see myself as an intellectual. I like the thought that my need for that verification has diminished at long last.
There is one final category that keeps growing, despite my resolutions not to feed it. These are the books I continue to buy–even when I am flat broke, I search out used copies and find a way to rationalize the expenditure of a few dollars I haven’t got–the books that age on a shelf beside my bed, reminding me of interests and intentions unfulfilled. When money is tight, I don’t much mind foregoing splurging on clothes, restaurant meals or theater tickets. It’s books that to me represent the spaciousness of life, the expansion of intellect and emotion into uncharted realms that equals freedom. I hope I am allowed to live (and read) until I am very old; and I must admit that if I forbore to buy another book from this day forward, I would probably have enough reading to occupy several decades just in finishing the unread volumes already in my possession.
All of this made me think of the great first essay in Susan Sontag’s Under the Sign of Saturn, in which she pauses in the midst of a year ensconced in small room in Paris, more or less without books, writing herself back to basics. She has just learned of the death of Paul Goodman–at 61, in the summer of 1972–describing in terms I find deeply moving and resonant his great contributions and the great frustrations and ironies of his life. I just got up from my typing to look for the book, but it’s not on the shelf, indeed, it’s nowhere to be found! I googled the essay, “On Paul Goodman,” but I couldn’t find the whole text online for free. I found the first few pages as a book excerpt at Amazon, which got me really interested in rereading the rest. Then I learned I could order a used copy for a mere 88 cents.
Oh, no! I did it! Drat that one-click ordering! Well, I’ll soon have a thousand spaces on the bookshelves, so I guess one or two incoming won’t hurt…will it?