Some of my basement bookshelves, nicely alphabetized and rather dusty.

Some of my basement bookshelves, nicely alphabetized and rather dusty.

I spent part of this glorious, sunny, late-summer weekend underground—in my basement, trying to clean. It has been my stubborn mission for some time now to get rid of some of the junk that we store down there, in boxes and on shelves and piled on the floor. Small appliances, old coats, throw rugs—much has been hauled off to Goodwill, but its absence has not made any real difference.
That’s because the problem isn’t that kind of stuff; we don’t really have that much stuff. The problem is books. And yes, we do have that many books—all over the house, upstairs, downstairs, in the hall, in the bedroom, in the bathroom, on radiators, on tables, on the floor, and in eight tall, overflowing shelves in the basement.
If I could get rid of some of those basement shelves, just think of the space we’d have! We could have parties. We could exercise. We could rent out the main room, like the people who owned the house before us.
But getting rid of books is hard for me, and I faced the problem tentatively. Two weeks ago, I went through the old travel guides. Old as in ten and fifteen years old. I couldn't bring myself to get rid of guides to places we love (Montreal, Pittsburgh, Ireland, Paris) though I managed to get rid of the outdated guides to places we never quite made it to (Brussels, Madrid) and places we might not be going back to any time soon (Albuquerque). That emptied one shelf.
Sunday morning I got a little bolder: My back issues of Granta magazine went into paper sacks for donation. That freed up another shelf and a half. And then, inspired, I vowed I would not stop until I found at least one book from each shelf to give away.
I did not meet my goal; in an hour, I only made it through two more shelves. Somewhere along the line, winnowing turned into browsing, and I found myself filled with the joy of discovery, happening upon books that I didn't remember, or never read but always wanted to, or started and never finished, or read once but so long ago that it might be time to read them again.
I knew when I started what was in the basement, in a general sort of way--I know that my collection of Soviet history is down there, and all the books from my childhood, and fiction O-Z (fiction A-F is in the dining room, and G-N is in the front hallway), and lots of odd, unsorted stuff that is piled in stacks or shoved onto random shelves.
But when you own a lot of books, you forget exactly what you have, and so browsing your own shelves becomes much like browsing at the library, or in a well-edited bookstore--you come across all kinds of stuff you had never heard of (though you had heard of it at one time, of course, because you somehow acquired it) and stuff you really want to read.
And that was the result of my cleaning: Three books to give away, and a whole bunch that I wanted to read.
I brought two books upstairs, into the light, and added them to the tall stacks of to-read books that are in the dining room--stacks that I had hoped I would bring into the basement and put on the cleared-out shelves.
They probably don't really need to haunt me, all these books, and there is no real reason (I tell myself) to go through them and get rid of them. The chances of us renting out our basement or throwing a party down there any time soon are pretty slim.
Still, it is not a bad idea, I've found, to set aside an hour or two for weeding out the shelves. Even if you only end up moving something from purgatory in the cellar to a wait pile in the dining room, you've accomplished something--not the thing you set out to accomplish, but maybe something better. You've pulled a good book out of obscurity and given it another chance. And for that, all authors everywhere applaud.
(Note: If this sounds familiar, it's not that I've plagiarized myself, though I did adapt this from a post I wrote yesterday on my personal blog.)

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