A book-collecting revelation

When we did our recent reno, I donated a lot of books. Dozens of them, easily. Maybe hundreds. Swept off shelves by the armload, put into boxes as efficiently as possible, and hauled to the thrift store, again and again.

Initially I balked at the idea. These were my books, after all, and book lovers and collectors everywhere will be able to appreciate the unique sanctity that getting rid of them breaches. It felt like a paraphrasing of the current internet meme of Boromir: One does not simply give one’s books away.

But it was long past time to be practical instead of automatically storing them all. And the reality is that I’m a frustratingly slow reader, so even for the ones I would have liked to revisit at some point (and that wasn’t many), I literally can’t recall the last book I ever re-read. So I simply wasn’t getting what I could from keeping them.

My love affair with books really began in earnest after university, when I was finally able to just read books I wanted to instead of books I was obliged to for school (hello English degree). But no matter how many of interest I found, I never got faster at getting through them. I spoke for years in no-nonsense terms about how my to-be-read pile only ever got larger. For a long time I was buying them much faster than I could ever get through them. And that was just novels, not even counting the educational books I was getting on various and sundry writing disciplines (at least there, they were useful in a practical sense and were at times used for reference), nor comic books I was collecting off and on for decades.

The pre-reno choice to donate the books was clearly the right thing to do, and I haven’t regretted it. I had read them and enjoyed them enough to want to keep them, but could never possibly get so ahead in my reading current and new books that I would ever have time to re-read those older ones that still held interest. And where to store ever-increasing numbers of them? Keeping them was a mental comfort blanket but entirely impractical.

But I do miss having my own books. Yet now, post-reno and no longer having to house all those old volumes, I don’t want to fall into the same trap of simply keeping books I get out of some odd sense of obligation to do so, or due to the seeming gravitas that books can have over we who love them.

Then something struck me as I started reading A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers. This was the second of her books I’ve read, the first (her first) some months back being the start of a different series and called A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which I couldn’t, and still can’t, recommend highly enough for fans of science fiction. And the thought was this: Instead of keeping books because I bought or received them and one just keeps one’s books, I want to instead only keep books I particularly enjoy.

I had previously kept all Elmore Leonard books I could get, as an example, because I liked what I read of his. But I confess that, as of course happens, I didn’t find all of his books equally enjoyable. Some were of course better than others. Same with even Neil Gaiman, my favourite writer and a rock star god in the publishing industry. I like some of his stuff more than others. So why keep the others? Particularly in a situation where I’d like to whittle down stuff instead of accruing more, why have books kept that I wouldn’t recommend to family or friends?

This new approach will not only let me freely give away books I read and didn’t like as much as others, but in constraining the size of my collection, will also force the situation into something of a meritocracy: This is a really good book, but is it good enough to warrant keeping? If potentially so and I’ve filled up my allotted shelf/shelves with books already, is it good enough to bump one of the ones already there?

It would eventually be like Thunderdome but for books: Two books enter, one book leaves.

It also feels like this would liven up my collection. Instead of just storing books on a shelf and then never touching them again (my god, so much dust when we were clearing and packing for the reno), this will keep it at least somewhat more active. Books suggested. Touched. Flipped through. Talked about. Lent out. A new one that made the cut swapped for another.

While I may still not have time to re-read them, at least a collection of strictly books I’ve really enjoyed will be something I want to display. That’s better than keeping everything blithely stored away in whatever fashion wherever because those aren’t for show or practical use and so where they are or how they’re stored, at risk of sounding a bit like Eeyore, doesn’t matter anyway.

I’m not saying this new system will be perfect, but it feels pretty energizing and positive for now.

Suffice to say, these first two books of their respective series by Becky Chambers will be purchased and put in this newly conceived collection, because they certainly make the grade. Had I mentioned they’re both really good and I’d recommend them? If I hadn’t, come on by soon. They’ll be on a shelf for your consideration, and I’d love to talk about them.

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