As I prepare to move out of our house of seventeen years to a much smaller one, I need to narrow down my library. Although the move isn’t for months, I've started to look at my bookshelves with a critical eye. Some shelves hold poetry collections from high school and undergraduate years. The bulk of the others are fiction: novels and short story collections arranged in no particular order, crammed side by side or tucked every which way. How had I not noticed what a mess my books had become? I hadn’t noticed because my bookshelves aren't for show. They are receptacles for books I've read and, for the most part, will never read again. Although I hadn't noticed it before, and it's a sacrilege to admit, my bookshelves might as well be trash bins or garbage heaps, because in most cases when I’m done with a book, I’m done.
Once I faced this hard cold fact, I suddenly felt liberated to say good bye to old favorites. In a frighteningly short period of time, I started to pull titles off the shelves and stacked them into boxes to take to my local used bookstore, Chop Suey Books, for some cash. They would surely want these brilliant titles I had once loved. As I packed away Brick Lane and The Beautiful Ruins, Her Fearful Symmetry and The March, The Weissmans of Westport and Florida, I remembered how much I had enjoyed and admired each one, and yet I didn't need them any longer.
Writers read for particular reasons. At least I do, although often that reason remains vague at the time. I appreciated the humor and voice in The Weissmans of Westport; the structure of an elaborate ghost story in Her Fearful Symmetry; and how love infused the opening sections of The Beautiful Ruins long before the two lovers ever meet. When I read each of these books, I was searching for some lesson about writing, and in each case, I found it.
Although I can't always put a finger on why a book works for me at a given moment, when it isn't working I'll jettison it without pause. I've never been able to be a member of a book group because I need to read what I need to read when I need to read it. I think that sounds a little selfish, but I wonder if many writers feel this way: secretly self-involved as we troll through other titles and consciously or unconsciously steal what we can.
The books that I'm keeping on my shelves when we move are the ones that for some reason I can't quite part with. Most are classics: Madam Bovary, The Good Soldier, Plainsong, In Country—because I have read and reread them and may do so again. I need to have those books around on the off chance I imbue their lessons by just having them near.
A friend asked if the act of purging my bookshelves was depressing. Didn't it make me face the impermanence of our efforts as writers? She has a point, but for some reason, I'm finding it heartening to notice the endless stream of titles that we absorb and then leave behind. Every book I give away has meant something to me. It gives me hope that my books can enjoy the not so small privilege of being on someone else’s bookshelf—even for a short time.