If You Liked It You Should’ve Put a Bookplate In It

About a week ago, I was gifted a very adorable package of owl themed bookplates by someone who knows that I am “into books” but not sure which books I am into (spoiler alert: pretty much all of them). I appreciate this person’s sincere effort to give me something that I’d like, and I respect her intimidation at buying me a book when I have, literally, hundreds of books already. Besides, when given a choice between buying more books and buying cute bookish sidelines, I predictably go with “more books!” so this gift was actually quite exciting.

So naturally I went right home, got out my extra-nice pen, stood before my wall of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and psyched myself up to get down to business. The idea of placing adorable, territorial bookplates inside my beauties brought out more inane excitement in me than alphabetizing usually does. I started with the obvious and immediately pulled my Melina Marchetta and Tana French collections off the shelf. The bookplates in my little package varied in size and color, so I chose the larger ones to go into my hardcovers, and the smaller ones to go in the paperbacks. I wrote my first and last name on each little sticker, delighting in the vain little swoop I add to my T’s, and the ridiculously wide loop of the P. Tirzah Price Tirzah Price Tirzah Price, times eleven. Then I carefully stuck each label into a book. Mine forever. Oh, the power!

But once I got the initial excitement out of my system, cold hard reality set in. I had a package of 80 bookplates. I possess…significantly more books. The reality is probably ten times the number of bookplates in my hand. Okay, more than ten times. That isn’t important. The point is, decisions would have to be made.

Immediately, I began second-guessing myself. Putting a bookplate inside a book is serious business. It’s a public declaration of your love. It’s a possessive symbol that says, Not only do I love this book enough to own it, I love it enough to label it mine. This could be useful for when friends asked to borrow my most precious books (it takes a really cold-hearted person to keep a book that is not theirs when the bookplate inside claims otherwise), but did that automatically mean that every book in my collection deserved a bookplate? My collection is vast, yes, but it’s also fluid. It consists of sentimental childhood favorites, recent favorites, big buzz books that I enjoyed but perhaps didn’t love, books written by friends, ARCs procured through various professional pursuits, books purchased out of impatience for long library holds, books purchased on impulse, books purchased out of love and desire to support certain people, and, I am hesitant to admit, books purchased out of private grudging obligation. It also consists, I must confess, of books that I see as flings: I’m happy to have purchased and read them, and they were fun while they lasted, but a few months or years down the road, I’d wince good-naturedly to remember our dalliance as I cull my shelves for the annual library book sale. Did I really want to put a cute little owl-themed bookplate in a book like that? No, I did not.

So I began looking at books that had been on the shelf for a long time. I put bookplates in my copies of Jaclyn Moriarty’s novels–books I’d owned since I was a teen–but I couldn’t commit to doing the same to my teenage copy of Looking for Alaska. I proudly put bookplates in my new-ish copies of Rebecca and I Capture the Castle, but felt a pang of longing for the library copies that were my first encounter with the novels. I contemplated putting the tiniest bookplates into my copies of Harry Potter and the Song the of the Lioness Quartet, but the sight of my self-conscious sixth-grade handwriting (in pink pen, no less!) stayed my bookplate placing hand.

At some point, I found myself picking up books, flipping through them, and going deep within myself to ask, Do I feel strongly enough about this book to put a bookplate in it? But this just led to more questions! If I don’t feel strongly enough to bookplate it, should I just donate it? Do I really love this book? Why am I giving it a place on my shelf? Maybe I should just pull everything off my shelves and sort it in piles: to donate, and to bookplate. With growing horror, I realized that I had inadvertently tricked myself into Marie Kondo-ing my book collection. Oh, no. Marie can tell me how to organize my closet, but that lady needs to stay the hell away from my books.

I set my pen down. I took in my wall of books, packed in and stacked every which way and all mine, at least for the moment. I gently reminded myself that I had another couple hundred books in the other room, most of them unread. Eventually, they’ll trickle over and find a place on this wall. Books are shuffled, perspectives shift, and moods vary. But the nice thing about books?

They’ll always wait for you.

And then I decided to save the rest of my bookplates for another day.

Samantha Irby and Robin Sloan talk about their favorite books in our newest podcast, Recommended. Download it for free from Apple Podcasts or Google Play.
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