When it’s so hard to say good­bye – to your books.

North & South - - Review - By margo white

I’ve been mean­ing to do some­thing about the books for sev­eral years now, but dis­pens­ing with the sou­venirs of your in­ter­nal life is about as much fun as draw­ing up your last will and tes­ta­ment, and easy to put off.

My house is small and there isn’t much wall space, so a cou­ple of years ago, 20 or so boxes of books were dis­patched to a stor­age unit. This has turned out to be an ex­pen­sive ex­er­cise in pro­cras­ti­na­tion. What was/am I think­ing? That a big­ger house would/will mag­i­cally ap­pear, with space for floor-to-ceil­ing book­shelves?

At some stage, I prob­a­bly thought book­shelves were a fun­da­men­tal part of the fur­ni­ture, as cru­cial as a couch. They were re­as­sur­ing to have around – so, you don’t have much, not even a dish­washer, but see how many books you’ve read!

What do your book­shelves say about you, re­ally? I used to scan other peo­ple’s books for ev­i­dence of their lit­er­ary tastes, their po­lit­i­cal lean­ings, their in­ter­ests, whether they’re likely to be any good in the kitchen, etc. But can you trust what you see on other peo­ple’s book­shelves? Or even your own book­shelves? To be hon­est, mine have al­ways been a boule­vard of best in­ten­tions, filled with books I’ve meant to read but haven’t got around to, like those vol­umes of po­etry and Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry. But one day... so I tell my­self.

As for the books I have read, they wouldn’t re­veal any­thing about me that an Ama­zon al­go­rithm couldn’t tell you. If you buy Alice Munro from Ama­zon, for in­stance, Ama­zon will reg­u­larly re­mind you that cus­tomers who like Munro also like Anne Patch­ett, Lorrie Moore, El­iz­a­beth Strout, Ian Mce­wan, Wil­liam Boyd, etc. So my book­shelves might show­case my lit­er­ary pref­er­ences, and also that I’m an al­go­rith­mic cliché.

The writer and former lit­er­ary ed­i­tor Diana Athill has de­scribed how re­duc­ing her col­lec­tion of a thou­sand books to two or three hun­dred was one of the hardest things about mov­ing into a rest home. Each time she tried to de­cide which books to keep, she “sank into a state of sham­ing use­less­ness”. She had a nephew, though, who “spent the best part of a day hold­ing up, one by one, ev­ery book in that daunt­ing mass and say­ing, ‘In or Out?’, then box­ing it as ap­pro­pri­ate – some­thing which I truly be­lieve I could never have done on my own.”

She hasn’t missed the books she got rid of. If you’re old enough to move into a rest home, she points out, you’re prob­a­bly old enough to for­get what hap­pens in most of the books you’ve al­ready read, so you can just keep reread­ing those you’ve de­cided to keep. Which is why I put my books in stor­age, rather than get rid of them – be­ing not old enough to move into a rest home, old enough to have for­got­ten what hap­pened in most books I’ve al­ready read, and young enough to be putting off de­cid­ing which ones I’m likely to

If you’re old enough to move into a rest home, Diana Athill points out, you’re prob­a­bly old enough to for­get what hap­pens in most of the books you’ve al­ready read, so you can just keep reread­ing those you’ve de­cided to keep.

reread. The stupid thing is, when I’ve wanted to re­visit a book I’ve got in stor­age, it has been eas­ier to go to the li­brary, which is just up the road. And I can or­der the book on­line rather than wade through 20 large boxes con­tain­ing the sou­venirs of my in­ter­nal life. Yet the books re­main in stor­age. This could con­sti­tute a hoard­ing dis­or­der, only the hoard­ing is hap­pen­ing off-site.

The art of dis­card­ing has be­come a fash­ion­able topic in book pub­lish­ing these days, in­clud­ing books on how to get rid of books, such as those

by best­selling de­clut­ter­ing ad­viser

Marie Kondo. In The Life-chang­ing Magic of Tidy­ing Up, for in­stance, she notes that un­read books do tend to ac­cu­mu­late. “You may have wanted to read it when you bought it, but if you haven’t read it by now, the book’s pur­pose was to teach you that you didn’t need it.”

She takes a sim­i­larly stern po­si­tion on the ones you’ve fin­ished. “Books you have read have al­ready been ex­pe­ri­enced and their con­tent is in­side you, even if you don’t re­mem­ber.” In short, she in­structs us to “keep only those books that will make you happy just to see them on your shelves, the ones that you re­ally love.” Ha, as if my af­fec­tions weren’t so fickle.

Books that of­fer ad­vice on get­ting rid of books usu­ally pre­scribe a Ja­panese min­i­mal­ist aes­thetic, and are il­lus­trated with im­ages of sun-drenched apart­ments with pol­ished floors, hardly any stuff and, if there’s a book­shelf, it has only a dozen or so books on it. Part of me thinks, “I want to live like that.” Part of me thinks, “Stop mak­ing me feel bad about my dis­or­derly book­shelves, you book-dump­ing, de­clut­ter­ing con­form­ists.”

It might not be so hard to get rid of books (which once gave you so much plea­sure/in­sight/con­so­la­tion/made you feel less alone in the world) if it weren’t so hard to find a good home for them. A lo­cal real es­tate agency has a book­shelf out­side its of­fice, stacked with free books for any­one in­ter­ested, but I’ve never seen any­one brows­ing it. The lo­cal li­brary of­ten has a trol­ley of books going for 50c each, some­times of­fer­ing a bag of books for a buck. Try­ing to sell books on Trade Me is rarely worth it, there aren’t many sec­ond­hand book­shops left to of­fer them to, and even hos­pices can be choosy.

Where there’s a will, or cir­cum­stances dic­tate, there are ways. A friend re­cently down­sized from a size­able villa, where she had sev­eral walls filled with floor-to­ceil­ing book­shelves con­tain­ing hun­dreds and hun­dreds of books. Most of them were dis­trib­uted among a num­ber of dif­fer­ent hospice shops, some went to friends, five boxes went to a friend’s daugh­ter’s teacher, and sev­eral to the lo­cal Lions club that was for­tu­nately putting on a big book sale at the time of her shift. She’s get­ting used to liv­ing with fewer books. “It was hard to pack them up, but as they were carted off, I felt kind of in­dif­fer­ent.”

Her most-loved books and au­thors are now shelved in the bed­room, rather than dis­played in her liv­ing area. I browsed her mod­est bed­room book­case, this friend I’ve known for 15 years. I said: “But I didn’t know you liked Ian Mce­wan!”

“It was hard to pack them up, but as they were carted off, I felt kind of in­dif­fer­ent.”

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