On the Difficulty of Getting Rid of Books
"I don’t get rid of them, per se; rather, I set them afloat, in search of new homes."
The time had come again. The little white bookshelf in the dining room, two shelves, three feet wide, was full. Overly full. The books were stacked in columns, bottom edges rather than spines showing, each shelf crammed tight. Elsewhere in our compact flat, a few other piles of books bubbled up like springs. These are the books my wife and I have accumulated in the last year or so, and we must find new homes for them.
It’s not that we wouldn’t keep them if we could, but there is the undeniable matter of finite space. When Julie and I first moved into this two-bedroom flat twenty-six years ago, we knew immediately we would have to be judicious with the books we kept. Julie and I had both been in the book business for a long time before we married—she was a book publicist in Montreal, I had been a bookseller and publisher in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Along with being veterate readers, practically voracious, constantly adding to our collections, we had also garnered hundreds of books simply by being in the business, comps and freebies and trades. We loved them all.
Prior to moving in together, we “deaccessioned” duplicates, along with several other boxes of books we deemed unnecessary, selling them through yard sales, given to friends as gifts, etc. Then, in quick order, we had a child, and along with the books Julie and I bought each week for ourselves, we were flooded, most happily, with a torrent of children’s books—board books and picture books, chapter books for the future. The two six-foot shelves in Maddy’s room filled almost instantly.
A house of books.
But given the size of our flat, its too-narrow hallway and the five-foot wainscotting in the dining room, we would have to limit our books to what I call “the short shelf.” Julie has three six-foot shelves for her books, I’ve got the same, and Maddy’s room has two and a half such shelves. All in all this comes out to 125 feet of shelf space. While we continued to bring new books into our home, we would not—absolutely could not—buy new bookshelves. We would keep only what was essential.I never want to get rid of any books. I don’t get rid of them, per se; rather, I set them afloat, in search of new homes.
This means that every year or so, we have to do a “pull,” what booksellers say when they remove from stock those books to be returned to the publisher, “I’m going pull the history section.” I’m tempted to call it a “culling,” but that word seems belligerent; often what’s culled, be it wild animals or irksome villagers, is considered dangerous, at least undesirable.
This is not at all how I feel when I decide which books we’ll take to our local used shop for store credit, with any leftovers then donated to the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.
I never want to get rid of any books. I don’t get rid of them, per se; rather, I set them afloat, in search of new homes.
Six months after my first novel was published, I found a copy of it on the shelves of a now defunct used shop (so defunct, I don’t remember its name). I was, you can imagine, shocked, and a little saddened. That copy was, thankfully, not signed by me, not inscribed to anyone I knew (a rarity for my first novel: unsigned). Then a few weeks later, I came across another copy in another used shop, and this one was signed: “for T__, fellow traveler.” I knew which T__ it was, not a close friend, but a literary acquaintance, whose first novel, signed to me, sat on my own shelves (at least for a while longer).
But my dismay was short-sighted, I discovered. I couldn’t blame either of these two readers. Of course, I imagined that both had read and admired the book, a comfort I whispered to myself, quite unfounded. The two books did seem to have been read, didn’t they, that curling of the cover, the looser spine? But the shelves of these two readers were undoubtedly as crowded as my own; choices must be made.
We live in an age of book abundance. Today, “a new book is published every half minute, 120 every hour, 2,800 every day, 86,000 a month. The average reader manages to read in a lifetime what the publishing industry can produce in a single day,” Irene Vallejo reminds us in Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World. How could we ever keep them all? Where would we keep them?
Book lovers are loathe to throw away books, anathema to toss them aside as if they were mere trash. In San Francisco, as I’m sure elsewhere, we’d rather leave them in a tidy pile on a street corner for others to pick up, trusting that there must be readers out there who will want them. Lately, the advent of the Little Free Library has conferred dignity on this custom.
Once I stepped back from the initial shock of finding my first novel on re-sale, I realized that it was now part of the great river of books that flows around us. Books are written, published, sold, then, quite happily, re-sold, perhaps more than once; a single book might be read by countless eyes. This is one of the unique qualities of the book: no matter how many times it’s been sold, or read, a book is still a working machine. Even when a book’s spine collapses and the pages unhinge, one can still read it.
To begin the pull, Julie and I first sort the books into two groups, those she’s read and those I have. I look through Julie’s selections, asking her should I read this, is that one worth, what about this? Of the books she’s read, I usually set aside a few for reading later, and the same with my books for her, a short TBR pile we can easily accommodate.
Then I re-examine, one last time, the books I’m ready to get rid of, searching for titles I may want to include on my short shelf. For me, the question is not, did I enjoy this book, is it a worthy book? The question is: Will I re-read it? My “collecting” has been driven solely by my reading, that is, books I loved and sensed I would read again. I’ve amassed extensive batches of books by my favorite writers—Steinbeck, Didion, Carver, Munro, Woolf, Harrison, several more.
And I do, indeed, re-read them. There have been other single-author groupings, which, due to the evolution of my reading, have gone from, say, 10 titles down to one or two, the writer’s “key” books. At one time owned and read almost all of Dawn Powell, for instance, though I’ve only kept two volumes.
There are one-offs, of course, captivating books I have kept precisely for their singularity Nixoncarver by Mark Maxwell, a fantasy of Richard Nixon and Raymond Carver taking a road trip together, or Francois Maspero’s Cat’s Grin, the saga of a young boy in Nazi-occupied Paris, and many more like these. I have remained loyal to the memory of these fine books.
There are, too, sentimental books, those I’ve kept for reasons above their literary value (or along with it). These are often gifts from friends and loved ones, or a certain copy of a book I once read in a certain place and time, so that the book itself reminds me of that place and time, a nostalgic touchstone. Of these, the mass-market edition of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, taped and broken, with cracked pages, but stolen from my high school English class on first reading it fifty years ago, has the strongest tug.
Then there are those I’ve kept simply because they are beautiful objects and I cannot bear to part with them. Some few are rarities, editions I would have a hard time replacing, but it’s not their rarity I cherish, it’s their beauty. I’ve read Don Quixote in two different translations, but the volume I’ve kept, with illustrations by Salvador Dali, remains unread.
I make decisions, gut-level. Such decisions are easier to make these days; the vast delta of used booksellers, both brick-and-mortar and electronic, makes it easy to overcome one’s “seller’s remorse.” I have, on more than one occasion, re-purchased my own copy of a book I’d sold to a used shop only months before.
When Julie and I are done, we stack the remaining books neatly in paper grocery bags with handles (a perfect size and design for moving books short term). There are five bags, something like a hundred books. We load them into the car and head out.
A few months earlier, I attended a memorial for Pat Holt, the long-time and legendary editor of the San Francisco Chronicle’s book review section. Pat gave me my first book review assignment, back in 1983. It was a funny and touching service, at a bookstore, of course, Book Passage in Corte Madera, lovely to be among Pat’s friends and readers and reviewers.On the drive home, I come to understand this is what I want for my books when I die, that my friends and loved ones would each take a little volume of me home with them…
When the service was over, the emcee invited us all to step into a side room, where shelves and shelves of the many books Pat owned were arranged haphazardly. Pat’s wish, the emcee told us, was that we take as many books as we’d like, as a way of remembering her, and of giving these books new homes, the river flowing on and on.
We wade in, and scan and chat and question and compare. I choose only one book, a memoir by Natalia Ginzburg that I’d reviewed for Pat but had only ever read in galleys.
Look what washed up on this shore.
On the drive home, I come to understand this is what I want for my books when I die, that my friends and loved ones would each take a little volume of me home with them, all the while understanding that someday those books would move from this new home to yet another, the next reader.