Saturday, October 27, 2007

My Life with Books

For the first 35 years of my life I hoarded every book I had ever owned. He who dies with the most books wins, and I was planning on winning. I kept everything from college textbooks (you never know when you’ll need to solve a differential equation on the way to the grocery store) to self-help books to third-rate sci-fi. For a long time I even kept every copy of Omni magazine that I had ever owned. When I was an old lady and someone wanted to know what I accomplished in my life, I planned to sweep my hand along the edges of my endless bookshelves, finishing with a flourish like Vanna White, and then stand there with one hand on my hip and the other demurely indicating my vast library, the sheer bulk of the wood pulp speaking for itself. I would respond:

I have read all of these books. You may worship me now.

To accomplish this goal, I lived by some very important book rules. They were: 1) If I bought a book I had to read it, 2) If I started reading a book, I had to finish it and 3) If I read a book, I had to keep it. No exceptions. I couldn’t just buy a book and then not read all of it, and I certainly couldn’t throw a book away. That was just wasteful. I might as well stop recycling aluminum cans or water the yard in the rain. I might as well throw away chocolate. No, the books had to be stockpiled. Every single one of them.

Then Slag and I decided to cohabitate. Or really, Slag and I, plus all of Slag’s tools, decided to cohabitate. Storage space suddenly became a very valuable commodity in this house. Every item needed justification and negotiations were extended and heated. There were a lot of conversations like:

“No! This is my closet and you can’t put that box in here. This is my space and I might want to put something there later. I need all of it. All of it!”

“You already have the bigger closet in the bedroom AND the closet in the extra bedroom. I should be able to put this one little box here.”

“I need both closets because your office takes up the entire third bedroom and I have no place for my quilting supplies. You have an ENTIRE ROOM all to yourself.”

“But that’s for work. You can’t count space I need for work against me. Work space isn’t optional space.”

“You have FIVE computers in there and you’re only using two of them. There’s a lot of optional stuff in there.”

And so on.

Household tensions were high for several months while we both jockeyed to maintain possession of valuable space. Slag would sometimes break off negotiations and resort to surreptitious, guerrilla-like “closet space raids” while I was at work. Now and then I would open my craft closet and discover a dead printer or some boxes of office supplies in the back corner, semi-hidden behind a bundle of quilt batting or stacked on the very top shelf, the one that’s too high for me to reach without a chair. As if he thought I wouldn’t notice anything up that high. As if. Ha!

And then I’d work myself up into a self-righteous lather and start indignantly shoving the offending items out of MY closet and out into the hallway and then I’d just leave them there for somebody to trip over and break their neck, silently saying “I don’t care WHERE you put these, but you’re not putting them in HERE. This space in here is MINE and YOU CAN’T HAVE IT.” I showed him.

Eventually though, we both tired of the trench warfare. We realized that passive-aggressive nit-picking could not solve our space problems. It came to pass that we both had to reexamine some of the stuff we had been carting around for years. I clearly needed to reconsider my book rules.

It was really really scary. These were my BOOKS. What if I got rid of a book and then I WANTED IT LATER? What if that happened? Surely the earth would spin off its axis and we would all die and it would be all my fault. All MY fault, for getting rid of that book.

So I started out slowly, if only to maintain my fragile hold on sanity. At first I just went through all the old sci-fi paperbacks and tossed the ones that were really old and/or really crappy, planning to ease into the harder stuff later. I made several passes through the collection over the course of a few months, gradually working deeper and deeper into the sensitive meat of the hoard, the things I was really attached to.

I made up intermediate rules for myself along the way, things like Today unload all the self-help books that were pitched by their authors on the Phil Donahue Show or Get rid of anything you bought because you thought it made you look smart and so The Cinderella Complex and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare were ejected.

I finally settled on three guidelines. I could keep a book if one of the following were true:
  • There was a reasonable chance that I might want to refer to the book again in my lifetime. And it had to be a reasonable chance; a remote chance was not enough.
  • I liked the book enough to recommend it to others AND I was willing to lend or give it to someone else.
  • I had not yet read the book and there was a remote chance that I might want to read it someday.

With these three rules, I whittled the books down to what would fit in a single 6 foot, 30 inch wide bookcase. The rules have worked well for the last several years. I have been able to live within my book space allotment as long as I screw up the courage to do a mini-culling once a year or so. The next culling is scheduled for this afternoon. Wish me luck!


Blogger Mauigirl said...

I am exactly like you when it comes to books. I cannot throw away a book. I have, however, managed to get rid of some of them via yard sales or donations to churches.

On the other hand, I've been ordering my favorite childhood books (which I read by taking them out of the library way back then) so that I'll "have" them. I re-read some of them and they were as good as ever.

I'm trying to cut back on my online Amazon and Barnes-and-Noble habit but it's rough.

1:28 PM  
Blogger Mauigirl said...

Re: the donations to churches: for their rummage sales or thrift shops. Not that I had religious books!x

1:29 PM  
Blogger Schmoopie said...

Books are wonderful! My grandfather is a poet and has a vast collection of books. He refuses to move into a nursing home (my poor, tired grandmother is doing her best to care for him) because there wouldn't be any room for all of the books. You and he are kindred spirits!

8:07 PM  
Blogger ian said...

You know...I've got a book you could read...



8:25 PM  
Blogger Jazz said...

6 foot 30 inch wide? That's impossible. I have a room with shelves built in from floor to ceiling and it's still not enough. I cull and I cull and I swear the books have sex and have baby books in the dead of night because I never make any headway...

9:25 AM  
Blogger Kara said...

I have three things to say to you.

1. You obviously don't move every year. I've had to get rid of several books every year and every time, a little piece of me dies. So I envy you.

2. Kansas takes up space storing EMPTY ELECTRONICS BOXES. So I feel your pain. Oh how I feel it.

3. You chucked Shakespeare? Whahuh? You don't read it for fun? Oh god. I'm a freak.

9:23 PM  
Blogger TinaRee said...

Nooo! Not the sacred tomes.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Jill said...

mauigirl, Oh, trust me, I don't actually throw away books. I end up hauling them all down to Half Price Books and getting $4.75 for them. Then I shop while I'm there and spend all I got plus a little more on other books.

schmoopie, Your grandfather sounds like a really cool guy. I hope he gets to keep his books with him always.

ian, I have every intention of picking up that particular book. :)

jazz, I'd never thought of that! That IS what they do. It makes perfect sense.

kara, 1. I've been in the same house since 1992. Before that, I moved all the books, but I didn't have any furniture, so it all evened out. 2. Omigod! Do all men do that?? I live in house full of empty boxes. And some of the boxes are for electronics that we don't own anymore. 3. Sorry, sorry. Shakespeare only does anything for me when it's performed by people. My brain can't translate Elizabethan English on a page into anything interesting. I need Kenneth Branagh or Ian McKellen.

tinaree, I know, I know. It's really sad that it had to come to that, but it was either the books or Slag, and Slag is a lot nicer to snuggle up against.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Whippersnapper said...


I've got to get my blogging addiction back into gear, I am missing everything.

11:01 PM  
Blogger Mauigirl said...

I know what you mean - if I give away a bunch of books I'm just as likely to then buy a bunch more at the very rummage sale I gave mine too. It's a sickness.

4:57 PM  

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