British author Linda Grant’s observations [in her short story I Murdered My Library] on downsizing her library in a slightly different way reflected my recent experience. She was moving after 19 years to a smaller flat and needed to divest due to downsizing. Her introspection while doing so became this small book.
I don’t remember when I happened across this short, but the title grabbed me and I just now took the time to read it. Only twenty-six electronic pages, and yet I highlighted fourteen of Ms. Grant’s thoughts. As she looked at her library she realized,
As well as the treasures, there are books I did not particularly care for, but kept anyway, or the books I bought but never read, or the books I started but did not finish, and put away in case I wanted to come back to them.
I was very much that way, though in recent years we had drastically slowed our acquisitions. I had many I did not care for, but did not want to discard, and many I had not gotten to yet. I would sometimes sift out some that I knew no one would ever read, but my pruning was self-limited; I admit in part because I did not wish to see the “unwanted and unsalable” books destroyed. But the choice was unfortunately made for us by circumstance. Ms. Grant asked, “Who destroys books? Cities, churches, dictators and fanatics.” I could add to that, “…and house fires.”
Grant said that “[w]hen builders come in, or grocery delivery men, they often say, ‘Blimey, have you read all these books?’” The attorney for our insurance company asked me that (though he didn’t use the term “Blimey”). I answered, Personally? Maybe 3,500 (of the 5,800). Out of the whole family, probably 5,000. True story.
A friend of Grant’s had many books stored away, and I know people who do the same with things that are not books. Her observation is spot on:
There is a strong part of me which thinks that if you don’t have access to your books, you might as well not have them, as I believe that tidying things away where you can’t see them means there is no point in having them at all.
We did have books stored away, but they were the pre-school and pre-teen books that we were saving for grandchildren. Other than those, all of our books were accessible. When a friend asked Grant why she actually needed all those books, she said, “If there is a need, it is not a functional one – it’s something else.” How true, for as our children outgrew the functional books, the books became something else to us, which is why we stored them. Memories for sure … and hopeful legacies to share with future grandchildren.
We’re slowly selecting books for our new library. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go there again – it did take a while before I could step into a book store, but I can and we are repopulating the few shelves. Ms. Grant said she would be ashamed of being a writer whose house had no books. As readers, we too would be ashamed of a house with no books. And when she had gotten rid of too many books in her fear of not having enough room, she realized,
My library is denuded. It doesn’t seem like a library. It feels … like the house of a person who reads, but not the house of a person for whom books have been everything.
For the tension is that I no longer want books to do all the furnishing of my rooms. I want décor.
Our old house had built in shelves on which were so many books, but we also had shelves throughout the house with stacks of books. Our rebuilt home does not have the large library infrastructure, and after a year, we are just now needing more shelves. But we have décor and I now prefer the understated role of physical books in our home. Important books. Books that are special to us. And of course, resources for our youngest two home-educated teens. Grant notes: “No books in the living room [of her new place]. Those walls are reserved for pictures, although it is the site where the reading actually takes place.” Yep.
I started realizing this a few years ago, but it was driven home after the fire, something that Ms. Grant also saw after her move:
Because I am kidding myself if I think I am going to re-read a fraction of the books I have brought with me, or finish a fraction of those I have never got round to reading.
Before the fire, I too often was fooling myself when I thought, “Someday…”.
This is why we’re being very selective in what we replace in our library. Some can never be replaced, but some can…for new memories, and a few old ones.