Lost in the Reads



You get rid of … your books?” one of my younger friends asked.

She looked aghast—as if I’d just announced that I ate my young or drove a Hummer.

“I would never, ever give away a book,” she announced. “I keep every one of them.”

Well, that’s because you’re young, I told her. Check back with me in 25 years—assuming I’m not dead. Then you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

What I was talking about, precisely, was a lifetime of reading and hoarding books. Come into our house and you see them everywhere. They bulge out of the living room bookcases we had built 12 years ago when we moved in. They crowd the row of small bookcases in our entry hall. They line shelves in my office and in my husband’s office. They populate the floor-to-ceiling bookcases in our bedroom. They spill onto the floor on either side of our bed. It wasn’t always like this, of course. It used to be easy for the books and us to coexist. We were young, we were students, we were just starting out. If we needed more space for books, we swiped another wooden crate from behind a grocery store. What was a little petty theft when it came to furnishing our apartment with great and not-so-great literature?

illustration by Alex Eben MeyerDecades later, though, they’re crowding us out. Since we’re leaving for a sabbatical in August and leasing out our house, we have to buck up and thin the shelves. It’s time to get tough.

How did we lose control, anyway? I wonder, eyeing our book-surge room by room, what happened? I begin to suspect our books breed behind our backs. They’re as prolific as Octomom.

Huh. Erica Jong, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence—well, what did we expect? Nobody ever accused that crowd of being abstemious. But given the vast population swell, I start to wonder whether even alleged innocents like the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen aren’t misbehaving as well. These licentious days, they probably don’t even close their eyes and think of England. What a bunch of tramps.

“We’ve got to handle this,” I tell my husband.

So, as we’ve done every few years in the past, we begin to weed through our books. We save the ones we have loved and will read again. We spare the ones we’ve written ourselves and the volumes published by friends. We hang onto books that were meaningful at certain points in our lives. They’re part of our history.

But the rest—well, we try to stiffen our spines. Some I’ll give to friends, but most will go to charity.

After decades of periodic winnowing, I’ve finally learned my lesson about taking spare books to the stores that buy them back. I can’t count the number of times I’ve schlepped piles of perfectly good books, waited while my sales were added up, and browsed with growing enthusiasm, finding more and more books I haven’t read yet—but need to buy immediately. By the time my name is called and I’m awarded my pittance, I’ve almost always acquired at least as many books as I’ve sold. I carry them home like trophies, all the while understanding there’s something seriously amiss with this picture.

And sure, we could always go to the library instead of buying books. But I love owning them, reading them—or not reading them—on my own erratic schedule. Every time we go through our annual expenses for tax purposes, I’m well aware of how much I spend for this pleasure. It’s an expensive habit—but tax-deductible for writers.

As the world goes paperless, I’m sure that one of these days we’ll buy a Kindle. They’re perfect for people like me who live in abject fear of turning up somewhere—anywhere—without something to read. People like me who have been reduced to reading the ingredient lists on cereal cartons.

But that’s the future. Now, we need to pare down our books in order to lease our house. I announce to my husband that we definitely cannot add one more book to our collection. If we get a new one, we have to give away an old one. He nods, almost listening.

Later that week I find myself at a bookstore. It’s an accident, I swear. I find myself lurching from section to section, finding this novel and that one, clutching them in my fevered little fists, then carting them to the checkout counter. Later, I shamelessly smuggle them into the house when my husband isn’t around to notice. Like Jane Austen, like the Bronte sisters, I am sneaking around. I feel dirty, but secretly thrilled.

“Do you think you can clear some room on your bookshelves?” the brother of our prospective tenant asks us. “My sister and her husband have a lot of books, too.”

“You won’t believe it,” I tell him, following his eyes to the profusion, “but we’re already given away a lot of our books. A third of them, maybe.”

He nods and watches me expectantly. “I’ll see if we can clear some more space,” I say.

It figures. Oh, it figures. Two shameless book-buyers, book-hoarders, book-lovers, people who feel safe and happy surrounded by books, are leasing their house and their shelf space to people just like themselves. I shudder to think about it. I can only imagine how the shelves will sag when we get back, a significant nine months later.

Commentator and author Ruth Pennebaker lives in Austin and blogs at www.geezersisters.com.