An essay that originally appeared in Springhouse magazine…
Recently, Stanley Fish, noted author and professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, wrote a piece for the New York Times called “Moving on.” He wrote about selling his books, because he was moving from a house to a smaller apartment. Although I kept several books that he needed, “the books that sustained my professional life for 50 years — books by and about Milton, Spenser, Shakespeare, Skelton, Sidney, Herbert, Marvell, Herrick, Donne, Jonson, Burton, Browne, Bacon, Dryden, Hobbes — are gone (I watched them being literally wheeled out the door), and now I look around and see acres of empty white bookshelves.”
He continues that a deeper reason for the relinquishment was that “it was time.” He had been engaged in conservations with fellow writers and now, he felt he no longer had the energy to continue those conservations as they developed among other writers in different ways. It was time to face the fact that he was not going to be continuing his work forever–and indeed, he isn’t going to go on forever, either—and now his books deserve book homes where they will be used by others.
I’ve relinquished books at different times of my life. The most drastic downsizing was in 2009, as we prepared to move. My books had lined the walls of our finished basement on ten maple shelves that I’d purchased at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. They weren’t really designed to be filled with books, and the shelves bowed a little beneath the weight of some texts, but they were pretty and served the purpose of holding what I estimated was over 1000 books. In spite of that large number, I felt like these were the books I needed for my work.
But as moving day approached, I thought twice about that. Many of the books were ones I hadn’t used for several years. What is the difference between thinking I’ll use a book, and feeling nostalgic about it because I purchased it for a certain now-completed purpose? (For instance, I had several books from my doctoral program, but I hadn’t cracked those books in several years.)
So I straightened my back and made drastic cuts in my collection. I took them to the local library to donate to their annual book fair. I thought, Now, I have my collection to the size I need.
But no, as moving day grew nearer, I became harder-hearted and removed four or five boxes-full of more books. Even then, after we had arrived in our new location, I decided to go through the collection again and donate more. A half-dozen more boxes of books (and some LPs, too) moved onward to the local book fair.
I still have lots of books! But they’re a more manageable number. Since online used book sites became so helpful, there is no longer the fear that, if I relinquish a text that I realize I still want, I can order another copy rather than perhaps never finding it again in book stores (although I still love actual book stores, like John Dunphy’s in Alton, IL.)
Still, giving up books can be an emotional process. A few years ago, Springhouse editor Gary DeNeal asked readers to share their top five or ten most precious books. Many of us do have books that we need. But you also do come to the point where a book you once cherished needn’t be kept any longer. Books, like anything else, can be kept too long. Just like household items given to Good Will or the Salvation Army, you have a sense that your belongings could be going good for someone else. But meanwhile, you’ll still have other books that you read, you enjoy, and you retain as keepsakes you’d hate to part with.
At our last house, repairpeople would traipse through the basement, look at my shelves, and say, “Wow, have you read all these?” It’s kind of a foolish thing to say to people: as if you don’t deserve to own a book if you haven’t read it. In my case, a lot of my books are reference books that aren’t supposed to be read cover to cover, and many more are texts that I use in my teaching. I also have antique books that relate to early Illinois history, and I don’t read them so that I can keep the old bindings in good shape. Some of them were books I used when I was writing my first book, about my hometown when it was state capital. But now I cherish these books as kinds of heirlooms—although heirlooms I myself purchased.
Several years ago I enjoyed Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “Unpacking My Library.” I went to look for the anthology in which the essay appeared. But (appropriate to this essay’s subject, I guess), I realized I had donated the book containing that piece. But I looked online and remembered what I’d read. Benjamin was the German literary critic who died tragically in 1940. In the essay, he goes through his boxes of books, stored for two years, and took great pleasure going through the books and reflecting on the wonderful benefits of a personal library. He thinks about the periods of his life associated with his books and the circumstances when he acquired each book.“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories,” he writes, adding that books don’t come alive in the owner, but “it is he who lives in them.”
That’s certainly true with my books. In what books do you live?