“There is no such thing as too many books, just not enough bookshelves,” read a recent post on Facebook. At the time, I was in the midst of weeding through my books in order to donate to an annual book drive. But this year was different–this was a SERIOUS weeding, sparked at first by something truly mundane: not enough bookshelf space.
I read recently that as a culture, we have many rituals for bringing things into our homes (housewarmings, weddings, birthdays) and almost none for removing them (“spring cleaning” which I swear was done only by my mother, and for me, the aforementioned annual book sale.) No small wonder then, that in a house filled with bookshelves: built-ins and all manner of free standing-types, including those stackable ones from Barnes and Noble of many years ago, there would come a time when the weeding had to become industrial strength.
There was and is something else going on at the same time. My life as an academic has changed due to early retirement. No longer teaching a full-time courseload, no longer looking to write those mammoth law review articles. Looking for more time to read fiction, and to write other sorts of things. New, less serious curtains for my home office.
I look at these veritable walls, and walls, of books and realize that they represent a past that is further receding. The first bookcase devoted to teaching, filled with books and notes from teaching conferences, I am astonished to learn, from 15 or more years ago. Some books out of date, crowding up against more recent and relevant; the 3-ring binders seem like ancient artifacts regardless of their content. I used to spend my career trying to revolutionize law teaching. I just resigned the position that was my best contribution to that revolution. No longer much need for the contents of this particular bookshelf, then.
The same is true with the next lot. Feminist jurisprudence interspersed with feminist theory of decades, including decades ago. I will never teach that course again. I am grateful and wistful about these books. Did they change the world, all of this theorizing? I think so, but for some, their time has come and gone. I actually bought some of these books when they were new and exciting. Now many of their authors have died and become historical footnotes.
The next bunch are of recent vintage. My collection of books about reproductive technologies, The ratio of new to old here is definitely on the side of the new. Once again, however, it is unlikely that I will teach this course again and I begin to weed, but ever so judiciously. I find a few videos I used to use in class and realize that not only do few students even know what a videotape cartridge is, there is no machinery left on which to play one.
On to the fiction, biographies, other stuff. Recent paperback mysteries, and even the hardbacks. go more easily into the give-away box. But I keep coming across books that friends have given me over the years, some with inscriptions, one or two (and I shudder to admit this) with friends’ names in them, as if I borrowed and did not return. A book bearing the name of a friend with whom I have lost contact; another of an old lover, who is now dead. We used to share a bookshelf, I say, and a life. And we no longer share either.
I am now becoming entirely ambivalent about many of the books. I love them, passionately as only a book lover can. They represent my life of many past decades, personal and professional. Practicality keeps arguing for the needed space and the truism that I will probably never re-read many of these books. But there is more than practicality here. I am housecleaning my life more than the bookshelves (not the housekeeping that my mother hoped I would grow into, but never mind). Keeping some,still too many, treasured memories but as one says, I am moving on. Packing boxes that will go elsewhere. Making room for something new. Weeding, vigorously.