I’m a book hoarder. Having worked in a college bookstore for the better part of a decade - through college and beyond - access to books made taking a few home per week an easy enough accomplishment. If someone brought in books that were (a) waterdamaged or (b) worth nothing, somehow they’d end up going home with me. (One of the main aspects of the college bookstore business model is to buy back textbooks each semester, but students, scraping together money for EOTY parties, often brought in whatever books they found to sell.)
Over time I accumulated what I thought to be a pretty “impressive” book collection. I’d read once that Thomas Jefferson had died in debt but had managed to hang onto his library, so I thought of my full bookshelves as a point of pride. (All the friends who have ever helped me move might use the word “curse” instead.)
However, recently - for various reasons - I have decided to downsize on all my stuff, and though I’d always imagined giving up clothes and food before books, the time came for me to rid myself of the excess of libros in my possession. It hasn’t been easy, partly because I love books and partly because I have grown emotionally attached to them and suffer from the ever-present “what if” obsession (what if I need to re-read Fight Club at 3 a.m. some night?), but I am working through it, and I have a few tips for those of you who have trouble letting go of things for which you have some sentimental attachment but no feasible reason for sentimentality. Not all of these are tips, but I am going through my own thought process in getting rid of stuff, so hopefully some of what I’m saying will resonate with you.
Deep breath. Here goes:
1. Duplicates are COMPLETELY unnecessary. It sounds silly, but I had more than one copy of some books, many of them ones I had already read. That is a no-brainer. Toss at least one copy. (This can extend to anything for which you have more than one.) For some reason, I had THREE copies of American Gods, and no matter how good that book is, having three copies of it is the work of a crazy person.
2. Get rid of previously-read books. Seriously, when will you actually re-read Infinite Jest? Never. That’s when. Also, if you feel the need to, look in your public library. Hell, donate your copy to the library so that you can re-read it whenever you like. Not to mention the fact that, if you are an ardent reader, there are SO many books out there you want to read that retreading previous territory is probably not going to happen.
3. No one will think less of you. I’d always held these delusions that anyone who graced my place would get a kick out of my “library.” The most interesting comment I have received from guests is “Man, you have a lot of books,” which is momentarily inflating but not the sort of Christopher-Hitchens-party-reparte I had imagined while building my collection. Get rid of books you think give you any sort of imagined prestige. People will know you’re smart by what you have to say, not what you have on your bookshelves.
4. Books are cheap. Most books lose “value” at a pretty precipitous rate, so you can pick up a bestseller at a book sale, or, at the very least, on Amazon, for less than a buck six or seven months after release. This can relate to the previous point, because if you DO want to pick up a beloved text, you’ll probably be able to find it pretty cheap (not to mention that Amazon has crazysales on ebooks on a weekly basis.)
5. You will probably never, ever, ever read all of them. Let’s say you are eighteen years old. Let’s say that you read one book per week. That is fifty-two books per year. Even with a consistent, if rigorous, reading schedule, you will read way fewer than two thousand books before you turn fifty. Think of all of the books that will be released between now and then. Think of how your tastes have changed in the last few years. Think of how your tastes will change in the coming years. But mostly, think of how someone else may just now be discovering Kurt Vonnegut and will need - and most people who read Vonnegut need to read him - a copy of Breakfast of Champions. Being a reader means being inherently choosy. Are you really going to read that book that’s been sitting on your shelf for a decade? (Judging by my own experience, it has been written by John Grisham, Dean Koontz, or WEB Griffin.) Wouldn’t you have gotten to it already? If not, can’t you pick it up at the library or online for a penny from Amazon? Okay, then.
6. Books probably won’t have a “vinyl” resurgence. Again, this speaks to my own psychosis, but I always thought that my books would become valuable, especially if I kept them all (a) together and (b) in a fairly pristine condition. I thought their rarity would give me some kind of power in the future. I also thought that I would be able to use them for reference when I wrote, but that has also proven to be false, since it is much easier to type something into Google than to sift through hundreds of pages of text. You can sit down and relive the beauty of an album you liked twenty years ago in the span of an hour. Most books take 8-10 hours to complete. If you must, copy down your favorite passages and keep a notebook of quotations, but for the love of God, get rid of the books.
7. Public domain books. I’m getting rid of any book that is in the public domain. (Except for the ones for which I have a “special” copy, like a Norton Critical Edition. Moby Dick, I’m looking at you.) Not only can I download them to my iPad, most of them have been recorded to audio and can be downloaded from http://librivox.org/. It’s a way to get that copy of The Scarlet Letter off your shelf. Be honest: you didn’t like it in high school, and you don’t like it now.
But I do. I love that book, and I might end up keeping it.