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The book: blessing or burden?

August 9, 2011

My in-laws are preparing to move to a senior residence so they are culling the belongings that they have acquired over more than sixty years of marriage. As well-educated people who had an academic lifestyle, the number of books that they possessed was impressive. It’s definitely an emotional wrench for book-lovers to get rid of a good title. Going through the thousand-plus books on their shelves, memories were stirred and associations were remembered. This book was read when they lived in Berkeley, and that one when they lived in England; another book was a present from a dear friend; still another book had been handed down from a beloved parent. Just like photographs in an album, every book on their shelves represented a passage of life. Some, like old mysteries, were easy to toss into the “discard” bag, but most of the novels and art books had emotional values that made them difficult to part with.

The ones that were  definite “keeps” tended to be the many beautiful art and photography books, along with a number of classic novels. Galsworthy and Dickens and Tolstoy made the cut and will travel with my in-laws to the senior residence, along with a modest cohort of other excellent titles. The challenge of downsizing a library made a deep impression upon me, for since my youth I had always associated owning many books with wealth, and over the years I had accumulated a large collection. I am not particularly eager to divest myself of books, but my husband and I both agreed that it was time to downsize our own bookshelves. We therefore picked out seven bags of books to donate to the library book sale. To our disappointment, the missing titles made hardly a dent in our own shelves, which had been over-stuffed to begin with.

So how does one choose which books to take along to smaller quarters, and which to donate to the library book sale? It’s not easy to be cold-blooded, but it’s necessary for this task. Stop and consider how long ago a particular book was cracked open; ask yourself when you might reasonably expect to read that book over again. If a book hasn’t been touched in a certain span of time, then it ought to be passed on to someone else who might appreciate the opportunity. Two of my cherished books had not been read since freshman year in college, 35 years ago; but still I had lugged them from one apartment to the next, and had taken them along when I moved in with my future husband and mingled my books with his. All those long years the two books sat patiently, growing yellowed over time; but although I loved them I had never reread them. So I finally realized that it was time to part with them. Yes, it was difficult; but unless I want to become a hoarder, I simply can’t let an inanimate object guilt-trip me into keeping it. Am I in control of my own bookshelves or not?

But there’s another question that you need to ask yourself when faced with divesting books. Do you in fact expect to enjoy the book as much on a second reading? A good novel like “War and Peace” or “Pride and Prejudice” offers new insights to the reader each time you dip into it, but second-rate novels offer you less and less on each successive reading. Is a given book a bottomless source of wealth or does it offer diminishing returns? You are the only one who can decide.

Just as iTunes offered all of us a way to compress our musical libraries, a remarkably large library can be stored in any small e-reader. These don’t work for beautiful art books with color illustrations, but for non-illustrated books, an e-reader is a great opportunity to compress one’s collection.

I offer this consideration for anyone who feels, as I did, that books necessarily equal inner wealth. They can, but only up to the point that keeping ever-increasing numbers of them becomes a burden.

[Thanks to http://www.horizonbook.com/ for the photo at the top.]

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