I Reflect My Shelves; My Shelves Reflect Me

I love getting rid of books.

In more than one of my jobs as a librarian, I earned a certain reputation for gleefully weeding books from shelves. I’d pull hundreds of them, relegating them to the piles that would end up at the used book sale or in the recycling pile. Where many cringe at the thought of this, I found a lot of comfort and pleasure in pulling books from the shelves that hadn’t moved in two years, three years, ten years; it made space for the books that might otherwise be overlooked. It creates room for discovery. Since public libraries are not repositories for every book ever but instead exist to hold a collection that reflects the intellectual curiosity, research needs, and entertainment desires of a given community, it’s important to pull those books that aren’t moving. Having a European history collection that ends at the start of the Cold War does little good, for example, to the general public. It’s in creating those clearings public libraries stay relevant to their citizens.

This idea is one that’s crept into my personal book shelves, as well. At first, the idea of getting rid of books because they hadn’t been picked up or thought about for a few years seemed silly. I always told myself that maybe I’d get to that book some day.

But some day turns into five years, and in five years, I am a wholly different person than I was before. My shelves may no longer reflect the person I am, but rather, reflect the person I was or the person who I’d hoped to one day be.

I want my bookshelves to always reflect the person I am.

Confession: I, like many other white women I knew in their early 20s, went through an Ayn Rand phase. For me, I think it had far less to do with the notions of objectivism and more to do with the fact I prided myself in reading her damn long boring as hell books. I collected all of her titles, all in a similar style and format, and they lined my shelves from the time I picked them up until a few years ago when I decided to make a major book purge. I paused for a moment as my hands traced the spines of them, recalling the person who I was when I got them. Do I keep one or two for sentimental reasons?

Thinking about who I was then, in that moment, as I thought about the books, I swept them all into the donate pile. Rand wasn’t for me; I wasn’t for Rand. If I found myself so compelled to read her again, I’d hike to the library and pick a copy up there.

Over the last year or so, I’ve done fewer large purges of books. Instead, I’ve culled as I’ve gone along, thinking through my decisions of what I keep and make room for based on who I am in the very moment I’m making that choice. This is the same method I used in the library. After you complete one big purge, it’s easy to then take a little time here or there to pull out the pieces that no longer suit.

There are, of course, a few sentimental titles I hold on to and will always hold on to, but I keep them in one small stack in one small corner of one small shelf. They are at times concealed behind another, more prominent, collection of titles, rendering their property on my shelf truly sacred. Private. A depth within me.

Many readers, including many here, are using the Kondo method of asking “does it spark joy” as a measure of keeping a book or not. But that’s a fundamentally different question than “does it reflect me?” Books that reflect me don’t always spark joy in my life; I have hard, tough, challenging titles in my collection because they don’t spark joy. But they absolutely reflect me as I am. Maybe it’s also that part of me doesn’t buy into the idea I need joy to be the spark.

My cookbooks line the half wall separating my kitchen from the basement staircase. Looking at them like that absolutely sparks joy for me. They look nice! They make my kitchen feel like a home! They remind me I can cook! These are all important, joy-sparking revelations, especially for a girl who never thought she’d have a space in her life for a cookbook collection, let alone a woman who has grown to enjoy cooking and experimenting with food outside her comfort zone.

But when I zoom in closer at the shelf, so few of those cookbooks actually reflect me. This cookbook is about making meals under 300 calories using all kinds of fake/processed ingredients; this cookbook is about cooking with meat; this cookbook is about making all kinds of fancy French food. I am a clean eating, mostly-vegetarian woman whose patience for standing on her feet to cook for long periods of time on the daily does not manifest in delightful French food. Why should I keep them? Out they go.

I’ve a half shelf packed with poetry collections, many picked up during my last year in college when I’d intended a life of writing a poetry collection, going to an MFA program, and living the rich life of a poet (I guess my Rand phase a couple years later maybe fits here? Who knows.).  When that went south, I kept those books, carrying them with me through two cross-country moves, despite never cracking the spine open on a single one in the interim. Since they no longer reflect me as I am, it’s time for them to ship off to a new home, and for me to fill their empty space on my shelf with feminist essays, with cultural critiques, and with YA novels that I love and adore. These books and stories are part of the person I am now.

If the time comes in a few years where I’m no longer passionate about the things I love right now, I’ll clear those shelves and make room for the person I might be then.

Shelves that reflect me are the very thing that help me learn about who I am in the present. They push me to my edges and make me consider my space as it is now, rather than what I might become in five years maybe when I read this book I’ve not read and has taken up this space for years. Is this extreme? Sure. But it’s no more extreme than Kondoing, and it’s no more extreme than keeping the old parts of me hanging around for good measure. As I acquire more books that catch my interest, I get to watch as my own sense of self is reflected back at me on my shelves.

I’ve learned from those chapters of my life. Clearing the space lets me see just how much more growing and discovering I can do.

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