Fleeting Pages

Posted on 13 July 2012

I look at my books differently now. And not just because I finally started unpacking them and coming to terms with the fact that I might never be the type of person who alphabetizes my library. No — I now look at books as objects that might be nice but aren’t absolutely necessary to collect or keep long-term.

This photo doesn’t show all my books, but it does represent a good portion. Those piles look small, don’t they? There are a few reasons for that. First, I’m a big library lover and prefer to read my books that way. Libraries are the perfect system: the book is free, it’s a form of recycling, and when you’re done reading, the book won’t take up space and be yet another weight you have to pack into a box when you move.

And yet, like every other writer I’ve ever known, I’m addicted to buying books. Peter recently suggested that I must have a specific medical condition that causes me to black out whenever I enter a bookstore, where I’ll go on a buying binge and then have no memory of it the next day. He’s not too far off.

In the last year, I’ve donated dozens and dozens and dozens of books to my local library, where I can only hope they will earn the library a few cents at the annual book sale and not just get tossed out, unwanted. That’s always been a concern for books, but even more so now, when we know the physical object isn’t always necessary. There’s always Kindle or Nook, right?

I still don’t have an e-reader. Still. But even I view books in a different way now. They don’t have to be heavy objects that sit on the shelf making you feel guilty if you haven’t read them yet, or wistful if you really really want to but are carving your way through a different reading list. They don’t have to make moving to a new home or city hell. They are lovely physical objects, but because they are now also available electronically, my thinking has shifted.

In the past, I couldn’t part with my books. I’d box them up and lug them around with me from move to move. I kept the books I’ve had for years and still hadn’t read, the ones I knew I’d probably never re-read, the ones I only felt lukewarm about, and even the ones I suspected I might never read at all. Again, I know I’m not alone here. But why do we keep all these books? Is it simply because we love and respect books and want to be surrounded by them? Is it to impress people who visit and scan our bookshelves? Or is it to remind ourselves we are always on the verge of being better, smarter, and more well-read if we would only pick up some of those beautiful but neglected books?

Over the years, I’ve become increasingly concerned about possessions. Meaning: I want to be free of more of them. This last move was disheartening because Peter and I had so much stuff, even as people who don’t particularly like or value “things.” We consciously try not to buy gadgets or toys or tchotchkes. We regularly donate clothing, housewares, and books to Goodwill or the library. In the months before the move, we stepped this up big time. And yet when we moved out of our 650-square-foot apartment, we almost had enough stuff to fill out a house twice that size. And even though I did my best to cull my books — I can’t tell you how many times I lugged heavy bags of books and magazines to the library, only to drop them off and dart, shame-faced, out the door — I still have too many.

Of course, I also don’t have enough. When I visit someone who has wall-to-wall bookcases crammed with every type of book imaginable, I’m incredibly jealous.

But now here I am in my new house with my modest reading collection. For the first time ever, I made a valiant effort to organize these books by genre. There’s a wobbly stack of short story collections,  a memoir/essay collection pile, a poetry pile, a children’s/YA pile, a sci-fi pile, a writers-on-writing pile, a Cleveland author pile, a philosophy/religion pile, etc. Then there are the many stacks of novels that overwhelmed me too much to try to organize them properly. Dostoyevsky is next to Curtis Sittenfeld; Jane Smiley is pressed up against Ray Bradbury.

Those books are still sitting on my living room floor right now, by the way. Taking them out of boxes and roughly organizing them by genre was apparently a three-day job. Today, my goal is to fit all of them (save the writing-related books, lit mags, and select others, which I’ll keep in my writing room) into the built-in shelves surrounding the fireplace. I got rid of one large but shabby bookcase when we moved, and now my only other bookcase is in my writing room. I don’t plan to buy a new bookcase for the living room because I know, no matter how good my intentions, I’ll have that space filled in no time at all.

What about you? Do you feel you’re suffocating under too many books, or can you not get enough? Do you ever struggle between wanting to own every book in the world and cutting down on your clutter? Do you look at your physical books differently now that you can have 10,000 books on one device? Am I alone here?

12 responses to Fleeting Pages

  • Sarah W says:

    I’m surrounded by books every day . . . but I still want to come home to them.

    I don’t look at my books differently now that I can have thousands on one, slim device. Music, yes — I ditched my CDs for digital pretty quickly.

    But even though I use my Reader, I like paper books. I like checking out the spines of what other people are reading on the bus or in restaurants, I like the smell, and I appreciate that, if nothing else, they provide an extra layer of insulation for my walls! :)

    • Make no mistake: I love, love, love paper books. Which is largely why I haven’t gotten an e-reader yet. But your insulation idea is a new one to me…you may have just inspired me to rethink everything and line every wall of every room with books!

  • My book collecting habits sound similar to yours although I’ve made an intensive effort in recent years to trim down our physical book collection. Kindle and audible.com have helped considerably in making it easier to enjoy books I wouldn’t necessarily want to keep for the duration without committing to a physical copies. If a book is that good I’ll buy the hard copy after the kindle/audible experience.

    In my dreams I own Umberto Eco’s library :).

  • margosita says:

    I actually feel my book collection is small, and at the same time feel like I need to be conscious of not letting it get out of control. I really do not want my life to be dominated by stuff. I want a few nice things and not to feel like the things around me are clutter. So I try to think of my books are temporarily permanent. Like, they’ll be around for a long time and probably some books will be with me forever, but on the whole the collection can grow and shrink and shift and it’s good to give away books. If I look at my shelf and notice a book on the shelf that I don’t like: that is too old or not my taste (any longer) or I didn’t enjoy or never did or will get around to reading… I get rid of it. I like looking at my bookshelf and remembering each book fondly. That’s most books (they are books, after all!), but not all.

    But I also think of it as sort of my duty, as a writer and general literary person, to have books around. It can’t feel like home without it! But I do think built in bookcases full of books and a writing room with lots of mags and other books is a good balance.

  • Teri says:

    We are sick people in this house. It’s a sickness of book-love. There are worse things — we’ve decided this and come to terms with it. As it is, it shall always be.

    Our books are decoration. We have very little wall space. It’s either windows or books. Our dining room is a library on all 4 walls. This makes having dinner with people fun — someone spots a book in their line of sight and off we are on the book or the topic. There’s also my Cheryl Strayed “Write Like a Motherfucker” mug at eye level (for spice). Funny, people try not to ask about that! Ha!!

    My husband’s gone a bit nuts these last few years collecting modern first editions, so we have our wall of precious books, as well as some some interesting (and odd) telegrams and things in frames. I love this stuff in an unnatural way.

    As for sorting, we don’t alphabetize, but we do genres: Fiction, Classics, Poetry, French, General Wars, Slavery and the Civil War, Politics, Sports, Memoir, WWII and the Holocaust, Short Stories (you’re there Laura!!), etc…

    Do I ever need to leave this house? No. I do not.

    It’s like being an agoraphobic with books.

  • Averil Dean says:

    I’ve reached a compromise over the years since I got my first Kindle (and I was early aboard the e-book express). I read fiction on my Kindle, nonfiction on paper so I can skip around.

    I do love books, I love having them in the house, but I’m always flopping around on the bed when I read a big book, trying to get light into the gutter, etc. The Kindle is a much kinder reading experience. Mine has a leather cover and built-in light, perfect for reading in bed.

  • Lyn Hawks says:

    Laura, when you wrote, “Or is it to remind ourselves we are always on the verge of being better, smarter, and more well-read if we would only pick up some of those beautiful but neglected books?” I got a chill. That’s me, all over! I am a book glutton because the piles represent my supposedly bigger brains, experience, wisdom after reading. Especially as a former English teacher, I for years held on to books because they represented a potential lesson or idea I could share with students, or a book I could lend to a kid. I don’t read like I did as a kid–to escape–as much as I’d like. I also don’t need the pages and pulp the way I used to. I still have piles and piles despite moving to a Nook–and I try to stay away from the “buy” function there, since downloading is sooooo easy.


  • Sadly, I’ve always been a bit of a hoarder. It really only hit me recently, as I prepare to sell this huge house where I’ve lived for 20 years and raised two kids (who are also packrats). I’ve told myself I’m going to be ruthless with my books. I’m getting rid of any that I’ve not yet read unless I’m absolutely sure I will love them. And of the ones I’ve read, I’m only keeping my favorites. Which should number approximately 3,457.


  • Laura,
    I, too, lugged around hundreds of books from house to house to house–all my textbooks from college, for instance. You never know when you’re going to need a book on set design or method acting. I left those behind after my last divorce. I am now a Peter Walsh convert–he says you can only keep what fits into the bookshelves, and you can’t buy more bookshelves. Also, if a book comes into the house, one goes out. But I still have college texts from my master’s program that I know I’ll never refer to again. And literature that I know I won’t re-read, but it’s literature, after all. It’s all in my office now, but I still seem to think my books prove that I’m an intellectual. I’m not yet an electronic convert either, and I, too, frequent libraries. I have to say, though, that I’m a used bookstore addict. If I don’t pay full price, the books are easier to donate–except I have a used book on top of my file cabinet right now that I don’t want to finish but can’t let go of. I have a ways to go.

  • Paul Lamb says:

    I probably have a comparable number of books in my house, and I don’t feel suffocated by them, but I’ve reached a point where I also know I’m never going to re-read most of them. I am slowly purging some of my books (I donate them to a rural library near my cabin in the woods), but I’m keeping those that I know I’ll read again (Philip Roth, Iris Murdoch, others), those that I’ll use for reference, and those that are collectibles (some very old books about the great state of Missouri). That still leaves me with plenty of books. Plenty.

    I have a Kindle, and I’ve read a decent number of books on it, but it isn’t the same experience for me. Plus, I do like the physical presence of bound books. Call me old fashioned.

  • Lisa Golden says:

    Yikes. Books are such a tough subject for me because I love having them, love reading them, love giving them away.

    But yeah, they fall into that category of too much stuff.

    Recently, I had the opportunity to give some books away. A friend of Nathan’s was over and she mentioned that she was bored. I asked if she liked to read. She said she does, but she doesn’t have any books at her grandmother’s house and no library card (she’s in a bit of a transient situation).

    We went through our books and tried to find things to suit her, mixing classics with commercial. I also gave her my Natalie Goldberg book of writing prompts, one of the fabulous Varsity pens from Lyra, and had her pick out a journal at Target because I thought writing might help her deal with her situation.

    That was when it felt good to have an embarrassment of riches. What a pleasure it was to give some of it away.

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