On culling books

September 1, 2015 at 12:57 am 7 comments


I read this book so many times when I was little, the cover started to fall apart. And yet, it wasn’t important enough to keep? Augh. (Also, I never realized how young Mary Ann looks on the cover until just now.)

As I may have mentioned, I moved from our 1,000-square foot apartment to a 1,600-square foot honest-to-goodness house in February. Along with that move came something I hadn’t had in a very long time — a bookshelf of my very own, and more than enough room for more.

Unpacking my books proved an unpleasant surprise. Where was my Norton Anthology of English Literature, my copy of Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman (latter mystery solved: I’d given it to Corey)? What had happened to my copy of John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights? And didn’t I own the Lord of the Rings trilogy at some point? Where, for heaven’s sake, were all of my Thursday Next books?

In the ether, apparently. Like Corey, I have moved quite a bit since college — 11 times since 2008, and more than half of those moves were to “transient” locations, or places where I didn’t expect to be for any long period of time. Each time I moved, I jettisoned more books, or left them in a basement or storage spot with every intention of picking them up later. I was even proud of this ability to minimize.

I’m slowly discovering that this was all hubris and folly, and that Marie Kondo is completely and utterly wrong when she said books are useless. My books are a reflection of who I am, a tangible reminder of what I’ve done and where I’ve been. Did you know, I buy books as souvenirs on vacation, and mark them with the name of the bookstore, city and date? Out in the wide world, someone else now owns the copy of Jane Eyre I bought at City Lights Books in San Francisco on a trip with the staff of my college newspaper and a beloved professor who has since died. It was one of the best trips I’ve ever taken, period. And I’m never going to get that souvenir back.

Someone else in the world has my copy of Northern Lights, the U.K. version of The Golden Compass. It had all of my notes in it — I bought it right before Christmas 2008 at Chapters in Dublin, and it would form the foundation of my master’s thesis. Did I need two copies? Maybe not. But I should have kept that one somewhere.

I’ve started trying to replace some of them, but it’s impossible to replace all of them. I have a vague recollection of a book from the 1960s that was about a teenager whose family raised yellow labs for show…no idea of the name of the girl, the name of the dog, or the name of the book, only that the girl also had horses…or learned to ride a horse…or something?

My coping mechanism so far has been to wander around the house, hissing “Never throw away books! You’ll regret it!” at my husband and the dog like a bookish Cassandra.

But surely that’s not the answer, either. I have given away books that I have not regretted or even thought about since — an impressive collection of The Babysitters Club, including part of author Ann M. Martin’s California Diaries series and all of the Super Specials leaps to mind. Sure, maybe that collection meant something to me at one time, but it was time to let it go.

So. Do you have any rules about which books you should never get rid of, and which ones you can give away without worry? If so, I would love to hear them. Please.


Entry filed under: Musings and Essays. Tags: , , .

On ‘Middlemarch’ and grown-ups On balance and reading

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  September 2, 2015 at 2:57 pm

    Mein Gott! You must have gone through a particularly virulent cull to get rid of your thesis books! With all your notes?! This actually makes me internally weep with you. I’m so sorry for these losses!

    Culling is plain old hard, although I will say I’ve found it easier (and less destructive) as I’ve gone along. I think my cull narrative may be the opposite of yours in that I didn’t jettison *any* books up until last year. I kept *all of them*, from my childhood straight through my late twenties. This proved quite problematic. Most of those books are not books I will read ever again, not books to which I have an emotional attachment, and not even books I would necessarily recommend to others. I just kept them all, rather thoughtlessly and pointlessly.

    So I’ve been culling a lot over the last year, aided by my increased use of the public library and the numerous moves I’ve had in the last twelve months encouraging minimalism. So far so good, but I’m also trying to be careful that I don’t toss anything I’ll later regret! Your tale is quite the cautionary one and is really making me second-think any book I lay a hand on to get rid of!

    (Also, sidebar: I love your practice of buying books from local bookstores on holiday as souvenirs! Such a nice way to remember a journey!)

    • 2. Kate  |  September 22, 2015 at 12:03 pm

      I was so sick of them that I think I was delirious. The academic ones I understand, but…I should have kept Northern Lights.

      There must be a way to strike a balance! I’m curious — have you found childhood books that you do want to keep? I’m still in search of that book about yellow labs.

      The only problem with my souvenir habit is that, if I hate the book, I have a hard time getting rid of it due to its provenance! The Ice Storm being a prime example. I bought it on our honeymoon with a vague recollection of having liked it. I reread it and hated it. But how can I get rid of it?

      • 3. Corey  |  September 23, 2015 at 11:39 am

        Yes, I have found a fair number of childhood books that I decided to keep. Honestly, many of them I forgot I had and then, going through books at my parents’ house, rediscovered how great they are. (Notably: The Rainbow Goblins, which I was obsessed with as a wee one and hadn’t read for years. Still incredibly detailed, beautiful art with a weird and magical story to go along with it. Loved it then, love it now!)

        That said, I do think many of the later-in-childhood chapter book variety aren’t so worth keeping. I had a bunch of middle-school-era, mediocre fantasy that I’ve tossed along with all my BSC books (no regrets yet, although I do think I had less of an emotional connection to them to begin with than you did!). They had fondish memories for me, but I was never going to read them again and, if I wanted to, I could easily get them from the library. Also, none of my tiny-cousins want them, so there wasn’t even a pass-along-to-the-next-generation reason to keep them.

        I do hope there is a way to strike a balance! This being my first book culling season, so to speak, I’m slightly terrified I’ll regret everything a year or two from now.

        But I keep muttering Marie Kondoisms in my head about how you can always re-acquire a book if you regret getting rid of it. This is mostly true, but not when you’re getting rid of a souvenir book! Tricky on that Ice Storm question. I would toss it, particularly if you a) truly hate it and b) have other books you acquired on your honeymoon to hold that memory.

        • 4. Kate  |  September 23, 2015 at 1:47 pm

          Marie Kondo is right when it comes to so many of the mass-market books out there, but dead wrong when it comes to other things. You can buy another copy, but you can never replace the actual physical book you had. Replacing my copy of “Claudia and the Genius of Elm Street” that I got for Christmas in 1993 (or so) with the old-school cover and a sticker with my name on the cover would be impossible. I can buy a copy of that book easily, but it will be a different edition, a different cover, no sentimental value, and not at all the same. So it sits on my bookshelf, hidden behind a stack of more respectable children’s books.

          Other books go out of print, or are collector’s editions. Finding “The Dog in My Life” was almost impossible; certain Vintage Classics titles with the beautiful minimalist covers are being taken out of print.

          Anyway. I continue to think she is wrong (surprise, surprise). But on another note — I got a giggle over the image of you checking out a stack of BSC books from the Clearfield Library! It would be like old times :)

    • 5. Kate  |  September 22, 2015 at 12:09 pm

      I FOUND IT! “The Dog in My Life: Thumper of Walden.” Thank goodness for Goodreads.

      • 6. Corey  |  September 23, 2015 at 11:39 am


        • 7. Kate  |  September 23, 2015 at 11:43 am

          I then promptly spent $30 on a copy from Amazon. Likely I’ll find the copies I had at my grandmother’s house next time I’m in Buffalo.

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