Culling My Library in the Time of COVID
Seeing the pandemic unfold made me want to lighten my load. But it also brought up a struggle to leave my mark
What I’ve missed most is the browsing.
I miss the warm welcome of indie bookstores. The serendipity of finding the perfect book I didn’t realize I needed. Eager recommendations from fellow customers. Especially that. I miss the human connection.
Now that bookstores have finally reopened, I’m pruning my shelves to free up space for all those books I’ve yearned to buy in person. I’ll weed out books I didn’t enjoy, didn’t finish and never intend to, book club selections that were duds, books reviewed warmly by critics that left me cold. Our town library accepts donations for its popular autumn sale. It’s satisfying to cart over bags of giveaways each summer, even though I know full well I’ll be first on line with a sturdy tote bag two months later to refresh my inventory. My little book habit (2000+ volumes in my office alone) has never weighed on me.
I live in New York, former epicenter of the COVID pandemic. For months I’ve toggled between tedium and terror. My age and health put me at higher risk; my husband too. Our younger son is disabled and medically fragile. I’m haunted by thoughts of him lying alone and scared in a hospital, calling for us. Of leaving him an orphan. As a special needs parent I can’t die, yet never have I felt my mortality more keenly. I wander restlessly through our home, looking at how much clutter we’ve accumulated that our children are unlikely to want. Paring down feels urgent, and our vast book collection seems an obvious place to start.
Jorge Luis Borges once wrote that he imagined Paradise would be a kind of library, a sentiment my mother and I shared. She believed the power of the written word was sacred and taught me to worship it. I still cherish the books she read to me before I could read them for myself, and keep them for my grandchildren: The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, the Oz books. Years later, when I married a fellow English major, we merged our libraries. For a long while I worked in the book publishing business, reading four to five manuscripts weekly and bringing home an equivalent number of free books. By the time we moved into our second house, we’d accumulated 103 cartons of books. I’m sure of that number. The movers charged by the box.
I’m organized. The books in my office are shelved alphabetically by author. This week I climbed a step ladder, resolved to go through them title by title, left to right, A to Z, channeling tidying expert Marie Kondo and asking if each book sparked joy. Alvarez, Julia. Atkinson, Kate. Atwood, Margaret. Kondo infamously advised people they didn’t need more than 30 books in their home. That comment did not spark joy in our household.
“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” Kafka wrote. But once a book has served its purpose, do you keep it? Do I still need the tattered copy of Catcher in the Rye from 10th grade English class that gave voice to my disaffected, adolescent angst? The frayed volumes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy that provided solace the summer of sophomore year, when my college boyfriend abandoned me to go freight-train hopping across the country? The turgid Henry James novel I tried to slog through on a beach at Club Med when I met my husband Marc? Still, I hesitated. These volumes weren’t mere books. They were the artifacts of my life.
I reminded myself of the decluttering mantra: if you don’t love it, lose it. If you don’t use it, lose it. Would I ever reread the Penguin paperbacks I haven’t glanced at since college? Daniel Deronda? Bleak House? Vanity Fair? Moby-Dick? Especially Moby-Dick, which I still haven’t read and am unlikely to. All that tiny print. All that whale blubber. Still, they’re classics and belong in a library, even though the physical books themselves are ephemeral. I like to think I’m curating them for grandchildren. When I lent my older son Jonathan my mass market paperback of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 last year, clumps of yellowed pages slid loose from the binding. Once he’d finished, I reluctantly tossed it in with the newspaper recycling, consoling myself that I could always buy another copy. What I could never replace, though, is my copy of Heller’s later book, Good as Gold. Joe autographed it to me at lunch a lifetime ago, writing, “For Liane, with thanks for helping to make this book a success.”
Library or Legacy?
There’s such joy in sharing books with people I love. Recently I gave my son Jonathan my just-finished copy of Erik Larson’s new book on Churchill and the Blitz, The Splendid and the Vile. Perfect pandemic reading material. I’d wanted to know what it felt like in London when the bombs started falling. How others dealt with fear and uncertainty. The book was riveting and oddly comforting, partly, I suspect, because I already knew how it turned out. He took it eagerly and asked, “Do you happen to have his book The Devil in the White City, Mom?”
Of course I did. I’d picked it up at last year’s library sale.
I resumed scanning K through M and paused at my husband’s ample Kafka collection. The novels. The stories. The biographies. Photo essays on Prague. Kafka’s letters. Kafka’s friends’ letters. Twenty-four volumes in all, taking up prime real estate in my office. Our books are commingled, but easy to tell apart. His are full of pencil-scrawled marginalia; mine, ink. (I do the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink too, which probably says something about me.) Why not move those books to his office? Did that count as decluttering, or rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?
By afternoon I’d only filled three shopping bags. I’d avoided tackling all the books I hadn’t yet read, which my son Jonathan refers to as the “pile of shame.” Pile is a misnomer. It’s an entire, crammed bookcase of double-parked books. If a book hasn’t been touched in 20 years, am I ever going to read it? Wasn’t now the time to set it free?
“How do you decide which of your books to get rid of?” I asked my husband.
He fixed me with a steely stare. “Which of my children would I give away?”
Is he a book hoarder? I wondered. Am I? I’ve never thought so, but thousands of books suggest otherwise. This is a man who has already told me what to write on his tombstone: “I’d rather be reading.”
I stacked the unread volumes by categories. Slim volumes of poetry. Popular history. Pleasingly plump paperback novels saved for lazy summer days in a hammock. But why were there so many books on the Plague? A Journal of the Plague Year. Plagues and Peoples. In the Wake of the Plague. The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. Those last two titles were jockeying for superlatives. I didn’t remember acquiring them. Were they evidence of an abiding intellectual curiosity about people’s responses to disaster, or of magical thinking and an anxious search for lessons in preparedness? As Elizabeth Kolbert noted in The New Yorker, history isn’t only written by men. It’s written by microbes. Now would be a good time to read these books.
I turned my urge to purge elsewhere, emptying office files, drawers and cabinets, sorting and sifting and cleaning out like there was no tomorrow, because maybe there isn’t. My fear still felt like rocket fuel, and I admitted to myself that it wasn’t about the books at all. Or maybe only a little. It was terror for the safety of our disabled son. For everyone I love. What I’ve been running on for months is existential dread.
I decided the entire, double-stacked shelves of unread books would stay… for now. They’d stay because they signal hope that I may yet have world enough and time to savor them.
Tsundoku is an untranslatable Japanese word that essentially means, “the art of buying books and never reading them.” The fact there’s actually a word for this behavior is comforting. I could say that the books are part of what I’m bequeathing to my children, but really, that’s not it.
The love of books is my truer legacy.