Today, we welcome Lynn Sloan, author of the recently released This Far Isn't Far Enough, to the blog as she shares her recent experience with doing just such a thing:
The Wisdom and the Folly of Downsizing a Library
“So these’ll be gone, right?” George, the house painter, nods at the long wall in my bedroom of floor-to-ceiling shelves loaded with books.
Like all avid readers and most writers, I have books in many rooms—cookbooks, in the kitchen, obviously; local history and poetry in the living room, less obviously; in my office, predictably, dictionaries, style guides, books I turn to for inspiration; in my workroom, reference books, books I mean to read, and books I’ll never read but can’t give away because of the giver; in the den, art, more art, photography, travel, history, essays, film studies; and so on.
The books that really matter to me are in my bedroom. George, sizing up the job ahead, and I look at them, me with affection, George with a baffled, who-needs-books expression.
I am a fiction writer. Most of the novels and short story collections that I’ve read in the last twenty-five years are here, in my most private, intimate space. No book goes on these shelves unless I read it to the end. Non-fiction I’ll read on my digital devices, but books of fiction I want to hold in my hand as objects; I want to turn their paper pages; I want to write in the margins. When I became a fiction writer, I gave up borrowing novels and story collections from the library and started buying them as a way to support living authors and the legacy of the dead, so this twenty-foot-long wall of books has become a three dimensional record of my history as a reader of fiction. Arranged in alphabetical order by author, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winners alongside out-of-print, mid-twentieth century British Penguins, hardbound books written by my personal favorites, cherished volumes from friends, soft with many readings, peeling pulp paperbacks with lurid covers bought secondhand. Books stacked in front of other books, groaning shelves, a twenty-foot long wall, my most personal library.
I assure George, the painter, that I will deal with the books before his crew arrives.
The painters were due. It was time to box up my books.
I’ve done this before. I’ve boxed and moved books from college to my first apartment, which is why I still have my musty copy of English Poetry and Prose of the Romantic Movement, to my next apartment, and the next, to one fixer-upper house after another, to my current beloved cottage. Books have made the journey with me. My bedroom wall of books is personal.
These are the books that have entertained me, challenged and taught me, and sustained me. But I have too many books. The shelves are double-stacked. I don’t even know what’s behind the visible rows of books.
I drag out boxes, dusting rags, and the stepladder. Amis, Kingsley and Martin, Atkinson, Atwood, Austin—my eyes drift over the faded spines, past Richard Yates, and two bottom rows of Best American anthologies. Many of these familiar friends I haven’t opened in years. Do I need them any more? Which of them will I ever read again? I have so many books that I sometimes hesitate to buy new books, and so many good books are published all the time.
I decide to keep only those books I truly expect to read again. Most of Kingsley Amis I save, none of Martin Amis. I keep Atkinson’s Life after Life and God in Ruins, set aside her Brodie mysteries for a mystery-loving friend, the others go in a stack for the public library’s sale. I move through the As and on to the Bs. Each decision is tough. Baxter, Berlin, keep, most of Brookner, to the library. I persist. Each book that I have loved tests my resolve, but if I figure I’m not going to read it again, out it goes onto the library pile. Soon the library pile becomes several piles. I am ruthless. My book-loving husband walks in and is shaken.
“Are you sure?”
Such a question is no help. If I weaken, I’m doomed. Ahead I envision a beckoning openness, not dusty yellowing volumes from the past, but a spacious and blooming future.
I have three hundred hardbound books and eighty-three paperbound books to give away. I am exhausted, and I am content.
The painters do their work. We move back in the bed, the bedside tables, the lamps, the reading chair, but the shelves remain empty. I want them to dry thoroughly before I bring in the books.
On a sunny day, I carry in the boxes and begin. I’m glad to see my old friends. Each volume seems fresh and new. Some authors’ works I place sideways so the titles can be read easily. Here and there I leave space for new acquisitions. When I step back to review the result, it looks as if an interior decorator has been at work, arranging the books just so, in other words, my wall of carefully chosen books does not look like my library. What I have left is a skeleton, the remains of a formerly living organism. I try not to be disappointed. I try not to obsess over the Veronica Gengs and the Malcolm Muggeridges, the Tom Rachman, the Téa Obreht, the four hundred books I gave away. I want them all back.
I avoid looking at that wall in my bedroom for weeks, until one day I need to look up a passage in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Guided by my old penciled notes, I find what I’m looking for. Delighted that I’d saved this book, happy that the process of finding what I wanted was so easy, I pull down nearby books. They are full of notes I’d written in the margins; inside the back cover are thoughts I’d had and connections I’d made between passages. I discover bookmarks from now-closed bookstores. I remember buying each of these books, some in distance towns, and most near home. Each book tells not just the author’s tale, but my mine too.
Opposite the passage I’d gone looking for in Interpreter of Maladies, I found, “It was only then . . . that I knew what it meant to miss someone . . .”
I miss the books I gave away. I’m happy to have lots of free space on my shelves to fill with new books and new experiences, but I miss what I no longer have. It will be years before I have to face downsizing again.
Lynn Sloan is a writer and photographer. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Shenandoah, and American Literary Review, among other publications, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is the author of the novel Principles of Navigation (2015 Fomite), which was a Chicago Book Review Best Book in 2015, and the newly released short story collection, This Far Isn't Far Enough (Fomite, 2018). Her fine art photographs have been exhibited nationally and internationally. For many years she taught photography at Columbia College Chicago, where she founded the journal Occasional Readings in Photography, and contributed to Afterimage, Art Week, and Exposure. She lives in Evanston, Illinois with her husband. Learn more at http://www.lynnsloan.com/