By Garrison Frost
About a million years ago, I penned a column for an undisclosed publication about my tendency to accumulate books. In that column, I made something of a declaration that no matter how unwieldy my collection might become, I would never part with my books because they were part of my identity.
Well that turned out to be a bunch of crap.
Not too long ago, after a couple of moves from once residence to another informed me that the effort involved in moving, storing, maintaining and organizing books was way, way not commensurate to the amount of actual utility this mountain of mostly-read tomes provided me. At first, parting with the books was hard. But it got easier as my determination grew. In the end, as I began enjoying the extra space in my life, it was downright easy.
Like any good life-cleansing activity, getting rid of the books was a process that came in stages. It was at this point that I made a wise decision to start with something easy, and this was to only get rid of books that were duplicates of others in my collection, or were books that I just simply never liked. I was shocked at how many books this simple categorization accounted for. Out went my third and fourth copies of "The Hobbit." Good-bye duplicate copies of "The Maltese Falcon" and "Lonesome Dove." Also to Goodwill went the dreary "The Butterfly Diaries," "Of Human Bondage" and "Frankenstein" and others to fill perhaps two giant boxes.
It was during this stage that the hostility first developed. How could these books have managed to stay with me all these years? Why did I feel obligated to hang on to this useless stuff? How much sweat and expense had I expended on these? The anger welling up in me carried me onto further stages of elimination.
The stage in weeding out the books was to get rid of any book that I frankly didn't see myself ever reading again. This is a vague category, involving degrees of chance, so I started with books that there was no chance at all of my reading again. This was a shockingly large number of books, perhaps 300 or more. Each time I went through the shelves and picked out titles that I had read, but might not read again.
The next stage was books I hadn't yet read but couldn't imagine ever doing so. Out "The Tin Drum" and "The Last Temptation of Christ," and that shitty translation of "War and Peace" that I regretted buying the second I discovered that it was abridged. Many, many books were ushered out the door this way. As a former Friends of the Library patron, I had collected all kinds of books on whims that I thought I might someday read. Some of these books stared at me accusingly for years, and I occasionally picked one of these up. But the vast majority did nothing to arouse my reader guilt. I was simply never going to read them and it was only my collector's vanity that kept them in my possession.
It was at this point that it became important to consider my means of disposal. Although I had long ago eliminated the option of throwing books away, I had yet to really consider what that decision meant. By opting to sell some books and donate the rest to Goodwill or the Friends of the Library, I had already decided that my books would have live to be read by others. And so as I began to consider getting rid of books that I had read and enjoyed, this thought would comfort me. I wasn't just getting rid of old books, I was sharing.
And so I dug into the meat of my collection, now considering which books I really needed to keep. Again I considered whether or not I would read certain books it was interesting how many of these books had slipped through the earlier rounds. Moreover, I had to now consider which books needed to stay with me. This was different from deciding which should go. Now I was deciding which should stay every book was out the door unless I could think of a compelling reason to keep it. Hundreds of more books went into boxes, some of them damn good books. But I had to ask myself why I was keeping them. Sure, I might have read "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" again, but that wasn't a particularly compelling reason to keep it with a library just a mile away.
And so the books went out the door until I reached my present status of having no fewer than 50 books remaining from a collection that probably once numbered more than 1,000. I don't regret any of it. The expanded living space and the reduced burden of things on my psyche were well worth the trauma of letting some of these old friends go. Believe me, when space is tight, it's damn nice to put an empty bookcase on the street.
(May 19, 2004)
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