The most important books I own are The Chronicles of Narnia that I bought with my allowance in the fifth grade. Each volume has been read dozens of times (The Horse and His Boy several dozen, at least). They are puffy with water damage from the bathtub and the beach. They’ve gone away to college with me, been packed and unpacked in several apartments, and gotten me through breakups.
When I looked at my shelves, I saw my life through titles, starting with Narnia, and ending in 2009, when I switched over to ebooks. For a while I religiously kept track of what I read on Goodreads, though now if I’m feeling nostalgic I just page through my Amazon orders list. My bookshelves were no longer a visual memory jogger of my past or a symbol of my identity as a reader and librarian – they were just a beautiful, heavy piece of installation art.
With a move from one apartment to another looming in the weeks ahead, I found myself dreading the thought of packing and unpacking those books, all 1,100ish of them, and was exhausted by the thought of it. I kept wishing I didn’t have to deal with them, sort the same way you feel about someone you’re dating right before you break up. When I moved three years ago, I got rid of every single CD and DVD I owned, without even bothering to burn them (with Netflix and Spotify, why bother)? I haven’t once regretted that decision.
So I made the emotionally painful decision to do the same with my books, which clearly had become more of a burden than a piece of who I am. I looked into charities around Boston, and found More Than Words, a nonprofit bookstore run by at-risk youth, including kids in the foster care system. (My sisters were adopted out of foster care, so I am very biased and try to support that system as much as I can.)
Before I began sorting, I set some guidelines. I allowed myself to keep my Marion Zimmer Bradley collection, which includes the complete Darkover series that I hunted down one by one, as well as her rare pulp novels written under pseudonyms. I kept one book from each “phase” of my life: elementary school (Lewis’ Narnia); middle school (Danziger’s The Cat Ate My Gymsuit); high school (Salinger’s Nine Stories); college (The Riverside Chaucer); grad school (Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses); and living in NYC (Belle’s Little Stalker).
I also kept a few books that remind me of great loves, and a few books that are just great. There are a few signed editions, though I’m not sure if I’ll keep these or sell them. Finally, I kept a half dozen or so that I want to read, enough so that I will even though they are in print and so heavy.
In total, this left me with about 125 books to my name, about 1/10 of the original number. I gave away half of my shelves, and filled much of the rest with plants.
While I was doing the packing and sorting, I felt liberated, cathartic. It was like instantaneously losing weight and exfoliating; it was while the boxes were going into the More Than Words truck that I broke down, getting choked up and almost ordering them to bring the boxes back. But I swallowed my emotions and said goodbye, thinking of all the good those books would do in their new home.
I don’t miss the books like I thought I would, not as a scrapbook of my life. I miss them as symbol of me as a reader. I just remind myself that I am – and always will be – a reader, whether or not anyone else knows it and whether or not I have an object to prove it.
Before and After.
Dawn Bovasso is a creative director in Boston and one of the most awesome (and smartest!) people I know. Thank you for sharing, Dawn!