I decided to pare down my library.
As I mention in my confession post, I know that they take up unnecessary space in my house. And anything that I’m not using could potentially be used by someone else. And besides, I thought it would be valuable to explore the reasons I hang onto things – to examine myself and try to understand what is driving my compulsion to hoard things.
Let me tell you, it was hard.
I didn’t realize how the exercise would force me to confront certain things about myself.
I realized, while I was struggling with my book shelf, that I was letting material things define me. That’s why I had so much trouble letting them go.
See, for years, I got my sense of identity from being a scholar. I was a very successful student in university. I kept all of my books and proudly displayed them at home on a book case in my living room like trophies. I have all these because I am a scholar, my bookshelf said.
Or at least that’s what I thought it said.
Now, as a more mature person going through each book, one by one, then compulsively putting them back on the shelf, I realized what they were saying was something more like, I am a pretentious douche who hangs onto material possessions because I derive my self-worth from them.
(I wonder how many other people have heard them say that?)
For a long time, my books represented who I wanted to be: a smart, creative, cultured, intellectually sophisticated person. I kept them as physical reminders to myself that I am a worthwhile human being because I am well-read.
* * *
As I went through on each of my books, I had some almost-legitimate reasons to hang on to some of them.
What if I wanted to re-read them someday?
What if I wanted to reference a work in some of my own writing someday? Or just fact-check, or procure a quotation?
What if Lydia wants to read them someday?
I realized that these were pretty frail reasons to hang onto many of my books.
Most hadn’t brought me pleasure in their first reading – I’d only read them because I’d had to, and because they were canonical. I hated The Mill on the Floss. I found Wordsworth’s sister unbelievably boring. What made me think I would ever choose to read them again? And when would I ever write another academic essay in my life? And why would I want to encourage Lydia to read something as awful as Matthew Lewis’ The Monk?
I had to ask myself whether it was worth it to store books for years and years – moving them from house to house — just on the off-chance that I would want to read them again.
I concluded that it probably was not.
Into a box I reluctantly put them.
Then there were some completely illegitimate reasons for hanging onto my books.
But this one’s about Donne. I have a published article on Donne! I’m practically a Donne scholar! I can’t part with this.
And this one’s about Blake. I traveled to England to give a presentation on Blake! It just wouldn’t seem right to get rid of it.
I helped to publish these books! I’m . . . I’m kind of a part of them and they’re a part of me, right?
But these are CLASSIC WORKS that any true student of literature should have in her library!
In other words, I was still deriving my sense of identity from these books. I felt like they defined me, and I had sentimental attachments to them.
I had to argue with myself: But if they’re not enjoyable, what’s the point of keeping them? What’s the value of being a “true student of literature,” anyway? There’s no monetary reward for having read and kept Anna Karenina or Brothers Karamazov. And how does owning certain books make you one, anyway?
And besides, if you ever decide you do want to read them for whatever reason, there’s always the library.
Into the box, into the box.
* * *
I decided to keep some of my books, of course.
I decided to keep books that I’d truly enjoyed, not the ones I thought I should have enjoyed. Jane Austen, Julian of Norwich and Charles Dickens (but not Hard Times) got to stay, as did John Donne (but not books about Donne).
I reasoned that I might want to lend out these books. I would want Lydia to read them someday, maybe.
And frankly, I just couldn’t bring myself to part with many of them, though it’s unlikely I’ll read them again, just because they were so formative. I LOATHED Nietzsche, but I spent so much time and energy into hating him, he was almost like an old friend.
I also kept all my anthologies. I am still a mere mortal. I paid so much money for them.
* * *
OK, honesty time:
When all was said and done, I only managed to get rid of about one-fifth of my books.* Many books that went into the box ended up back on the shelf. I know I’ll probably never need my German language textbook again, but what if I go to Germany some day?! And oh, those beautiful anthologies that smell like iambic pentameter. They are filled with my handwriting. Who would want scribbled-on anthologies?
But I guess the most valuable outcome of the experience was having to recognize how I let my material possessions define me.
I had to come to terms with the fact that that part of my life – the academic part – is over. While my experience at university shaped me profoundly, it’s not the biggest part of me anymore. I’m not a student anymore. And that’s okay.
And even if it was, owning books doesn’t make you a literary person. Loving books does. And my love of books will always be with me, no matter what’s sitting on my shelf.
How about you? Do you think you’ve ever let material possessions define you? Do you have the same problem with books that I have?
*No, I didn’t do any real math to come up with that number. I started out with five shelves full and ended up with four.