Purging the Shelves

thelampI am slowly reading my way through Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like A Writer and this morning, in the course of the chapter on the sentence, found myself brought up short her quotation of the opening lines of Virginia Woolf’s essay On Being Ill.  It’s a lengthy quote, even though it is only one sentence long, but I hope you will excuse my repeating here.

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels  and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth – rinse the mouth” with the greetings of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us – when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

Prose is writing about the sentence; Woolf (when we finally get there, although I’m not complaining about the journey) about the paucity of novels centred around illness. Both of these are subjects for other posts. However, what caught my attention in this quite remarkable opening to Woolf’s essay was the accuracy of her observation about the way in which illness affects our perceptions of ourselves and our place in the world.

Last week I had a bout of food poisoning.  It was not funny!  Neither, however, was it in any sense life-threatening.  That didn’t stop me feeling extremely vulnerable and casting my mind ahead to that time when I shall no longer be able to live alone and will need to downsize to a property that while smaller will also be safer for someone who has no immediate family who will be able to offer support.

This week, I am glad to report, I am feeling rather more positive, but the fact that my house (not to mention my garage) is full of things which I rarely use and which it might be a good idea to slowly recycle (i.e. get rid of) instead of having to panic at some point in the future, has stayed with me.  You know where this is going, don’t you?

What do I do about the books?

Oh, I am not unaware of the irony.  Given that in my previous post I was complaining about the number of people who borrow books and then never return them, is there not a perfect answer right there?  Don’t worry about it.  In fact, start begging people to borrow books simply so that they will take them away and install them permanently on their shelves.  Problem solved.

I think not.

To begin with, it is never the books that I think I might manage without that people want to borrow.  The ones that don’t return are always the ones that I would never dream of being parted from whatever the circumstances.  And furthermore, I have a sinking feeling that if I started lending out books willy-nilly the winds of change might begin to blow and people might suddenly start sending them back to me. I might end up with even more than I have now.

One very simple first step has been to bring together all those books that others have lent me in the past.  I’m sorry if feelings are going to be hurt, but they are going back unread.  Then there are those books that have been languishing on my shelves ever since I moved into this house and are still as pristine as the day they were bought.  If I haven’t got round to reading them in fifteen years they really can’t have been that important in the first place.  And, if I’m honest, there are some that have been there at least twice as long as that.  The charity shops are going to have a field day.

But, what about the rest?

Being harshly practical I know that at least half of what I have in the house and all of those stored in the garage are going to have to go, but on what principal of selection?  I can’t be the only person out there who has faced this dilemma.  There must be people who have walked this path before me and come up with some sort of acceptable strategy.  No suggestion can be too wild, too extreme.  I just need help – soon!

P.S. Ideas as to what to do about the twenty-two teapots wouldn’t go amiss either.

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43 thoughts on “Purging the Shelves

  1. Many years ago my parents moved into a small retirement apartment. My mother, who had already given away 2 homes worth of things before, gave me something that day. She said “Your father says we are now moving into the more spiritual part of our lives and so I have to part with things. That’s hard for me because I like my things. But I am giving them to you now when I can still hear you say thank you.” Well my mother at 92 and my dad at 97 are still alive and giving. Each time I visit my mother has to find yet another thing to give me. Sometimes it is piece of clothing I will never wear. I take it, say thank you and then quietly recycle it. Giving has become her habit just as acquiring once was many decades ago. I am just beginning to cultivate that habit as well — and I have started in part with my books. My attachment is to them is just different than it once was. Now I allow them to pass through my mind and hands and am more likely to try to find a person to give them to or a place to leave the behind for an anonymous someone to find..

    1. That is wonderful, Barbara. I have certainly reached that same point in my life and one of the reasons that I want to begin to part with things now is so that I can do it slowly and with some thought, rather than just tossing a great many things that might have had value for someone special if I have to make a decision to move in a rush. This has already happened to me once, when I had to disassemble my office at work with twenty-four hours notice and find homes for all my academic books. I don’t want to go there again.

  2. I bought a beautiful note book and wrote down the titles/authors of all the books I got rid of when I had to downsize my book collection. It alleviated the pain and now I enjoy looking through it to remind me of the titles. It is unlikely I’ll ever read any of them again and my book is a good memory of them.

  3. Hi, Alex. I am not in the process of having to downsize at the moment because of having to confront the same issues as you, but nevertheless it’s getting to be time to get rid of a lot of paper collected from thesis revisions, novel revisions, and yes, even a few books that I may not be getting around to. But I have a suggestion–might you have a local bookstore that might be interested in looking over your collection with you? That way, you could get rid of some books, and could leave the most precious only to be gotten rid of at the very last moment, by leaving them gratis to that bookstore as books to be sold preferably at a cheaper price if you can get them to make that deal. Thus you will be a benefactor to those who may treasure your books for you in posterity. Just a thought!

    1. Alas we no longer have a local bookstore as such. But, any that I don’t feel friends might enjoy will go to a specialist charity bookshop near to a university so I can at least hope that they will find good homes that way.

  4. I do so understand! My solution has been to move countries – so I have a large collection of books waiting for me in about 3-4 different houses in different countries. The problem is that I then can’t access them when I want to reread or check that quote or get some inspiration. But perhaps when I return to the home country and see that I didn’t miss the books in the attic in 4 years, then I will be more tempted to donate them to libraries, charity shops, garage sales etc.

    1. It’s a question of being honest with yourself, I think Marina Sofia. There are books on my shelf that I know I am unlikely ever to open again, but if you are a dedicated reader the idea of letting a book go regardless of how you feel about its contents is somehow so distressing.

  5. We are not in the process of downsizing but we have a Parisian flat of 70 sqm and every shelfspace is precious. We are ruthless with the selection. Anything that stays is only the best of the best, has resisted several rounds of weeding, and might be reread or perused again. If there’s a freecycle community in your area you might list the books to give away and see how grateful people are for receiving them. It feels better than throwing away.

    1. Don’t worry, Smithereens, nothing will be just thrown away. We have an excellent secondhand bookshop close by which is also near to a university and anything that I don’t give away personally will go there.

  6. Sorry to hear about the food poisoning!

    And sorry about the book/teapot dilemma. I have no magic answer – it is a painful business relinquishing books – I don’t have a problem with teapots 🙂 I can only say for me it has to be done slowly and I am gradually downsizing my books (too gradually if the truth be told). When my sister died she left a house full of books and I ended up giving most of them away to the charity shops, but I found Oxfam were very picky, other shops not so. Today I discovered that our local public telephone box, which has been phoneless for years, has been adopted by the parish council and there is a box of books in it for people to help themselves in a book exchange scheme. Maybe the local hospitals/schools/churches would welcome some books. Or maybe you could have a book sale in your garage …

    1. Now there is an idea! But I do have a very good local Oxfam bookshop who are always happy to take stuff my problem is finding a principle by means of which to decide what to keep and what to let go.

  7. I got rid of a lot of books when I moved 2 years ago, and I’ve continued to cull since then – but I’ve also added a lot, too many of them to the TBR stacks. But at least I’ve let go of the books that I bought because I thought I should, rather than the ones that I really want to read. I think that’s the main criterion for new books – and for those already read, it’s whether I’ll re-read them. Good luck with your culling – will there be progress reports? I love hearing about other people’s books, either coming or going.

  8. At one of the train stations I visit through work they’ve a book swop for commuters. It was initially ‘stocked’ by someone who donated a large number of books as they were moving overseas apparently. So if you’ve a friendly train station manager nearby?……!

      1. Might be worth a try. Where I saw it there are a couple of books cases – people pick up a book and either donate to a charity box, replace with one of their own or both!

  9. There is no easy way but then you knew that didn’t you? We had to do this in a smaller way when we remodelled our bedroom and lost the under the eaves cupboard where we had many of our books shelved. After culling those we had not read in 5 years + , we evaluated everything else on the basis: 1. Did it have any sentimental value 2. Would it be useful for academic courses we knew we would do in later life 3. Would it withstand more than one reading. It helped us to remove around 200 books.

    Good luck

    1. That’s what I was looking for, Karen, some basic principles of selection. One group that I know has to stay are what I call ‘comfort reading’; those books to which I return again and again whenever I am feeling to low to pick up something new. ’84 Charing Cross Road’ is with me for the duration.

  10. Caroline at the blog Book Word wrote a very good post about this same topic, and her ‘rules’ for book disposal: http://www.bookword.co.uk/decluttering-my-books/ Maybe it will help?

    I shouldn’t give advice because I never manage to part with many books during a clear-out, although my attitude now is that a book coming in gets read and then judged whether it’s worthy to stay or not. Once it’s on a shelf, a book settles in and becomes a bit of a friend and resists being removed. Better not to let them get a foot-hold.

    The thing is that the world of book-buying has changed so drastically, that even if you give away a book and then wish to read it again, it’s usually pretty easy to find another copy for sale on the internet. So unless you have an attachment to a particular copy, they’re all still out there if you need them again. (Although some ARE rather expensive ahem.)

    1. You’re right, of course, Helen, it is easy enough to get hold of most books. Perhaps that should be one of my criteria – is it still easily available. And thanks for the link. I’ll certainly have a look at what she has to say.

  11. I hope you’re feeling better, Alex. No real advice to offer on divesting yourself of books. I’ve become increasingly ruthless about what actually makes it on to my shelves and a friend’s involvement in an annual charity book stall has made me take a long hard look at what I have every August which helps me keep things under control.

    Some lovely comments here. I was amused at the trail of books Marina has left around the world in her wake and the gradual handing over of things by aged relatives rang several bells.

    1. I am really going to have to purge too and I know that it is a really difficult problem. Not so much the physical effort of removing so much stuff because the van from the charity shop will take as many books as you are willing to give….but it is everything else. We need a core library but what that library will consist of is a vast and difficult question! Good luck!

      1. You are absolutely right, Ian. The physical side of the question is no problem at all. It is the logical and emotional issues that are so difficult to work through. We will have to compare notes as the weeks go by, Ian.

        1. It would be useful to compare notes – especially with someone who doesn’t just say the inevitable “have you read all of these books”? I have big problems with agonizing what novels to get rid of and am rather unhealthily attached to big reference books. Man, its going to be hard!

    2. I have never had that problem. The only material thing that my mother left me was a bread knife. What my parents left me in terms of non-material gifts is completely incalculable.

  12. Glad that you are feeling better, Alex. I am in the process of culling my books in preparation for a move to a smaller house. I have, so far, sent about 500 off to the charity shop who were very grateful. Initially, it was tough deciding what to keep and what to release, now I am settling for the very best of my books: only the most-loved and those that I would re-read again in a heartbeat. The exercise seems to get easier as I go, and it has made me think about the reading choices I will make in the future. For example, I will use the library more selectively as I tend to fill my tickets and ignore my own book-shelves which, on reflection makes very little sense.

    1. I am exactly the same, Donna. I can’t remember the last time that I picked up an unread book from my own shelves rather than a library book. I am in the middle of three books at the moment and they are all from the library.

  13. So sorry about the food poisoning! It’s never happened to me but it did to my husband a number of years ago and it was horrible. Glad you are feeling better!

    As for the books, I’ve been feeling the urge for a spring clean and a drastic one at that. I always think, oh I’ll keep this book because I will read it again sometime. Who am kidding? There are a few books I reread or will reread but most of them, nope. So I am planning an honest look at the shelves.

    As for the tea pots, I’d save the two favorites and give the rest to friends/family/charity shops.

    Good luck!

  14. You and me both Alex! I’m trying to reclaim a bedroom from the books and junk, and have downsizing in mind for a few years hence – so starting now! Good luck with yours, and I hope you’re fully recovered from the food poisoning.

    1. It’s finding a criteria by means of which to select what to offload that is the real problem, Annabel. Everything was bought for a purpose. How do I know that purpose might not rear its head again?

  15. So sorry about the food poisoning! I’m afraid I’m no help with getting rid of books. I realize, though, that one day I will need to do it (I don’t want to bequeath a ridiculous number of groaning shelves to poor Cormac) and so I’m reading through other people’s suggestions with interest.

    1. I would wait a bit. Cormac might really want all your books someday. When he tells you he doesn’t that’s the time to start the pruning.

  16. Glad you are feeling better, yes illness makes us so vulnerable.

    I buy far too many books and if I don’t think I will read them again I will donate them to Oxfam books and being a tax payer they make more money. It’s something I’m quite proud to do and has raised quite a bit of money for Oxfam. I know its a wrench to purge your bookshelves but once you start it’s quite liberating!

  17. I love having lots of books except when I have to move them, like this week while I have a new ceiling put in. Then it’s not as much fun. I don’t seem to be able to get rid of any of the old ones but I do purge more recent purchases.

    1. Perhaps it would feel to much like discarding old friends, Sarah. It’s easier to bid farewell to someone you haven’t know quite as long.

  18. I am so glad you’re feeling better.

    I weeded about 100 books recently: some I donated to a sale, others to Free Little Libraries (bookshelves on posts in people’s front yards; you probably have them in the UK, too). The problem is that I sometimes wish I could reread something I give away. Downsizing is always a problem.

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