Why I removed thousands of books from my library

February 28, 2017

Straight to book hell. On a bus. I am doomed by my actions. Yet, I am unrepentant.

We’ve all broken a few of the rules of the bibliophiles, committed a few venial sins such as claimed we read a classic when we didn’t, secretly hated the book everyone loved, spoiled a mystery for someone (or ourselves — but I don’t get that particular kink). Some of us even belong to a more heretical branch of book devotees: e-book lovers, audiobook ‘readers’ or comic book readers, but ultimately, we are still part of the faithful, the devotees of bibliolatry.

Given that as a community we can be judgmental (we rate books, covers, genre’s, we review, we rank, we recommend) it doesn’t shock me that all it took to for people to stare in horror, call me a blasphemer, and question my status as a bibliophile was to commit the mortal, grievous sin of ridding myself of the bulk of my library.

(I hear the hisses, the sharp intakes of breath as you read that…)

Let me confess. Working class roots meant a stable but modest home life. Dad worked shifts in a mill, mom in a bank. Mom read to us early and often, but neither of them read much during what little leisure time they had. Storybooks and picture books we had. And the Encyclopedia Britannica set as well as the nerd set of ‘how it works’ books, both of which my brother and I read exhaustively. Beyond that, we borrowed most of our books. The weekly trip to the library resulted in my maxing out the book limit every time. (And often resulted in a glare from the cranky librarian because I strayed from the ‘children’s’ section. The nice librarian always defended me and applauded my choices.)

Somewhere after an extended pre-teen refusal to read ‘that Judy Blume crap’ and other ‘adolescent books’ my beloved history teacher redirected me to historical fiction. My parents, in a practical lesson of the worth of work and money, provided us an allowance for completing our chores. I spent mine on a book at the mall bookstore. Every week. (I book shopped without my popular, mall-rat friends because being a nerd in public wasn’t cool.)I owned books. Purchased books with my earnings. When mass market paperback books increased from seventy-five cents to a dollar — yes, I am that old — I received an allowance increase. Another when books cost a buck-fifty. And so on.

I owned books. Purchased books with my allowance. When mass market paperback books increased from seventy-five cents to a dollar — yes, I am that old — I received an allowance increase. Another when books cost a buck-fifty. And so on.That continued from late middle school until I left for college. Money earned at various jobs often went to more books. I headed off to the dorm with hundreds of paperbacks, mostly classics. I left college with more than double the books and a much broader selection. After a few years of work and graduate school, I moved 1300 miles from home dragging even more books. After 13 years I moved again to marry. I sold, donated, or trashed furniture, household items, and clothing, but every single book, now nearing 3000, came with me — paying movers by the square footage versus weight made a significant difference in cost.

That continued from late middle school until I left for college. I headed off to the dorm with hundreds of paperbacks, mostly classics. I left college with more than double the books and a much broader selection. After a few years of work and graduate school, I moved 1300 miles from home dragging even more books. After 13 years I moved again to marry. I sold, donated, or trashed furniture, household items, and clothing, but every single book, now nearing 3000, came with me — paying movers by the square footage versus weight made a significant difference in cost.A small home with a ready-built family of three teenagers meant space was scarce. Two bookcases held my favorite authors, research material for a novel I’m writing (still), and my TBR pile. The rest lived in boxes or on makeshift plank shelves balanced on cinder blocks in the basement, or on business shelves at work.

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A small home with a ready-built family of three teenagers meant space was scarce. Two bookcases held my favorite authors, research material for a novel I’m writing (still), and my TBR pile. The rest lived in boxes or on makeshift plank shelves balanced on cinder blocks in the basement, or on business shelves at work.

When the kids finished school and started their adult lives, my wife and I downsized and upgraded. A move from suburbia to the city, however, meant limited storage options. We have a beautiful apartment, but the square-footage meant trimming. A lot. A real lot. (Over a decade, we purged periodically but I swear, items appeared magically filling every available space. Were there confused thieves — people who broke in and put stuff in our basement? Weird.)

Planning the move for months down the road, we explored the zen-a-la-practical route — in other words, have we used it in the last year, did it fit our design/decor scheme, or did it still give us joy? If not, out we tossed it. Goodwill, vet center, yard-sales. Month after month we pulled out piles and boxes and sorted everything into ‘keep’, ‘maybe’, ‘donate’, ‘trash’. Then, a month later, we resorted those same piles, again and again, each time to trim a bit more fat. But books? I dreaded the thought. My library? The joy those pages gave me? The sheer monetary investment? There were the John Jakes books that reignited my bibliophilia, the Anne Rice books I read instead of college texts until I’d devoured her latest, the classics, the fantasy novels, the adolescent novels I taught and read to keep up with the students, my first Shakespeare, my first ‘teaching’ Shakespeare, the texts that marked my many years of education, the prize-winners. I could tell you what was going on in my life if you pulled out any given book — each had an importance that had little to do with the writing or story itself.

Now, understand, I wasn’t completely against purging my book collection. In theory. There were books I didn’t like, didn’t finish, and those could go. I even emptied a box or two to donate, tag-sale, etc. No longer in the classroom, I donated novels to teachers. A leaking pipe decided for another couple of boxes. And bookworms — the white, squiggly kind that eats paper do exist, and that was another box.

Then, one day as I was leading a professional development workshop where we did a ‘privilege walk’ when an epiphany struck me like a hardback copy of Infinite Jest. As I read one particular statement, I understood why, with few exceptions (you borrowers who never return, I’m glaring at you), every book I’d ever bought or someone gifted to me sat undisturbed in a box or on a shelf.

“Take a step backward if, when growing up, your house had fewer than 50 books.”

THWACK.

Books had been my way of gaining a certain type of privilege, showing off a certain membership, displaying a particular type of wealth. They embodied my eclectic tastes, my nerdish bent, my personal and professional learning, and reflected a particular, cultivated imagine of me back to anyone who stood and gazed at my accomplished reading. What others saw in that reflection was important to me. Once upon a time.

Now, I’m not saying this is true for everyone, nor calling anyone who collects and own books disparaging names, (and honest, I am not judging those who maintain libraries) but my truth had struck hard like a zen master’s rod. I didn’t love the individual books as much as I loved what the books said about me.

I love reading, but that isn’t the same as loving books. Being lost in a story, learning new information, exploring new worlds, reveling in a master’s language, brings me great joy. The words I read change my world in small subtle ways. The format of that reading does not. Yes, there are some beautiful books, but such tomes are the exception, not the rule. I love the smell of an old bookstore — but my library never exuded that particular aroma. I love the heft and weight of a physical hardcover book, but I also appreciate the convenience of e-books and love a good audiobook listen. Since I’m confessing… paperbacks on the other hand never liked the feel of reading them. Trade/softcover I tolerate, but I have no memory of the last time I read a mass-market paperback.

Understanding the root of my need to collect and my reluctance to give up any book allowed me to let that go, to no longer need that library. The vicarious experiences and empathetic journeys those books provided, the knowledge and wisdom they imparted, would still be with me if I no longer had the paper and ink resting on a shelf. (And on a more practical level who needs to keep a copy of Navigating the Internet from 1990. Seriously. Who?)

I donated books, left them in doctor’s offices, tire store waiting rooms and restaurants. Friends, neighbors, and strangers received free books. I even sold some to a favorite used bookstore. And it felt good. I freed those books from prison boxes and shelf-blocks so someone else could gain joy from them. We dropped off books to libraries where they might sell for a small amount to help the library — because libraries suffer from a perpetual lack of funds. (Yes, you neigh-sayers and skeptics, I’m sure a few ended up in the recycling, but I did not intentionally commit libricide.)

The books I sold brought me joy in a new way — with the store credit, I purchased hardcover copies of my favorite books and authors. On a practical level, it freed up space. On a personal level, it freed me from the need to prove myself, to show I belonged, to make a statement, to display some arbitrary accomplishment.The favorites (one 5×5 bookcase), my ‘professional’ library, my research books (both in storage temporarily) and my physical TBRs (one 4×2 bookcase) are all that remain. What remains are practical or joy giving books. (My e-library? Another addiction story for another day.)

My favorite author bookshelf. Most are hardcovers, including a few first editions and / or signed editions.

The favorites (one 5×5 bookcase), my ‘professional’ library, my research books (both in storage temporarily) and my physical TBRs (one 4×2 bookcase) are all that remain. What remains are practical or joy giving books. (My e-library? Another addiction story for another day.)Do I miss that nostalgia and memory of joy seeing a book I’ve read? Not as much as I expected. I still get the same sensation, still recall the same memories seeing the cover pop up on my Goodreads shelf or my book inventory (I’ve been inventorying my books and logging my reading for far longer than Goodreads existed.) When on the rare occasion I miss my library, I take comfort in knowing someone else who perhaps has less than 50 books in their home may now own one, that someone else will now find joy in the same physical book I did.

Do I miss that nostalgia and memory of joy seeing a book I’ve read? Not as much as I expected. I still get the same sensation, still recall the same memories seeing the cover pop up on my Goodreads shelf or my book inventory (I’ve been inventorying my books and logging my reading for far longer than Goodreads existed.) When on the rare occasion I miss my library, I take comfort in knowing someone else who perhaps has less than 50 books in their home may now own one, that someone else will now find joy in the same physical book I did.I’ve confessed, but I will not seek absolution from the book community. If you still think I’ve committed a grievous sin, then hand me the keys to the bus. I have a few recently read books to donate.

I’ve confessed, but I will not seek absolution from the book community. If you still think I’ve committed a grievous sin, then hand me the keys to the bus. I have a few recently read books to donate.

2 Comments

  • Irene February 28, 2017 at 6:58 pm

    Hi Sheryl, I see no sin here at all. None.

    Interestingly, I had an emotional attachment to my book collection as well. Mine was more of a “I like to visit old friends” kind of vibe. I pruned a great many books about four years ago on a journey to be more minimalistic and less consumer-driven. While I kept many favorites or books I felt had use, I gave teacher friends hundreds of books. I think you hit the key point in your post: donate, gift, giveaway, get the books to the people who need them now.

    I too am amassing quite the digital collection, but I’m careful about adding too many physical books to my home. I enjoy a more open space to read and think. My SO mentioned buying more bookcases as a future project and my response of “Let’s mull that one over for a bit” shocked him. Sometimes I do want all the books, but that would mean sacrificing that open space. For now, I will buy a book, read it, and then pass it on to another.

    Looking forward to reading more of your bookish thoughts here and on Litsy.

    • Sheryl@ubookquitous February 28, 2017 at 7:01 pm

      Thanks Irene. It is great to find another who loves book but doesn’t feel the need to amass a collection. We seem to be in the minority. And as a former teacher, yes giving them away to teachers for more kids to read (because we know they don’t have enough books in classrooms and libraries) is always a great thing.

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