Monday, June 18, 2007


If you want to move bookcases, you have to empty them. And when the painting and the sanding of floors is finished, you have to put the bookcases back in the living room and put the books back on the shelves. Somewhere in this process, a wise woman makes no-nonsese decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of.

We moved the bookshelves back into their corners two months ago, but the restoration of order among the shelves' occupants is a summer-long project. Currently, the books in the tall bookcases from my husband's bachelor apartment are organized strictly on the "get them to fit" principle. Kurt Vonnegut novels and Jane Eyre are stacked horizontally next to The Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder. Two small books by the Yarn Harlot balance on top of a coffee-table volume of Clint Eastwood photos. The read and the unread, the worthy and the trashy, sit side-by-side. Some titles I can't find at all, and others completely surprise me. Who brought home the book about elephants?

I want to get rid of some of these books. I don't mind the living room bookcases being jammed with handsome hardcovers and ragged paperbacks. And the books on the forty feet of shelves over and around the computer desk are the most interesting part of the room. But what about the books in my bedroom and the books in the kitchen, the books that used to be on the stairway landing, and the books that were stacked at the top of the stairs? What about the books in the attic?

It's a two-person, four-decade book collection. It's been weeded out from time to time. The growth rate has slowed. But I'm sure there are well over a thousand books under this roof. And it's not the kind of house where books can be confined to a wood-panelled library.

Practical people say "Get rid of the books you've never opened, and the ones you'll never open again." They're just clutter. They collect dust. My sister says, "Why would you keep a book you've already read?" My brother-in-law says, "Just get rid of them." The article in Woman's Day magazine on reorganizing your home lists books among the worst clutter offenders.

But hey--does anyone ever tell you to throw away your old photographs? To send those boxes of snapshots to the thrift shop, or put them out at a garage sale for 50 cents or a dollar?

The books on my shelves hold memories more vivid than those in any photo album. Memories of reading Anna Karenina during spring break of my sophomore year in high school (and not really getting it). Plowing through Shelby Foote's three-volume history of the Civil War when my kids were small. (Didn't get anywhere close to Appomatox until everyone slept through the night.) Real Boys, by William Pollack, has helped me keep faith with my sons and their buddies as they pound and punch each other. Spitta's Bach is a legacy from my father. All those novels by Larry McMurtry, Elmore Leonard, and John D. MacDonald keep Lon's presence alive in this house. And Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is just waiting to be enjoyed by another crop of tow-headed, truck-loving boys.

Yes, there are books I will give away. Not every book is packed with associations from my past, or hopes for the future. I don't need to keep two copies of Organizing for the Creative Person on the shelf. Some books that end up in the pile going to the library's used book sale will be there because the things they represent are not so important to me any more. I'm not ever going to teach myself Quark Express 4. I really hated The Prince of Tides when I read it twenty-odd years ago. It may be time to let it go.

I'm almost afraid to find the box that holds the Harry Potter books, lest I be tempted to reread volume six--or all six volumes--to get ready for the July 21 debut of volume seven. That Jane Austen biography on the high shelf--I need to take another look at that. I've got friends who'll enjoy the Nick Hornby novels. And maybe someday I'll read the Dostoevsky biography that Lon brought home from the freebie table at the newspaper. It was headed for the discard pile the other night, but then I opened it, and it was interesting, in a weird Russian, Siberia-and-back-again kind of way.

Time to get to work on those boxes in my bedroom. Sort, organize, and wander off into all the worlds contained in those books.

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