Curating the Bookshelves 2: When You Gotta Do It

 I had a rude awakening not so long ago, followed by a second one, and they combined to teach me how to diminish my library in a way that I could deal with. Let me say this very loudly and up front: I do not like to lose books from my life. I’m still in mourning for twelve books I had to leave behind in Toronto in 1984. My life would be bigger with those twelve books. I left them on a shelf in a university residence, so that other people can read them… but they’re not part of my life any more and I miss them.

I’m not a book addict. I’m someone who loves books and their meanings and makes friends with them. Or maybe I am a book addict, if friendship is can be counted as an addiction.

My first rude awakening was when thieves stole 1209 of my books from my storeroom.

A large chunk of my library was in storage because I thought I was moving (I didn’t move) and no-one knows to this day whether the books were stolen because idiot thieves thought they were getting alcohol, or if there was a Canberra-wide attempt to steal valuable books. I thought it was the alcohol, but there were two attempts to steal valuable books elsewhere around the same time.

What I learned from the theft was that it’s better to send your library away in a fashion that doesn’t cause you distress. I need to write about Thomas Mallory today and I still don’t know if I can’t find him because the book is invisible (which happens when there are more than 6000 books in a collection and I keep stopping to read when putting them in order) or if the book is missing. It’s likely missing, because a lot of the books I had with art are gone forever, and the version that’s invisible has pictures by Arthur Rackham. I’ll write about it anyhow because it’s an article I promised, but I won’t have the joy of the pictures in front of me, spurring me on. I keep putting off drafting the piece, however, because how can I do such a thing when I don’t know where the book is or even if I still own it?

Shortly after that, the eye specialists told me I was going blind. I’m not going blind as quickly as they said, thankfully, but I’m still going blind and books are already more difficult to read. Friends and family and even strangers have been full of suggestions as to what I can and should do to get through the next few years with grace, but one of my most pressing concerns has been to make my library smaller to match my diminishing eyesight.

Why is this so pressing? If I leave it until I can’t see, then I have no choice as to how my library is shrunk and where the books go. I might as well stand at the top of a cliff and throw them off, one at a time. I tried selling some of my books and I tried giving some to charity, and both left me feeling restless, and that cliff tempted me.

I decided I was going to do this thing sensibly. I looked at my shelves and worked out what parts of my collection were shattered by the theft. I lost hundreds of volumes of history (not Medieval European, but almost every other period and place), a lot of art books, and quite a few comic books, for instance. Each of these were for my research as much as they were for joy. These are the three categories I decided not to replace.

With the comics, I am keeping most of what remained. I’ve lost French BDs and a bit of manga and a lot of Asterix, but I still have some of each and I will enjoy them for as long as I can.

I put the ones I didn’t need (mostly political cartoons) into a basket. That basket remains at my front door and anyone who visits gets to rummage through and take what they want. I find losing books much less of a problem if I give them to people I know.

This set up a pattern that works for me. I look at one group of books I used to collect and I think “Do I still want these?” I want all my books on historical piracy because they’re going to be useful for fiction. I didn’t need any of my books on historical monetary systems because recent research has upended most of them and I remember enough of the contents of the few that remained. The books I need remain on the shelf. The ones that no longer fit my collection go in the basket. Monetary systems are not quite gone, but getting there. I kept books with pictures of coins because, again, they’re handy for writing. Also, I adore most things related to archaeology, which meant that coins and monetary systems didn’t have the same bookworm flavour and had to be dealt with differently. No book on coinage has yet been in my basket.

The basket is the big thing for me. I decide about a few books at a time, and books can always come out of the basket right up to the moment when they find a new home. And they always find new homes. Friends are loving my system.

Also, I’m following clear guidelines. I’m still collecting several types of cookbook (historical ones of certain kinds, ones with different Jewish foodways, ones put out by community groups, ones that are really important for food history, ones linked to the world of science fiction) but anything beyond that can go, unless it’s written by a friend.

As I move closer to having no vision, I will hand out more books to friends. I’ll get rid of whole categories. Most of the pirate books can go at that point.

When I can’t see, I’ll only have about eight hundred books, and I know already which ones they’ll be. They’ll be books by myself and by people I care for and just a few that have changed my life in important ways. I’ll be able to run my hand across the wall they’re on and know I’m not alone.


About Gillian Polack

Gillian Polack is a historian as well as a fiction writer, which means that history is likely to creep into her blogposts. She is also Australian, a foodie, and has a strong love of things ranging from chocolate to folk dance. All her jokes are good jokes, even the ones that aren't funny at all.


Curating the Bookshelves 2: When You Gotta Do It — 9 Comments

  1. Life shit just happens. We have no choice but to cope with it. You have a tough reason to get rid of stuff! But hopefully it’ll be freeing, knowing that the books are going to someone who will need them. (No, no! I do not wish I could be there to pore over your collection! I have to be good.)

  2. So much of our life story can be told by the books we keep. I’ve had to relive large portions of my brother’s life in disposing of his 5000+ books. But as I tell others why that oddball book is tucked behind favorite SF/F books, I get to hold a piece of his heart close to mine, and then I can let the book go to someone who will love it.

    There’s still another 1000 books to go and I’m running out of time. No more lingering and treasuring, just letting go. But I remember.

    • Books are so powerful at holding memories. The physical volume holds hundreds of them and the words contain thousands. Every volume you pick up, then, gives you back good things from his life. Every volume I give away shares good things from mine.

  3. We were forced to find a new home last September. Our landlady had dollar signs in her eyes; my roommate is retired, and I’m middle-class. Not a lot more money to get out of us. So she announced she wanted $500 more A MONTH. Right. No one has to hand me my hat and ask me “What’s your hurry?”

    But my roommate had lived in that lower of a 2-family building 42 years, most of her adult life. I had lived there with her for 28. We knew we could never afford more than a 2-bedroom apartment, and we were determined not to be at the mercy of a single landlord again.

    Then came the real problem. 21 cases of books. Upstairs and out on the porch. Plus four shelves in the basement full of my collection of early 20th century children’s books. I cried a little and then threw them out.

    Friends said, “Sell them!” To whom? While we were packing? You can’t even recycle hardbacks. We were able to sell a few of the paperback sf and children’s books.

    We agonized over them. I ripped through my research books — I’ve written fanfic since I was a teenager, and I had 40-odd years of eclectic ranges of history, crime scene analysis, regency, and the conglomeration of how-to-write books which I always swear I will never buy another of… they can’t teach me how to plot. Believe me, I greet each one with hope and am sadly disappointed.

    Then the dishes. Away went two sets. The silverware. Switch to mine and leave Devra’s for good. The glasses. The tchotckes — somewhere, a small group of 6 minature dolls went astray and I still mourn those.

    And now, when I can, I get my research books on the Nook.

    • That’s so difficult. I’m lucky I have the luxury of time. I wish we all lived just that bit closer and I could have taken those children’s books. I collected them until recently and will still find homes for ones that fit my collection.

      Books matter, but sometimes we have little choice.

    • I’m so sorry you were stampeded. 🙁

      It is a lesson to us all to make decisions now while we can. It’s why I am resisting acquiring anything until I know where I will end up. I already have things in storage I must sort and re-home or donate, and that involves a trip south to another state.