The books we keep

I live in a pretty small house, and I have a LOT of stuff, including books. I have always hung onto most of my books, but as I am looking to clear out some space, I’m drastically revising what I keep and what I release.

I have:
One bookcase in my studio, which has writing and art books, both how-to and inspirational, plus the books I use to research and teach my UCLA courses. I also have an entire packed shelf of Dover clip-art books from back in the day when you needed to paste down some vector art (or a photostat of same) in order to insert art into your newsletter, flyer, or whatever. Those could go, although I’d probably sit down and scan art from a large number of them, to save on my computer for future projects. Four shelves.

One bookcase in my living room, containing all my gardening and home arts books—architecture, building techniques (such as straw bale construction), interior design, quilting, and some art books that are also garden-related. Four shelves.

One china cabinet/hutch in my bedroom, that contains all my Young Adult Fiction books in the top half. Three shelves.

Three floor-to-almost-ceiling bookshelves, also in the bedroom, that contain all my other books, separated out into science fiction/fantasy, regular fiction, and nonfiction. Six shelves per bookcase = 18 shelves.

And then there are the piles of books—on the kitchen table, the dining room table, two side tables in the living room, the floor of the studio…

I keep accumulating them, but haven’t significantly cleared them out for several decades. Every once in a while I will put together about a box worth of those I didn’t enjoy or simply decided not to read, and give them to the library or to Vietnam Veterans to sell. But since I accumulate at almost the same speed, it hasn’t helped much.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been either checking out or buying many e-books to read on my Kindle, so that has saved some shelf space. But it’s finally time to confront the overflow, eliminate the extraneous, and reorganize the rest tidily on (hopefully fewer) shelves.

My new deciding factor for whether to keep a book is going to be whether I realistically and sincerely believe that I will ever read it again. I have books that I have read multiple times and anticipate going back to a few more; I have books that I have read once and might enjoy reading again; and then there are the books I know I will never revisit.

It’s difficult, sometimes, because of things like sets. I have a complete set of similarly bound books by Elizabeth Goudge that I remember being so thrilled to discover at The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles about three decades ago; but although they look pretty on the shelf, I expect I may reread one at most—I have outgrown my regard for them. So should I let the entire set go? I’m thinking yes, but it gives me a pang. I also have a few gifts from people looking to appeal to my hobby, but…my mom, for instance, never understood the difference between a reader and a collector, so she would go find me some beautiful old first edition of, say, the poems of Longfellow that I admire esthetically for its beautiful cover and ancient pages but will never read. And then there are a few beloved children’s books from my youth that I remember fondly but will probably never read again, and since I don’t have children with whom to share them…what to do?

When I embraced science fiction in my 20s, I collected every single title of such authors as Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, and Isaac Asimov, and it’s difficult (and nostalgic) to pick and choose the ones I really like vs. the ones I have just kept because it’s nice to feel like you have the entire oeuvre. But again, if I examine them in terms of what may be a re-read, then I can let go of most.

My hope is that when I box up everything I no longer need and the dust clears, I can actually get rid of one of the three big bookcases in the bedroom, to give me a little more room for other pursuits, like setting up my free-standing painter’s easel in the empty space.

One problem I foresee: When I really examine what’s on the shelves, there are also a number of missing volumes I’d selfishly love to fill in, especially in my young adult fiction collection. Since I worked in a library in the YA section for 11 years, I would mostly check out the books I wanted to read, with the result that I have numerous series for which I only own, say, #1 and #3 out of four books, or the first book but not its sequel. So—do I get rid of all, and simply pick them up from the library should I get the yen to read them? or do I fill in the set? Filling in could have a large impact!

This does seem like a proper task to ponder, initiate, and accomplish at the beginning of a new year. I’ll let you know how it goes…and if you have advice or a fresh perspective for me, feel free to comment!

One Comment on “The books we keep

  1. When I cull my collection I go to a large used book store that gives me credits for books I’ve returned. I rationalize that someone else will love these books and I’ll have new ones to enjoy.
    Meanwhile I’ve always got 6 ebooks on hold because that’s mostly how I read.


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