Compulsive book buyers are great rationalizers. And for years, my best rationalization was this: the size of your personal library is like the sail on a ship. The bigger it is, the farther you go on the winds of passing interest. So in preparation for that day when I would finally feel like sitting down and dipping into, say, The Collected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, I justified having a nice copy sitting on my shelf. For twelve years. Unopened.
You never know when you’ll want to read a certain book, I used to say. And if you don’t have the book at arms length, the urge to read it might be gone by lunchtime, never to return. I could die with Rilke’s letters (or The Golden Bowl, The Song of Roland, The Anatomy of Melancholy, etc.) unread! There was actually a whole period of my life where thoughts like this made me uncomfortable. Somewhere in my mind, I was continuously prepping for a final exam on everything, assigned by nobody, scheduled for never.
The price I paid was lugging around an expanding library that could’ve served a small prep school for the entire decade of my twenties, all of which I spent living in tiny New York apartments at the rate of about one every two years. I may have been renting garrets in slums, but I had a library fit for a Renaissance duke, which might sound romantic if it weren’t so ridiculous.
And oh, how ridiculous it was. I once paid $600 to ship some of my books into storage, only to ship them back the following year for even more money. I would get annoyed when people opened the blinds in my room, letting in sunlight that might bleach the spines of my precious volumes. I would buy used paperbacks on impulse, only to wriggle them into tight spaces in my shelves not far from their duplicates, which I had bought years earlier and forgotten about. “Have you read all these?” people would ask on the rare occasions when I let visitors into my apartment. At which point I would quickly change the subject.
Whatever opportunity or challenge my life presented, there was always a little voice in my head telling me that the solution was to be found in a book I did not yet own.
Liquor bottles get recycled, pills get popped, and powder gets snorted, but a book collection just piles up and up and up, until one day you have to admit that there is something excessive and strange about what you are doing.
So what do you do? You take a deep breath, gather up the courage, and ransack. Anything unread for ten years? Five? Two? It’s gone. Anything unread that’s left over from a college class? Gone. Gift books you’ll never read? Gone. Books you can’t imagine rereading? Gone. That one book you put on the discard pile and were about to put back? Get rid of it!
Then, before your courage fails, rent a Zip car, load it up, and drive as fast as you can to a place where you can donate everything immediately. When the spirit moves you, do it again. It hurts, I know it does. The thought of your books in a place where other people can paw at them can feel like walking down the street in your underwear.
But be fearless! When that cute little hardbound copy of whatever stares up at you with its doey eyes and promises that one morning it will change your life if you just let it live – don’t be fooled. Pull the trigger and move on. It’s a liberating experience, trust me.
When Aldous Huxley’s house burned down, taking with it his library and a lifetime of correspondence, a friend asked him how he felt. “Very clean,” he replied. You, too, can feel very clean.
So what was hiding behind all those sagging, double stacked shelves of mine? A freer and more honest version of myself, it turns out.
Am I the person who is likely to read The Complete Plays of T.S. Eliot with its companion commentary volume anytime soon? No. I thought I was, but it turns out I’m not. Do I need two different editions of Paradise Lost so I can compare the footnotes? Nope. Did I even remember buying Piers Plowman? No, I did not.
I am, however, the guy who wants to reread Jurassic Park, Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn mysteries, or the entire Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, and that’s okay. I still read and own classics, but only those I have a genuine connection with. I am no longer motivated by the vague worry that I’ll need to memorize the entire canon of world literature before I die.
Whenever I get rid of books, I exchange some of my imaginary self for the person I really am today. It hurts, but the pain never lasts long. As Bruce Sterling says, “Objects prove hard to get rid of but easy to live without.”
I have also recently discovered this amazing place called the New York Public Library. It’s a paradise of pure motives, where the only reason to pick up a book is because you want to read it, right at that moment. If you don’t want to read it, you don’t have to take it home with you. Somebody else, paid by the government, will take care of it for you and make sure you can find it on that distant day when you might want to.
In the meantime, you can be out in the world living your life. At home, you can have room for furniture that your friends sit in when they come over to visit. Instead of shelling out for that copy of Rabelais (just in case!), you can have spare cash for new clothes, food, and rent. You can have light and space and room to think. The more free space there is in your house, the less room there is in your head for bullshit.
So my sail-of-passing-interest is a lot smaller these days, but it means I am free to let the current take me wherever. It’s lovely.
Besides, now that I bought an eReader, I never have to get rid of a book I buy, ever again.