An Impossible Task: Culling My Book Collection

4 years ago

Years ago an editor acquaintance of mine moved from the USA to Singapore. An overseas move is daunting for a number of reasons, but for bookish types one of the toughest aspects is having to commit to culling a book collection that’s been years in the making. My acquaintance confessed at the time that in order to get through this library-winnowing ordeal he had been throwing himself into Buddhism, which encourages adherents to de-emphasise worldly possessions.

Because, honestly, without spiritual enlightenment, how are you supposed to face down the torture that is a book-tossing assignation?

It might sound naff to people who aren’t bookish sorts, but those of you who are book lovers will know that I’m not being at all facetious here. Book lovers have spent lifetimes not only putting together meaningful, hugely personal book collections, but also building years’ worth of stories and experiences around each and every book in that collection. Every book represents a moment in our lives, and giving them up is like torching a beloved photo album.

I’m experiencing this first-hand at the moment, and I’m a little sweaty-palmed as I type this. You see, my husband and I are considering a possible move overseas next year, and though we’re mobile enough, my book collection isn’t.

Credit: Maegan Tintari on Flickr

I am the Imelda Marcos of books: I have thousands. Books in every colour, design, and style. Books for every occasion. (Oddly enough, other than my tango shoes, my shoe collection is rather lacking.) The Amazon rainforest has been reincarnated, in book form, in our flat. There are probably as many pages in my shelves as there are bank notes in Warren Buffett’s bank account. Post financial crisis, of course. Even on a bad day that’s a whole lotta bank notes, after all.

The move is something that we’ve been contemplating for a while now, so I have had time to acclimatise to the idea of dividing up my books and hurling them in the direction of the four winds. But though I’ve dipped my toe into this book-disposal business off and on, testing the waters to see whether I can bear the terrible frigidity that is a life without my beloved stories, I remain that would-be swimmer at the edge of the shore: the one shriekingly retreating every time a wave rolls in.

All I can say is that I wish I had an inner Buddhist to channel. I do have an outer Buddhist –- my husband, who is indeed a practising Buddhist in the Theravada tradition –- but in true Buddhist fashion, he’s told me that this battle is mine to fight.

Unfortunately, when it comes to book-culling stoushes I am apparently a pacifist.

I’ve tried so many ways to engage myself in this bookish skirmish, but this whole business is rather like playing chess with yourself. Perhaps it’s because I’ve set my goals too high, believing myself a Kasparov of critical book-turfing analysis, when really Connect Four is probably more up my alley.

My initial efforts were, by my own admission, half-hearted. Not even that, really. They were a quarter-hearted at most, or perhaps just a smidgen of a ventricle, a sliver of an aorta. I paid lip service to my goal, giving away a book here, passing one along there, sure, but something wasn’t working. My book collection was not diminishing at all. In fact, the ratio of books donated to books received was not one that was at all mathematically sound.

Somehow, despite embarking on my supposed book-culling effort, I had run entirely out of bookshelf space, and desk space, and table space. My book stacks were collapsing in the middle of the night. One of my bookshelves had a notable bend in its top shelf, courtesy of the obese bookish pile taking bets on that final, back-breaking straw. I was like one of those dieters growing ever more plump despite apparently following a weight-loss plan to the letter. Rather than a post-dinner box of doughnuts, I was secretly sneaking in boxes of books.

But then I began volunteering at the Footpath Library, and seeing all of those pre-loved books being passed on to loving, appreciative readers gave me hope. So too did the recent opening of the Little Library in Melbourne Central, a not-for-profit venture that involves the giving-and-taking of books from users’ personal libraries. As did hearing that a teacher-librarian friend had a limited library budget.

Knowing that my books were going to be sent off on a new readerly adventure buoyed me: instead of that on-the-edge swimmer, I was floating about in the shallows. So I set myself a rather ambitious goal: to donate or give away a) every book on my shelves that I’ve read and b) the books that I’m realistically never going to read. Thus far I’ve managed to pass along several hundred books.

Unfortunately, although I’m attempting to get into the gregarious, magnanimous mind-set that all of this requires, I’m not quite as charitable as I’d like to believe. Each time I put an armload of books into the donate pile I find myself reconsidering and second-guessing. Each time, at least a couple of those books find their way back on my shelves, or in the to-read stack by the bed. A stack that is now toppling.

It’s a difficult undertaking, because all of those books in my bookshelves are there for a reason. They’re all a little bit of me. The ones that I’ve read are a memory; the ones that I haven’t are a possibility. I’ve had to play games with myself, set myself mini challenges in order to get further ahead with this task: I must donate five ugly books, or all of my classics, which I can, anyway, find online. I’ve also had to allow myself some indulgences. Unlike my editor friend, I will not be giving away my signed books (and certainly not the signed Charles de Lint book I took off my editor friend’s hands), or my slipcased collector’s editions. Or the very first book that my husband ever bought me. Or the hollowed-out book with which he proposed.

I have, however, been taking a leaf out of my friend’s spiritual book, in a way at least. Ever so slowly, and not entirely fruitfully (I have two new books smiling up at me at this very moment) I’ve been trying to shift my reading identity away from being a book collector and towards being solely a reader. Hopefully by thinking of books less as artefacts, by eschewing that idea that my reading memories are attached to the physical book itself, I can clear out my shelves in preparation for the move.

But who am I kidding, really? I know as well as you do that this is a case of extended double-think. That even if I do completely clear out my bookshelves in time for the move, it will only be a matter of time before I have a brand new book collection testing the structural integrity of my shelves.

Perhaps I should stop attempting to channel my inner Buddhist and start channelling international freight companies instead.

Stephanie is a book blogger and middle grade author. She writes for Read in a Single Sitting.

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