I spent the better part of yesterday sorting books. It is clear to me that we are moving into a phase of life with more moves and less book shelf space, so it’s time. I started the day feeling a powerful sense of catharsis as I sorted through books, and I ended the day in tears and exhaustion. It's a strange process the sorting of books. Let me record a few reflections.
--I used to keep books thinking that I would reread them, but it's become clear to me that I usually check out new books from the library rather than read my old books. I used to think that I would have complete collections of authors’ books, and in my 20s that seemed perfectly reasonable. Now that plan will require a lot of bookshelf space. All of this to say, I've been hanging on to a lot of books that I no longer need to hang on to. Getting rid of those was the easy part.
--Lots of books have sentimental value for lots of reasons, and I tried to sort out the reasons as I sorted books. I kept a few of them, a representative from each of my major life phases. I was able to get rid of a lot of them.
--I have hung on to lots of books for the teaching career that it is now clear I am not going to have. I am not going to be teaching in an MFA program, so I don't need various works that once seemed cutting edge. I don't really need all of these books of literary criticism to teach literature. I am not going to be reworking my dissertation into an academic book. A lot of those books are headed off to live with someone else.
--I am now comfortable getting rid of books even though I once spent lots of money on all these books. I supported individual artists by buying the books, but it doesn't mean I need to hang on to them forever.
--Along the way there were sadnesses as I looked at inscriptions and thought about the people who once bought me books as presents. I tried to feel gratitude for all the people who have loved me in this way while also letting those books go.
--Every so often I saw the handwriting of people who had borrowed my books, people who had permission to write in them. One of my best friends, who has since died, borrowed my Norton anthologies when she returned to school to finish her BA, and her writing is all over the books. Those are tougher to let go.
--A lot of these books represent hopes and dreams, even though I've moved on to different hopes and dreams. There's a sadness to seeing them, even though I'm fairly satisfied with how my life is turning out. Those books are going away. Perhaps they will help someone else who has those hopes and dreams of my younger self.
--I had a small crying jag meltdown when my spouse held a battered recipe box with recipes that I had copied from my mother's recipe box and said that he didn't know why I wanted to keep either the box or the recipes. In a way he's right--we don't cook those things much. But I thought of my 21 year old self copying those recipes imagining what adult life would look like and the thought of just trashing them made me sad. It's a small box, and I'll likely be keeping it.
--It’s the largest sadness: realizing that we are not part of a culture that values books very much and an even larger sadness in realizing how little we value ideas, book length ideas.