Saturday, January 5, 2013

A new chapter

There are books I've read two or three times, books with dog-eared pages and passages underlined in pencil, books I've read but have forgotten completely, books I've tried to read but put down after a few pages, books I've never even cracked open, books that belonged to my dad in which his name is written in a young man's wobbly script, college textbooks with yellow "used" stickers still on the spines; there are hardcovers, paperbacks, uncorrected proofs, poetry, plays, essays, memoirs, diaries and a handful of comic books, but mostly novels. Over the years their placement on my bookshelves has been dictated by alphabet, by genre and, most recently, by color.

I never counted them, but there were always enough to overcrowd my bookshelves and spill over into dozens of boxes stowed in closets, storage units and my parents' garage.

I've loved books since I was very small, when one of the greatest thrills in life was receiving a new volume of "The Sesame Street Library" in the mail. My parents often speak fondly of my ability, when very young, to sit quietly and contentedly with my books for extended periods of time. I started reading early and was always in the most advanced reading group in school. Among my favorites as a young reader were the Little House on the Prairie novels, Noel Streatfeild's "Shoes" series, anything by Beverly Cleary, and The Secret Garden. As a preteen I devoured the "Sweet Valley High" books (I identified, of course, with the bookish, journalist-in-training Elizabeth), along with anything by R.L. Stine, Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark. It wasn't a terribly highbrow phase.

While most of my childhood books are still taking up valuable real estate in my parents' garage, my grownup collection has followed me throughout my adult life, from college dorms to off-campus housing, back to my parents' house after graduation, and then on to the nine different places I've lived since then, including a five-story walk-up on the Upper East Side and two return stints at my parents' house -- one post-break-up/pre-graduate school, and one post-divorce.

As much of a pain in the ass as it was lugging them around from apartment to apartment, I never considered getting rid of them. It would have been like deciding not to bring my clothes with me. And when e-readers first appeared on the scene I experienced the sort of revulsion that only a true book snob can feel. Because surely, one of the great pleasures of reading is the tactile experience of the book itself -- turning the pages, bringing it in for the occasional sniff, flipping to the back jacket to inspect the author photo, dog-earing a page with a particularly amazing sentence (as much as I adore books I've never handled them delicately), and, if it's an especially wonderful book, anxiously eyeing the ever dwindling number of pages left until the end.

In college, I had a major crush on this rhetoric professor of mine. And one day, when he rhapsodized about the joy of carrying his books in his arms rather than in his bag, because he loved the feel of their weight in his arms, my crush turned into cultish devotion.

I was proud of my bookshelves and, if I'm to be completely honest, I was more than a little vain about the message those overstuffed shelves sent about me. People who visited would often remark, "Wow, have you read all of these?" To which I would humbly reply, "Well, most of them." Conversely, perusing someone else's bookshelves is a very expedient way of determining what sort of person you're dealing with.  

And yet, I suppose it was inevitable that eventually even I would crumble in the face of technology. Maybe it was this last move that finally pushed me over the edge. Maybe it's the fact that our baby's stuff is quickly taking over the house, and my OCD can't handle that much clutter. And since we can't get rid of the baby, the books had to go. Or maybe it was trying to hold onto the subway pole with one hand while balancing Justin Cronin's XXX-page "The Twelve" -- in hardcover -- in the other, not to mention hauling it around in a shoulder bag already stuffed with crap to begin with.

In any case, I got a Nook. Or rather, my husband got it for me for Christmas. I asked for the most basic model; I didn't want something that could distract me with the lure of Facebook or movies or e-mail or anything else. I wanted it to be as book-like as possible, in that its sole purpose was for reading.

To be fair, there are plenty of advantages to going the electronic route. I mean, I'm sure the trees are heaving a sigh of relief, right? And then there's the issue of cutting down on clutter. It's also cheaper to buy electronic books, and you can even rent certain books from the library for free. Not to mention the fact that you can get books pretty much instantaneously -- no waiting for them to come from Amazon or making the time to get to the bookstore (which sounds kind of pathetic, but with my schedule it's harder than you'd think).

In preparation for my great leap into the 21st century, I decided to dramatically cull my book collection. I gave myself the following parameters: Keep only those books that are life-changingly meaningful to me, and only enough to fit on one bookcase. All of the books that were in good shape would be donated; in that way I consoled myself with the thought that I would be paying it forward. After all, isn't it kind of selfish to hold onto a great book? Why not release it back into the world so others can enjoy it? Anything in less than presentable shape would go into the recycling bin.

Once again, the timing of Hurricane ("Superstorm") Sandy proved fortuitous. Housebound and freshly moved in, all of my books were still in their boxes. So I dragged them all into the living room and started sorting. Here's a very incomplete and haphazard log of the process:

"Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace: Kept. 
So yes, this is one of the aforementioned books that I started and didn't finish, but I swear I'm going to give it another shot and get through it. One of these days. Plus, I can't get rid of anything by DFW. I just can't.

"If I Told You Once" by Judy Budnitz: Donated.
I don't remember anything about this book, but it had a very sweet inscription from one of the great loves of my life. But I froze my heart and put it in the donation pile.

"Remembrance of Things Past, Vol. 1" by Marcel Proust: Donated.
OK, truth: I never read a single word of this but I hung onto this book for like 15 years, mainly for prestige value. I'm not proud.

"The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger: Donated.
I LOVED this book. I read it three times and cried every single time. But seriously, there are lots of books to be read. And no disrespect to Ms. Niffenegger, but it's time to move on.

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