29 Jul

I’ve written about culling my book collection twice before as well as referring to it in numerous posts. Since I wrote “Winnowing the Books, Part I” more than three years ago. I have continued to donate books, albeit more slowly. It’s a task I return to periodically. I still record those that I give away. I still research the possible worth of books with the idea that I might try to sell those that are most valuable. 

Now that the collection is more manageable, I am proposing a new strategy that involves selecting what to keep, rather than what to give away (more in the spirit of Marie Kondo). I’ve given myself a somewhat arbitrary though tidy number of 100 books that will go with me to my next home, which will, in all likelihood, be smaller than my current one. 

I cannot imagine a life without books around me. However, while books can tell our stories, like other objects, we may not need to keep the books to tell the story, unless a particular book is something we know we will return to and enjoy. My friend Betsy provides the bones of a good approach to keeping books (Betsy’s Downsizing Journey): books that meant something to her personal growth, books from writers whose style impresses her (sources of inspiration for her own writing), and books that she enjoyed and may want to read again. 

Her post inspired me to consider more carefully the principles I want to apply when considering what to keep. Here are the key questions I need to ask. 

What kind of condition is this book in? Those paperbacks printed on cheap, crumbly newsprint? Out, no matter how much I liked it. Is the spine cracked? (Maybe I can use the book in my art, but it must leave the shelves!) If I love it that much, and think I will read it again, I can a) take it out of the library, or b) buy a better-constructed copy. 

How small is the print? My father had a number of Everyman classics with the tiniest print imaginable. Although these included some I might be interested in reading, I will not subject my poor old eyes to that type! He was much younger than I am when he read these. 

For fiction, how likely am I to read or refer to this book again? If it’s a novel I’ve read, the answer is probably unlikely. Of course, I’ve read many novels that were meaningful to me, that I enjoyed, whose style impressed me, but there are so many more novels out there, it doesn’t make sense to keep more than a tiny handful, and only those that are in good condition (see criterion 1). Even that signed Nick Hornby novel?  Mostly, I love his books, but not that one.

For reference, can I find the information I need (and trust) on the internet? These days, the answer is probably “yes.” Although I have a number of cookbooks, I find myself turning to the internet more often for recipes. A good argument against keeping reference books, especially on subjects like health and travel, is that they become outdated very quickly. But I will always keep a detailed atlas around. 

Is this book still relevant to my life? I spent a lot of years first writing screenplays and then fiction. Three years ago, I published a novel, but I feel less interested in pursuing that long haul kind of writing now. Do I need that shelf full of how-to writing books? Plus, I’ve taken some meaty writing courses and have internalized some of the key principles should I decide to return to this previous pattern.   

How many do I have of the same kind? I found four photographic books on New York that belonged to my dad, who traveled regularly to New York for work and loved the city. I like photographs of places, and I like New York, but I don’t need four books. One will do. Likewise, my mother was a collector of art books, but do I need three books on Picasso? If I didn’t like Picasso, I wouldn’t need any! 

Is this book merely symbolic of some part of my life? Perhaps the biggest trap! I could fill my bookshelves with books that are symbolic. In my collection, I found books about colleges I attended or worked at. I perused several of these, and while interesting, they felt largely irrelevant in relation to the meaning of those places for me. There are also books from my parents’ collection—symbolic of their interests but not necessarily mine. 

But I hesitate about giving away those books that were influential to my development in some way and remain in good condition. For the time being, until that big move, I will hang onto them. In the meantime, as an inveterate list maker, I’m making an annotated list of meaningful books from my life, even those that have been consigned to the trash can or the donation box. The list will be a part of my story.  

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