We had once again run out of room, and this time I figured I’d start with the paperbacks. They’re inexpensive, the pages are brittle, the print is too small for me to comfortably read. They would be easy to cull.
My plan was to sweep them off the shelves into grocery sacks and then drive around the neighborhood seeding Little Free Libraries, but instead I opened one, and there went my resolve.
How can I get rid of Ilf & Petrov’s “The Little Golden Calf”? I had read it right after my trip to the Soviet Union in 1986, which means it has been on my shelf, untouched, for, oh, 28 years. But still — what a funny book. I set it aside.
How can I get rid of Anne Tyler’s novels? Yes, I also own most of them in hardcover, but it’s always good to have backup. I set those aside, too. Ditto Louise Erdrich, E.L. Doctorow, Tim O’Brien, Margaret Atwood.
“The Stories of John Cheever” — red cover falling off, spine broken — had a Post-it note slapped on the front scrawled with the titles of three stories, in my handwriting. Why? For a class? What class? When? Those stories must be important. I’d better reread them.
And “Winesburg, Ohio”: On the flyleaf, in black ink, my father’s name.
Book by book, I riffled the pages and shook out bookmarks and receipts from long-gone bookstores: Gringolet, Hungry Mind, Odegard's. Forgotten photographs, grocery lists, yellowed newspaper clippings, folded letters. And every now and then, on a flyleaf, my father’s sharp, inked signature. The dust made me sneeze. The ephemera made me remember.
I have friends who read books, enjoy them and get rid of them. Once read, the book is in their heart and mind and no longer needs to be on the shelf.
And then there’s the rest of us, book hoarders.
Our books are our diaries, tangible markers of different stages of our lives: chapter books, college texts, books we were given, books we reread, books we vow we will someday read. I have affection for every one of them — the history, the provenance, the sentiment, the physical thing itself. The words of the book are important, but so are the soft, worn pages, the comfortably warped covers, the musty smell of dry paper, the illustrations, the heft.
I can’t just blindly stuff them into sacks; I need to examine them, think about them and then decide.
It took me all afternoon, but in the end, about two-thirds of the paperbacks went. I filled two dozen sacks for the Little Free Libraries and Goodwill, wiped down the shelves, started on the hardcovers. Now, weeks later, the bookcases have room again, the dust is gone. I vow to bring no more books home. But I know that in another six months, or a year, I’ll be faced with this task again. I’ll go into it feeling strong and ruthless and come out of it feeling virtuous and bereft. In between, there will be long afternoons of sneezing and remembering.
Paperbacks, hardbacks, my father’s books, all.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor/books. On Twitter: @StribBooks