I’m trying to decide if I should trim back the books on our bookshelves. Looking at them right now from my vantage point at the dining room table, they really have gotten a little of control. They’ve essentially pushed aside all the pictures and other bric-a-brac that otherwise lends these shelves some levity, resulting in a messy, overgrown collection.
I never think books accumulate in this house, especially at the slow speed at which I read and my husband’s penchant for reading news online, but they do. Every Christmas and birthday, I give my in-laws and mom my wish list and every Christmas and birthday they come through. So here I am wondering if I should be charitable and pass on what we’ve been lucky enough to read over the years.
But, as I sit looking at them, I realize I have a deep attachment to my books that has almost nothing to do with the stories they tell. I can see the Ruth Reichl’s memoirs from here, and they remind me of when I first moved to Kentucky and really got into food writing. I was learning how to cook at the time, and her words and connection to food were like soul therapy for me.
I remember making the mushroom soup with sherry that she included in Comfort Me with Apples. It was a cold fall day, a perfect, cozy day for mushroom soup, and I remember feeling so connected to the book and my new life, so grown up and complete in a way I hadn’t felt before. I’ll never make the recipe again (it was good though) and I’ll probably never read the book again, but parting with it feels like lopping off that piece of my history.
Same with Stephen King’s It. My copy is cheap, chewed up and missing a cover. But I don’t care. Seeing its scarred spine brings me right back to being 14 and reading until 2 a.m. in my little buttercup yellow bedroom. Blizzards would howl against the northern wall in the winter, and every once in a while I’d look over at the black window wondering if Pennywise were peering in at me. I loved that fear as I tucked into my flannel sheets and decided to read another chapter.
Or take my Elements of Literature textbook. That brings me right back to my first year of university and Deborah Schnitzer’s English class. I have zero affection for any other textbook, but I do for that one. It’s filled with my first-year university handwriting betraying inane comments that I thought were exceptionally insightful at the time. That’s where I was introduced to “spring is like a perhaps hand,” and “The Swimmer,” and “The Hills are like White Elephants,” and “The Cinnamon Peeler.” I look at that book and I see a root, a place from which it all stemmed. You don’t get a lot of those in life: something you can hold in your hand that was a beginning.
But then there are the travel books. Frommers Italy 2001. Fodor’s Scotland 2006. We never even went to Scotland. I’m never going to use the Italy one again. Then there’s “Memoirs of a Geisha.” OK? “Marley and Me.” “Play Winning Chess.” “Be Expert with Map and Compass.” “Why do Men Have Nipples?” And all the self-published books I’ve been given as “gifts” over the years that I can’t read for fear I might develop bad writing habits.
These can hit the library, can they not? Except if I suggest, say, dumping the Piers Anthony collection, my husband is like, “Woah, woah, woah, hold up, Patty Prettypants. Stop right there.”
By the time I’m finished ruminating and getting permission, I have about five books that I can get rid of. So what, ultimately, is the point?
And, more importantly, is it even moral to do so? A few months ago, suffering from a hellish bout of insomnia, I found myself in the upstairs spare bedroom at 3 a.m. There on the night table was a copy of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which I’d admittedly put there as a kind of decoration because its cover looked pretty by the bedside.
Appreciating the irony of the novel’s title, I opened the book and started to read. It was then I rediscovered just how terrific a book that is, one I always remembered because of the water and the sand and the way the beach is so beautifully described. But as 3 turned into 4 and I finally knocked off at 5, I was reminded of the complexity of the character and the beauty and honesty of the story. And it had been waiting for me all along.
So, in the longest ever answer to a potential fall cleaning project, no, I will not trim back my bookshelves. I will find new places in the house where books can live. Because as they do, our lives are reflected in them.