Sunday, January 17, 2010


It has been a strange day.

I have spent the majority of today at my computer, nose in an Excel spreadsheet, typing in most of the books I own. I have decided to purge. To stop coveting things, in particular books. I want to sell them, perhaps. Donate the rest.

"You will not read that book again, Angie. Let it go." I chastise myself.

But it is hard to let it go. These books have been with me for years. I remember leaving Tucson after five years there, and packing my little Honda CRX with all my belongings. I donated most of my clothes but a travel backpack. My guitar. A boom box with a book of CDs. My lucky pillow, and the rest of the car was books. I even forgot my box of kitchen items, including a well-seasoned wok. It has been an interesting journey through my books. Mostly, I remember where I got each book. I have been pleasantly surprised and self-impressed at the amount of them I have actually finished. That usually involved me holding a book I maybe only read a few pages into and asking myself, "Should I save this to actually read?" There were remarkably few I hadn't read, and none that I felt moved to now read. It did occur to me that I couldn't remember which Kundera book was which, just that I read them, and it involved him having sex. At one point in my life, I made it a point to read them all, because I was moved by his writing. I just don't really remember them anymore. It reminded me of that Woody Allen joke about taking a speed reading course. "I read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It's about Russia."

I have always wanted to be surrounded by books. I love the look of them, the smell of them. I like them stacked on desks, or alphabetized on shelves. I always imagined my home having the library my house growing up lacked -- a gigantic comfty chair and ottoman, and a place to put my coffee. From what I could tell, my father read three books my entire childhood: The Old Man and the Sea, Chuck Yeager's Autobiography and Lee Iacocca's autobiography. They sat next to the bed for most of my childhood under his carton of cigarettes. I think my mother read. I know she reads now, voraciously, but then, I don't remember. I have absolutely no memory of either of my parent's reading me any book. I never sat on their lap to hear a story, or they never sat on my bed and read us to sleep. They said, "Time for bed. Good night." And went back to whatever they were doing. I think now about our night routine with the three books, and long fairy tales, myth or folktale read to sleep. It isn't a mystery that you give your child that which you lacked.

No matter the psychological reason I have gotten to this place of owning 500+ books, the library situation in our house is not really working. We need an art studio and office. We currently do crafts and art on the dining table, and in the rush of dinner and meltdowns, our paints get pushed to one side of the table while we eat around paint splatters. It isn't working for anyone. These books sit there in prime studio space and mock us. "We looooove your space. Sure, we do nothing but make you sneeze, and we couldn't care less, Philistine."

I also am nesting.

I just want everything to look Scandanavian in here. Sparse. Organized. Less clutter in my periferal vision. I have always bought a book instead of rented it, or borrowed it. I don't like the pressure of having to finish something. And I admit I sort of resent being given books to read. When I am on an Icelandic literature kick, I cannot estimate when I will be in the mood for a book about Chinese foot-binding. It has worked for me, the buying book thing. Some books, I noted today when I was typing the title into my database, I have lent out a dozen times. Some I have reread through the years, and others have highlighting in them, and notes in the margins from university. I found love letters, old bookmarks, photographs, flowers from my high school boyfriend, even a card from my husband written in the first weeks of us dating. He called me "babycakes."

I think the hardest part of today was finding the book Comfort by Ann Hood. I read that this year, after Lucy died. And I picked it up to read the introduction, which was so incredibly powerful, I was moved again to tears, gripped with the feelings I had right after Lucy died. The prologue of the book is the first thing the author wrote after her five-year old died. I think it was three months after her daughter's death.  And when I read her book, I was about three months since Lucy died. Let's just say, I could relate, but it also terrified me. I was processing the death of a daughter that I had never seen run, or play, or take a bath, or squirming up on my lap, and this book was about a five-year old girl. When I read Comfort, I didn't relate it much to Lucy beyond the prologue. I thought of Beatrice. Losing her, living without her. I felt small and vulnerable. The world felt dark and crueler than before I read the book. And I grew scared at the ways in which my life could be devastated even more than it already was.

My life itself reads like a series of distinctly different novels, and stacking my books is the same. What would you discern about someone by their books? I have an inordinate amount of books about boxing and viruses. About Nixon and the politics of the sixties. I have entire collections of authors, like Jeanette Winterson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ana Castillo and W. Somerset Maugham. I have books about Books of the Bible, about Nation of Islam and Muslim women writers, about Buddhism and Taoism and Atheism and sexism and classism and marionette-making. I have six translations of the Bible, even one in Greek, three Qurans and countless other sacred texts. I have travel books about New Zealand and Central America, and Mexico and Texas and India. And this year I collected books about grief. About surviving the loss of your child. I have books about explaining death to children, and explaining death to yourself. I have a baby name book with the cover torn out of it where Lucy's possible names were written. I have memoirs of surviving avalanches, child death, drug addiction, alcoholism and natural disaster. I have books about vampires and child wizards and artists whose sole purpose on my shelf was to distract me.

Now, I have a list of books I once read. I have a list of lifetimes I have lived and moods I experienced and changes in my being. As I pull all the essential bits of each of these lives into one spreadsheet, the boxes of books cease weighing me down reminding me of who I was, but this list is simply who I have become.


  1. we have, at last count, about 1300 books. We have floor to ceiling bookshelves in the dinning room (the only 12 by 14 foot expanse we could have built-ins on, we have a full shelf in the den, a full shelf in the basement.

    Books are a part of who we are, what we do.

    I so admire your ability to part with them. Perhaps you could come here and help? I have a few to get rid of.

  2. I use the library and purge books from my shelves that I've read. I've started lists in the past of books I've read but never kept them up. I guess I'm hoping my memory will keep the good ones close to me.

    Are there any books about grief you've found particularly good?

  3. I am taking a deep breath and gearing up to do the same. I used to buy two books a week, almost ritualistically. Takeout Chinese, a bath, and my two new books. Now they just seem to be taking up space we don't have, and are reminders of interests I no longer have. Check in with me in a month and see if I've actually done it.

  4. try moving house... it's insane how many book boxes we have. When we were moving 6 months ago (which didn't happen in the end) the first thing i did was pack the books. I've sold the book shelves and refuse to unpack the books now. And it's a hell of a job if you're looking for a particular book...

    So when I say, try moving house, you could pretend you are :-P and then after about 2 months you realize which books you really need to keep and which books you might want to keep but don't need to give such priority treatment.

    I have no idea how many books we own, thousands I'm sure. We are book buyers, too. Maybe we'll get that library room in the next house we find one day. We had five 8 foot high bookshelves 3 feet wide many of the shelves filled double rows...

    I understand your need to purge. I'm in the give away mode still. I don't need to hold on to many things, I give away my newly created art for that reason. J says I should keep it, but I don't want to.

  5. I too have purged some books lately. Some of them I sold. But for the ones that didn't sell, I traded them for other books on

    I know it won't reduce your collection, but if you continue to trade the books you receive after you are done with them, it will at least stay the same size.

  6. It would be very hard for me to let go too. I have the same emotional response to books as I do to comfort food. Eat to celebrate, eat to grieve. Read to discover joy, read to escape sorrow.

  7. Dh & I are book lovers too. I've never counted (not sure I want that information...!), but we have four IKEA Billy bookcases in our basement & one upstairs (including one shelf full of our old vinyl LPs & several shelves full of photo albums), with stacks of more books sitting around (including piles that have yet to be read) as well as a couple of Rubbermaid containers full. The bookcases used to be up in our spare bedroom/office, but we moved them down in the basement after I noticed a gap forming between the floor & the baseboards (eek). I would hear the floors creak at night & I couldn't sleep thinking they were going to collapse under the weight.

    Every now & then I go through them & try to weed some out for Goodwill... but it's hard. One reason we have not moved to date, methinks...

  8. i too so love books. I spent my sunday in a similar way, going through clothes though. Much like when you found the book COMFORT, I would weed through the clothes and find my heart in my chest saying, I wore this when she died, I wore this at her funeral. I think sometimes that unless we purge some of our past, we cannot move forward.

  9. i have moved around a lot, and so i think my book collection is much lighter than it might have been. also, i seem to read less, purchase fewer books. i have less money for books these days - and less attention span. the internet is here, and so i read that. also there are 3 books that i so completely love that i find it hard to read new authors - i am afraid of giving precious free time to a book and then being horribly disappointed.

    i agree with you though - so much identity lives in the pages. i love your idea of making a list though - of having a record of the books that have passed through you and made you, while not carrying the actual weight of them around any longer. xo

  10. I don't think I have ever thrown a book out. I should I know that.

    I have one shelf of precious books that I know I could never say goodbye too, funny enough they are mostly childrens books.

    I spent my Sunday throwing out my kitchen. I am still nesting :)

    Love you Angie.


  11. Such a great post Angie!!! and boy can I relate- I just went to my storage space in east Texas and pulled out the books that I have not been able to get to Austin. Needless to say every surface is covered at the moment!
    I love the last paragraph!


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