Sunday, February 22, 2015

A time for purging books

The day has come at our house to purge the books. There are too many of them, more than we can read during our brief quiet evenings of reading time. There are books we'll never read, or will never re-read, having read them once and judged them not worth a second or third reading. There are books that once seemed important, but their importance has faded in the decades since they appeared on our shelves. There are books that fueled our interests in things like bicycling and running or supplemented our knowledge in matters such as child rearing, breastfeeding or home repairs.

We have books that seemed intriguing but weren't and books that seemed like such a bargain at the yard sale or library book sale but never rose to the top of the stack of books to read next. There are novels that were well-written and suspenseful and that we would recommend to other readers, but they weren't worth a second read and now no longer are worth the space they consume on the bookshelf.

Early in our marriage, I tried to convince my wife that we should not buy novels or other fiction because, well, libraries can supply you with all the novels you'll ever need in a lifetime. Nonfiction is different, I tried to tell her, because they deal in facts. They serve as reference material, a fact-checking resource when questions of science or history arise.

Despite the logic of my argument, we have managed to collect dozens, if not hundreds, of novels. We were lured into Book of the Month Club more than once and accumulated some books in that way. The new novels always sounded so compelling, so worth the read and the price of a book, especially when you found the book at a library book sale or yard sale. Now we are separating the novels that are worth keeping and reading again and again — novels like "Cold Mountain" or "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "A Farewell to Arms" — from the novels that once were fresh and new but now seem formulaic and ephemeral.

As for the nonfiction books that I once contended would always be useful resources, all of their facts can be found instantly in a Google search, neatly organized, usually with multiple references. Encyclopedia, which once got middle schoolers through their first research papers, are now as obsolete as slide rules. Resource books, from encyclopedia to World Almanacs to dictionaries are now conveniently accessible on the web.

We've decided to keep, at least for now, a few reference books — a few authoritative volumes on grammar and word usage, a print dictionary, and a copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations that her mother used in college and that bears her signature. I will keep a book given to my father when he was a boy, a do-it-yourself text for making toys and things from scraps.

We'll get rid of the couple of dozen journalism textbooks, newspaper memoirs and journalistic histories I had collected in three decades of editing newspapers and teaching journalism. That door has closed behind me, and I have no reason to think I'll ever need those books again. I will give them to someone who has use for them.

Getting rid of books is a sad, almost reprehensible act that makes us question our actions. One wall of our living room is covered in built-in bookcases, and I love to sit in that room and read, looking up occasionally at the comforting view of all those books, which together promise years of quiet leisure time and enjoyment. By our bed are stacks of books, one on my nightstand and one on my wife's; another stack covers the trunk at the foot of our bed. The other bedrooms have bookshelves filled with books, and another packed bookcase is on the stair landing. A closet contains children's books that had been our children's and now are reserved for their children when they visit. Boxes in the attic have more books.

Books are the most glorious things, a whole world in your hands, a fresh aroma of paper and ink that every book lover finds invigorating. Electronic books are cheaper, more up-to-date and more compact, but print books feel so good in your hands and look so good on a bookshelf.

My wife and I face the necessity of this purging of the books, but we take no joy in it and feel no certainty at the judgments we make, that one book is worth keeping and another is not. We know that the books will remain when we are no longer here, and it will fall to someone else to purge them. We know what that task is like, and we prefer to make an easier task for someone on that future date.

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