It’s trendy to talk about your hopelessly neurotic relationship with books. People love to share memes about how they just can’t stop buying more books even though they haven’t read the last books they have. It’s not my favorite schtick, but at least it’s better than the people who, to prove their love of books, share photos of the intricate diorama they made by cutting an actual book into little bits. They just love books soooooo much, that’s what they did to a book!
If that’s how you show love, remind me not to let you babysit.
Anyway, I could tell you a thing or two about what it looks like when book collecting gets truly neurotic. I grew up in that kind of house. My parents weren’t hoarders, but they accumulated books in a way that can’t be completely explained by their love of reading and their thirst for knowledge (which were considerable). My father once bought an entire dumpster full of books, which the seller delivered to our house at an excellent price. The only catch with these particular books was that they had been on fire, and most of them were blackened and crumbling, and wet and mouldy. But books! For such a good price, that would otherwise get dumped! And it was such a deal . . . . and it would be such a waste to let books get thrown out.
That’s the thing that catches me up now: It would be such a waste to let them go. You can’t just let books go. Collecting books isn’t like collecting anything else, because they’re not just things. Books are especially important. They hold a special place in our minds and command a certain category of respect. You can’t just let them go!
Maybe you see where this is headed. I was getting ready for a party at our house, and so I did a book purge. I took every single book off the shelves in my living room and made them stand in piles before my cold, hard judgment. Oh, I was ruthless. I got rid of more than half the books we own. I packed up three giant contractor bags full of books someone else might possibly want, and then I filled up the trash can with trash books and made my son empty it over and over and over again. And then everything that made the cut got sorted, dusted, and lined up neatly so they could actually be found and read, and enjoyed.
People always protest when they hear about projects like this, and I understand why. My heart was protesting the whole time: But it’s a perfectly good book! You can’t just let it go!
And some of them were perfectly good books. Some of them were excellent, even; but nobody in my house had even been tempted to open them for decades. Or they were read once, and that was plenty. Or they weren’t the greatest book on this particular topic, but it’s a very important topic, and the kids really ought to be exposed to it.
Or they had no front and no back, and the remaining pages full of gripping content were stuck together with ancient pudding. But maybe some child who, because of my deficient parenting, spends too much time looking at screens and thinking about stupid things, will pick it up these middle pages randomly and be so captivated, it will change their lives and they’ll start begging to go to the library. The book part of the library.
I have technical books about painting that I bought out of sheer vanity and never made it past page 3. I have books I bought for college and didn’t even read when they were mandatory, much less since. I have approximately 46 children’s catechisms, including about 18 where the priest looks just like Chevy Chase. I have dreary, drippy biographies of the saints that would drive any normal child away from the faith except that no one in their right mind would willingly read something that looks so tiresome. And I have books that I adored in my childhood, and meant so much to me, and formed my imagination, and are out of print, irreplaceable, invaluable . . . and completely in tatters. They are capable only of collecting dust, and obscuring the very readable book next to them.
If I really wanted to sort them coherently, I’d sort them according to what they represent, or what past era of my life they made sense in. My childhood, which is over. My high school and college days, which are over. My homeschooling days, which are over. A time when this book would be of use, which is over. It’s a whole catalogue of situations that no longer exist. But I know very well that one reason it’s so hard to part with them is because I’m afraid if I cut away too much of my past, I’ll see just how skimpy my present is.
And that is, in fact, what happened with my books. By the time I was done furiously sorting, dusting, sneezing, evaluating, tossing, and lugging books out of my life, the remaining collection was . . . normal. Small. It now looks like the living room of people who sometimes spend part of their time reading, and that’s it. It doesn’t have that, “Whoa, these people are SUPER INTO BOOKS” look anymore. Tiny ouch. Just another little layer of vanity stripped away. Just another little bit of something I had allowed to become my identity, that was really just a thing, and not really me at all. And it was okay to let it go.
Don’t worry, I won’t tell you that this whole essay has been a metaphor for life. It’s really just about books, and books aren’t a metaphor; they’re just books. They’re just things. That’s the point. If they’re cluttering up your house in a way that’s making you unhappy, they’re just things. Maybe you can let them go.