Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On the Purging of Books

Last week I did a little book purge. If you're a book lover, you've probably done this. This weird thought process: "Why did I keep that again? Oh, right, because I thought referring to a bunch of first-in-series mystery novels would hep me finish my own. But this was crap. Don't care if she's famous now, I yawned all the way through it. Chuck ...

"I'm never going to read these again. But I need to keep them because when the kids turn into ravaging book hordes they'll be curious to read everything. Even the lesser novels of Isabel Allende and Michael Ondaatje (even great writers turn out mediocre books sometimes). When you're into a writer, you don't care. But then ... do I really need to keep Wyoming Stories 2? It was awful. Why have bad Annie Proulx around when I don't even own a copy of The Shipping News? Why don't I own a copy? ...

"These are disposable. But when guests want to down a thriller in bed, it's nice to have something to feed them. And they can take them away (though they rarely do). And if one of the kids is into thrillers I'd rather keep the paperbacks than try to remember the names Daniel Silva and Robert Ludlum. ...

"I can't get rid of that. The author's a friend. And not that one. It's out of print and good for reference. And those were gifts. So depressing when you get a used book that someone wrote a loving note in. Reminds me of that awful Paul Theroux memoir, and the bit at the end about finding all the books he'd gifted to his friend V.S. Naipaul, with personal notes written inside, for sale online. At least I didn't keep that book, though I did keep the Naipaul."

And on and on. If a book doesn't come alive for me, why should I keep it on my shelves? Why should I finish reading it in the first place? If you don't like a book so much the first time around, why keep it for years just in case? That's what libraries are for.

Last weekend my husband gave me time for a nap and brought me a cup of tea (husbands like Ian = good). I, of course, need a book to doze off the way that some people need a sleeping pill. I wasn't in the mood for either of the current books I'm reading -- Wait for Me, an autobiography by the Duchess of Devonshire, and Pioneer Women, letters and journals of women settling the Kansas frontier, by Joanna Stratton -- but I took one look at the pile of to-be-read books and they just made me feel more tired.

Last year, in the space of about 8 months, I read at least 6 really crappy or just mediocre novels and memoirs. I wasn't ready to take the risk again, of wasting the time and energy to figure out if a book was worth reading, and resenting the author of a crappy or mediocre book for stealing my precious free reading time.

Out came The Hobbit.

Talk about comfort food. My older sister gave me The Hobbit to read when I was 8 years old, followed by The Lord of the Rings. I read them all at least once a year for over 20 years but have been neglecting them recently. There was a time when I'd get partway through The Return of the King and start crying because I'd forgotten how large the appendices were and there was less of the story left to live through than I'd thought.

The book purge was prompted by my reading through all 4 of those Tolkien books last week. I took a look at our well-filled bookshelves and wondered just how many of those books I would ever read again, or read with as much pleasure. Why keep any books that I know I won't read over and over? There aren't many authors who fit that bill: Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.D. Salinger, L.M. Montgomery. Dodie Smith, Kathy Tyers, Anthony Trollope, J.K. Rowling. C.S. Lewis, Norton Juster, Dorothy Sayers, Wilkie Collins. Colin Thubron, Jan Morris, Margaret Atwood, Susan Cooper, Fyodr Dostoevsky. Some others.

The first book I ever got rid of was The Great Gatsby. I hated that book, partly because I'd moved schools several times and had had to study it 4 years in a row (#1 way to kill a kid's interest in a story: force them to study it rather than just read it). But also I just don't think it's very good. Or maybe it just doesn't speak to me. Not a big Fitzgerald fan.

Books look pretty. Well-stocked bookshelves make for a cozy room, and for book-lovers impart an odd sense of security. Maybe there will always be a struggle, wondering what we should keep and what to give away. Book are old friends, even the lesser novels of well-loved authors, even the ones we might have grown out of. But I think what it comes down to is that the ones worth keeping are the ones that inspire us, one way or another. Anne of Green Gables might not suck me in the same way it did in my early teens, but I still enjoy reading it. And I might no reread Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia again anytime soon, but I was engrossed in it and marked it up and dip into it now and then when I'm curious about something.

Our books are like an encyclopedia of the kind of reader we are, and how that reader has evolved. For me, they also represent the kind of writer I'd like to be. Most of the books that I keep out of love are the ones that people continue to read a hundred or two hundred years, or more, after they're published, not because they're forced to, but because the story comes alive no matter how old it is.

Which is why I finally gave away Wyoming Stories 2 and bought a copy of The Shipping News. Good writers can write crappy books, but they can also write great ones that last for generations.