The Moral Is: Take Care of Your Books If You Want to Keep Them
Updated: Mar 5, 2021
Some people love books. Physical, cardboard-glue-and-paper books. They love the dedications on the fly-page from parents when they were seven years old or twelve or twenty or forty. Or the autographs of the writers of the books. In these people’s minds, books hold priceless ideas, and the moments at which they first met those ideas. Books hold words that they’ve read a dozen or a hundred times, or that they’ve never read but intend to. Books represent the past, and also the future. These kind of people love physical books because they love someone who loved them first; or because their child-self loved them; or because they love the person who wrote them.
Other people—people who are just as affectionate and erudite as the former category of book-lovers (although incomprehensible to them)—are of the opinion that books weigh one down. Very literally. They are hard to tote from place to place. They increase exponentially the costs of moving from Manhattan to Miami, or from Paris to Milan. They gather dust which in turn harbors mold spores, which in turn clog the lungs and cloud the mind. Flies poop on books’ pages, and silverfish nibble their spines. Book-minimalists say the books are not the moment, the person, the event. They say that the words books hold are independent of the physical page, just as the soul is independent of the body. They say that, in the end, everything must go to the Friends of the Library book sale, whether in the lifetime of the bibliophile whose shelves creak under the weight of triple-stacked books, or when that life inevitably ends and those left behind have to figure out what to do with the overwhelming stacks of inked paper and cardboard.
I see both points of view. But I have always been in the “must keep every book forever” camp much more than the minimalist “that’s what libraries and e-books are for” camp. But now I’m downsizing for a move, and in addition I—very unfortunately—did not take care of my books. Because I let them gather dust and mites, because I left them in unaired basements and uninspected attic boxes, I now find myself obliged to join the minimalist tribe. And it is hard emotional work. Sort of like years of psychotherapy—in which one learns to let go of moments from childhood while learning new ways of relating to oneself, family, friends, the past, and the future—compressed into a few fraught days of divestiture.
Last week I let go of my complete Wizard of Oz series, which nine-year-old-me read while sitting on a lounge chair with family dog Happy at my side. I have a photo of one of those moments; I haven’t opened one of the books for thirty or forty years; why do I need the books? Same goes for Paddington the Bear, Catweasel, Elephi Pelephi: The Cat With The High IQ, Gray Magic, Harriet the Spy, and so on and so forth. “To Lisa from Mother and Dad on your Tenth Birthday.” “For Lisa, because you are sick today and VERY BORED.” “For Lisa, because you are a poet.”
Yesterday I let go of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Walt Whitman, Jane Kenyon, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, Philip Levine, Louisa May Alcott. And on and on. Because I’d allowed my books to become dusty, discolored and moldy, I couldn’t even pass most of them along. My husband loaded them into the truck and took them to the recycling center. Better than throwing them straight into the trash.
I have a book signed by Czeslaw Milosz! Edward Abby! Anthony Doerr! Gwendolyn Brooks! Chilean poet Nain Nómez! These I cannot part with. No way. I put them inside plastic bags six millimeters thick. I do the same with my Winnie the Pooh (“for Lisa on her 7th birthday”); my paperbacks of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy, one of the covers chewed by our long-dead guinea pig; my copy of Kidnapped inscribed to me by my father in 1972. When I found out I was pregnant with our first child 32 years ago, the first thing I bought for my fetus was its own copy of Black Beauty. True story. And you expect me to part with my own childhood copy of that book? It goes in a plastic bag, too. But somewhere down the line, either I or someone else will have to make different decisions. After all, as Robert Frost wrote, “Nothing gold can stay.” And as Jesus said, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt . . .” (Matt. 6:19). Wise words. And yet . . .
Yesterday I went through a shelf of books belonging to my own children. These are in some ways even harder to discard than my own childhood books. How many times did I hold this or that warm little body in my arms as I read The Spooky Old Tree or Where the Wild Things Are? I know the cadence of every word without even looking. Then there are the books in Spanish that my in-laws bought for our children. Books in Chile are significantly more expensive than here in the U.S., so each one represents—in addition to love—careful thought and financial sacrifice. In the books’ bright pictures, I see again my children’s bright faces, poring over them. These books can’t be re-ordered on Amazon. The covers are worn and taped and retaped.
Then there’s the book that’s a jigsaw of tape on every page. My parents gave And the Bear Snored On to one of my children when he was small. A couple decades later, one of my grandchildren had a temper tantrum and took it out on that book, which I discovered scattered around the room in small pieces. I recently read that reconstituted book on a Zoom call with that same grandchild, and he loved it. How can I throw it away now?
Today I tackled the bookshelf in our bedroom. I managed to remove one book, an anthology of poems published in The American Poetry Review. I sat on the edge of the bed and opened it. Read a poem by Jack Hirschman called “The Weeping.” Another by Louise Gluck called “The New Life.” Then I happened on two poems by Stanley Kunitz, above which I’d written in pencil, “I saw him read these poems, age 96, rising onto his toes again and again.” Now the poem still cries out on the page, "How shall the heart be reconciled / to its feast of losses?" But only a few lines later, he answers: “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” I tore out those two pages to keep. The anthology wasn’t in bad condition, but I knew I couldn’t store it long-term. It didn’t have quite enough sentimental value to counterbalance its size and weight. I took it downstairs and put it in a box headed for Goodwill. The Friends of the Library aren’t currently accepting donations.