With spring comes a desire to rouse the house and its inhabitants from hibernation, to tidy, streamline, and welcome in the new season. A charming book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, suggests a new way to shed things. As motivating as the book is, however, we did not follow the recommended order of starting with less emotionally charged objects such as clothes (which we have been shedding for a while now—metaphorically speaking; our decluttering efforts have not yet turned us into nudists). Instead, we headed straight to a particularly difficult category: books.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been surrounded by books. I grew up with two avid readers as parents, and remember with great pride the moment—when I was about 6 or 7—that my father cleared an entire shelf for me and said that was where I could store my own books. My father could never understand why anyone would want a pair of designer jeans (with someone else’s name on the bottom?), but books were always an acceptable purchase. So I, too, became an avid reader. I would lay a towel along the bottom of my bedroom door at night so there wouldn’t be any light shining through to alert my parents of my nocturnal, page-turning activities. In hindsight, I’m sure I wasn’t fooling anyone, but my parents never said a word.
When I was in elementary school, I loved Little House on the Prairie, Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, the Great Brain, the Chronicles of Narnia, and any books about horses and dogs. In 8th grade, I went through a very serious Agatha Christie phase (I still have all 60+ of her mysteries), and in high school I had a friendly competition with my lab partner as to who could read the most classics (American, British, Russian—most gleaned from my parents’ shelves). When I went off to college, I added Latin American, African, and Indian authors to my reading repertoire, but I was an equal-opportunity reader; I enjoyed all sorts of fiction.
I kept the books I read, taking them with me every time I moved. I brought books to my marriage and my husband contributed his own as well; I married a fellow reader. In the course of our marriage, we have moved 10 times and have lived on four continents, and with one exception (a 6-month stint in Rome), we took our books with us each time. When we started having children, we bought them books as well. We may have been on a strict graduate-student budget, but that budget included books.
So, over the years, we ended up with quite a collection: classics from ages ago and newer fiction, cookbooks and gardening books, young adult books and “grandchildren books”—the books our kids loved so much when they were young that we set them aside and kept them for future grandchildren. We have bookshelves on every floor of our house.
But we have come to realize those books represent another era. The kids are unlikely to load up their suitcases with books on each return trip home. And my husband and I now read most of our books digitally; I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing on my iPad. Today, we admitted that the physical books that have been part of our lives for so long have served their purpose. They brought us great joy, but it is time to see if they can bring joy to others as well. So we went through all our bookshelves and took 75% of the books we once owned to our local library.
It was a process tinged with denial: “I know I haven’t read that book in 25 years but now that I see it again, perhaps I should reread it; I’m certain that by now I’ve forgotten the plot.” Or: “This was one of the best books I ever read. And so was this one. And that one. Oh, this one here was fabulous–what great writing; I really must reread that one and take note of some of the beautiful phrases the author employed, which I always meant to do.” Except I know I won’t. So we were ruthless. And now many shelves’ worth of books are gone–old friends following the children out of the house. Life-changing perhaps, but a bit sad, too.