Saturday, January 22, 2011

On books and tree rings.

I’ve spent the past few days puttering around my condo during staycation. Staycation during the winter means you don’t really LEAVE the house. (Have I mentioned I love staycation? You can stay in jammies for days, people. DAYS.)

The pragmatic side of me knew I had to use this time to organize, which is how I found myself spending a good solid hour tidying my book shelves. Before you fall over the fact that I spent a full-on 60 minutes playing with books floor-to-ceiling shelves, you need to know that at my core I’m a word nerd who’s never once been without a library card or a list of books to read. (Sidebar of a true story: I was such a delinquent book returner in my youth that in kindergarten my mother gave me a lecture about my overdue books, telling me that one day, if I continued my wayward habits, they’d destroy my credit rating. Take this time to imagine the blank stare a pig-tailed six-year-old gives to someone after this lecture.)

But I digress.

While I was moving shelves, sorting books, dusting and declutterring, I realized that in a way my bookshelves tell the story of my life. From photography to progressive theology, bookshelves are like tree rings that tell a story of a tree and its environment. There’s my entire collection of Paulo Coelho’s works translated in English, which I managed to accumulate after a friend gave me The Alchemist as a college graduation gift. There’s my father’s old photography books, that he gave me to me when I got my hands of my first SLR. There’s some of my favorite children's books, both from when I was kid (hello, Misty of Chincoteague) and some I’ve picked up along the way because I wanted to have them on my shelves. (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.) There’s vintage sewing books, feminist theory, Irish literature and some American poetry anthologies. There’s the Jodi Picoult I love to read on vacation along with books on yoga, journalism, politics, public health and tons of fiction that I just haven’t been able to part with over the years. (I have a rule that book collection cannot expand beyond the confines of the shelves that hold them, so I always prune a few times a year.)

There was a New York Times essay a few years ago that talked about how bookshelves can be used to judge a perspective date. It was snarky and sometimes snotty, but at its core is this pretty important truth that we are what we read. Or, maybe it’s that we read what we are.

I guess for me, the books I hold on to after sending off a pile to Goodwill are the books that sort of mark the stages of my life.

What do you think?


Sarah Louise said...

Wow, talk about discipline. No, I do not weed my books yearly, and they do *not* keep to the confines of my four bookcases. (Although I got rid of an entire bookshelf, the piece of furniture, last year, and most of the books found therein.)

But I seriously think about the books that I own, and think about what people would think if they looked at my bookcases and saw "that" book.

And I have a quote on my wall that says "Of course you're out of book space. You wouldn't be worth knowing otherwise" (May not be a direct quote, that's from memory, but some famous guy said it.)

However (back to the "you are what you read") as a public librarian, I know that any library worth its salt has a certain % of books that the director does not agree with. But I'm still not sure I would read Mein Kampf on the subway. (Although I would like to read it someday.)

I never seem to be able to pull off the staycation unless I'm sick, I want to be out, doing things, seeing people.

Great post.


Erin said...

I totally agree, and, that said, I'm terrified about what my bookshelves say about me.

Also, Ashley, serioulsy, how have we never talked about Chincoteague?? I spent half my childhood there and have met Misty's kin. Must add this to our conversational to do list for future use....

KateKwiltz said...

You prune???? I shudder at the thought! I just build bigger bookshelves!

I wanted to be Marguerite Henry when I grew up. Or Walter Farley. Great stories for horse-obsessed little girls!

The Modern Gal said...

One of Apartment Therapy's let-go-of-the-clutter posts tackled the notion of getting rid of books, and a few commenters were actual authors who said they'd rather their books not sit on shelves and instead be out in the world where they can be shared and enjoyed by others. The notion of their books gathering dust on the shelf made them shudder (for what that's worth).

I love books as much as you, and I love a variety of them. I probably prune a bit more than you do. What's left on my shelf is mostly what I haven't gotten around to reading. Everything else is what I choose the world to judge me on. I never save the chick lit books, even though I enjoy them. I know I'll never read them again, and my copy of The Once and Future King makes me seem smarter and more worldly so therefore more worthy of the space, right? Ditto for the copy of An Inconvenient Truth, which I have never ever read. (I've observed his lecture in person more than once, which is my excuse for that).

But like you, there are treasured books that are there because they're a part of me, and I'll never part with them. One Hundred Years of Solitude is my favorite work of literature (it's really a work of art). Judy Blume's Just as Long as We're Together will always be there because of how much I read and adored it as a preteen. And my home decor books sit proudly on my coffee table.

Side note, you can make this same argument for some people with their DVD collections. I've been after the MLM to prune his, and it's a battle I have yet to win.