Packing up my books

pile of books
The number of books I own but haven’t read is too damn high. Picture by nSeika

We’ve been packing up/selling/donating all of our stuff, including our pretty big collection of books. It’s been harder than it should be in some ways. I’ve had some of those books since college and somehow many of them have become intertwined with my sense of self-worth.

I am afraid of who I am without those books. Like what if five years from now we move back to the United States and we are setting up house and I have very few books on my shelf? And what if none of those books are the right books to convey who I am? How will the house guests I resent having know how intellectually curious I am and appreciate how open-minded I am if I don’t have stacks of interesting book titles to show them?

And if I get rid of my philosophy books, what will I have left of my years at college spent getting that BA in philosophy?

And all those books by Indian authors: without them, the whole collection is dangerously Eurocentric.

Ugh, can you imagine the embarrassment?

And I only have like three books about art. If I get rid of them, who will know that I’m kind of into art?

And if I give my cookbooks to the Co-op for their free library, some little shit might steal them, like that chick Betsy who borrowed TWO of my Wendell Berry books and did NOT return them, even though I messaged her on Facebook and saw her at the Co-op after that and she was so squirrely and awkward. She knew what she did. She knew what I was thinking when I saw her. I don’t want people to hog the books I am giving away. I am trying to share them with others, not just jerks.

But at the end of the day, most of the books have got to go. We don’t have the space to keep them, and if we’re gonna be gone for a couple of years, I can’t really justify keeping most of them.

If you can live without something for three-five years, how badly did you really need it in the first place?

Criteria for getting rid of them:

  • Haven’t read them yet. Have had them for a super long time without so much as cracking the cover. For instance, The Brothers Karamazov.
  • They are the cheapest paperback versions of classic works (which I may or may not have read). They’d be cheap to replace, but face it: I’m probably not going to buy another copy of the Penguin edition of Plato’s Dialogues that I haven’t opened since it was assigned reading in a freshman philosophy course.
  • I read them, but can’t even remember what they are about. If they had so little impact on me, it shouldn’t hurt to donate them.
  • I read them and they were incredibly moving. I want to give someone else a chance to have their mind similarly blown.

Criteria for keeping them:

  • The book was a gift. It’s a nice way to remember that person, and getting a book as a gift is always a compliment–at least more of a compliment than cheap jewelry or a weird perfume.
  • I wanted to keep a book about the Rwandan genocide that I’d read in college and a book about the oppression of the Khmer people in Cambodia that I’d actually had signed by the author, but then I had to keep the three books I had about the Holocaust because I didn’t want to discriminate.

Which brings me back to my point: Books are wonderful because of the ideas inside them, because of the conversation you can have with the author, because of the way a story can change your mind and therefore your life, and it sucks that I’ve reduced so many of my books to their titles. I’ve gotten caught up in having the right books on my shelves, even as my list of unread books was growing longer and longer.

I hate how everything I touch can get commodified, drained of its inherent value and reduced to its inclusion in a collection that I want to wear like a badge to show my own inclusion in some social group that I’ve made up in my mind. (Where all my philosophy-loving, Indian-expat-love-story-reading, biography-enjoying, Chinese-textbook-studying, cookbook-admiring, interwar-era-novel enthusiasts at?) In the end, recognizing how reluctant I was to sell or give away these books because I was just afraid of not having the right books on my shelf makes me realize just how good it was to get rid of them. If I think owning books can compensate for personality flaws, or for actually reading the books, then I have bigger problems to worry about than where I am going to store the books I have.

2 thoughts on “Packing up my books”

  1. I love this post. I have the hardest time getting rid of books too. For me, it’s mostly that I feel like books are to be revered, and you don’t just get rid of things that are to be revered. Right? But at some point I had to recognize that I was holding onto books that I didn’t even enjoy reading. Now I (try) to only hold onto the ones that I loved, that I would recommend in a heartbeat, and/or have some sort of sentimental quality (some remind me of a very specific moment in my life, the same way a song or a scent can do). It’s hard though, because BOOKS, amiright?!

    Good luck culling your shelves!

  2. Thanks! And I think getting rid of anything that brings you down is so healthy. Why have a cue for negative thoughts lurking on your shelves or in your closet?

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