Winnowing the Books, Part I

12 Apr

I don’t know about you, but I grew up surrounded by books. New books, old books, antiquarian books. Paperbacks, hardbacks. Novels, reference books, art books, biography, essays, humor. I was given age appropriate books by various relatives for birthdays and Christmas. Oddly, I wasn’t a big reader as a child (read my post, Confessions of a Non-Voracious Reader), but I still liked having my own library. After I went to college, my collection grew to include seminal works in sociology, psychology, languages, and travel guides.

With each move, all the books came with me, and I continued to add more fiction and reference books. Many of the older books remained in their boxes, stashed in the attic. When my husband, a comparative lit major and another book collector, and I joined households, we doubled our library. And as I’ve mentioned before, I inherited boxes of my parents’ books after they died.

For many of us, books form a core piece of our identity. They tell our story and our family’s story. If you looked at my father’s books, you would know that he, the Englishman, loved the American humorists (Twain, Benchley, Thurber), dwelled on his asthma, took an interest in classical music, concerned himself with the weather, admired Bertrand Russell, was intrigued by language, and enjoyed literary fiction from the 19th century on. My mother liked anything to do with art and design, and she liked food. (She collected cookbooks, not so much because of the recipes but because she enjoyed looking at the dishes.) Later, she signed on to the Writers’ Digest Book Club, which inundated her all too frequently with books she had no use for but didn’t bother to return. That’s a part of her story, too.

While many of the books were double-stacked on shelves throughout the house, many remained in boxes, stored in the attic, the basement, and, I confess, my off-site storage unit. Of course, not only had I not looked at most of the books for years, I didn’t even know what I owned. After I rid myself of the low hanging fruit of work papers, this excess of books seemed like a logical next target. But I needed a plan.

My overall goal was to winnow the book collection down so that any book we owned would fit on an existing shelf. NO BOXES, anywhere for any reason. So, first I had to decant the contents of the boxes that were hidden away. In addition, at about this time, we were redoing our enclosed back porch, where I had stored on two bookshelves’ worth of novels and other books I’d read in the past decade. All of these had to be cleared.

Over a period of months, I created a new stash of boxes, which I stacked in my office and in the hallway.  In these, I placed books designated for donation. I created an Excel spreadsheet and made note of each book I put in a box, including title, author, publisher, date of publication, whether hardback or paperback, and other significant information—whether it was a first edition, signed by the author, or a gift from someone. For older books, I looked up possible value and recorded that. I had separate worksheets for different types of books—fiction, reference books, older books, children’s books. Time consuming? You bet. Overly compulsive? Probably. But the act of recording the books made it easier for me to part with them because I still had a record of the story. When the book was less important to me, I sometimes overlooked this recording step. Occasionally, when parting with a piece of my life---my books on counseling or evaluation, I took photos of a representative group to remind myself what was once important.

So, how did I choose which books I would keep and which would go in this first batch?

Easy targets for me: out-of-date reference books (a surprising number), novels I’d bought and read and knew I’d never read again, books I’d used in my work life and no longer needed, books that didn’t interest me.

Less easy but still doable: books on subjects that I had well-covered by other books, like books on writing or health; ditto for some of my parents’ books—I kept one or two of my father’s books on music, the weather.

Not for consideration at this time: Books signed by the author, books from my childhood, presents from family, art books, books that I thought might have monetary value and would want to sell, books I loved, books I used.

This first collection of about 400 books filled fourteen boxes. Rather than trying to make any money on them, I contacted More than Words, a wonderful local non-profit that trains young people to essentially run a book business. Two lovely young men came with their truck and hauled away the entire stack to sell or donate.

No longer did I have any boxes of books in the attic or in storage or in the hallway—just a couple of cartons in the basement, which was more easily accessible to me. I still had hundreds of books, and John had most of his to peruse, but we had made a dent.

How did I feel? I felt some sorrow. I regretted giving away a couple of books that it turned out I needed. But there are bookstores, libraries, and friends with books to solve that problem. Mostly, I felt relief—relief in seeing the piles of boxes gone in one fell swoop, relief in now knowing what I had left. It would be a number of months before the next batch would go, but I had started a process I’d been dreading because of its magnitude and emotional weight, and I had survived. Books will always be a part of my life, but I no longer need to worry about being buried by them.

* The email will not be published on the website.