This is a guest post from Kathleen Keenan. Kathleen is an editor and writer in Toronto. She writes a monthly newsletter for the indie bookstore A Novel Spot and occasionally blogs about what she’s reading at shelfcontrol.wordpress.com. She has an MA in English with a focus on Victorian fiction, and there is nothing she loves more than a very long Victorian novel. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenMKeenan.
It’s almost spring—or we’ve had enough mild, sunny winter days to trick me into thinking it’s almost spring—and so I feel the urge to get rid of things. Clothes I never wear, knickknacks I don’t need, and books. I hate getting rid of books because it feels like giving away my friends. But I don’t want to be crushed to death by piles of unread, unshelved books, and I live in a small apartment. So what else is a book lover to do?
Following Marie Kondo’s advice in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (a book I gave away last year), I pick up each book in my apartment one at a time, starting with the out-of-control nightstand pile. There’s that book about Annapurna my dad lent me during my “reading about mountaineering” phase—two years ago. That can go back to him. There’s Moby-Dick, which was supposed to be my “huge classic novel” read of 2016. I’m still not done, so it stays. At the bottom, I find an unread library book, the latest in a young adult series of 800+ page novels. It’s a relief to stack the book near my front door and give myself permission to give up.
Next, the shelf of reference books next to my bed. Why do I have so many grammar books? Even for an editor, eight grammar guides is probably too many. Goodbye to Origins of the Specious and The Transitive Vampire. I keep only my bibles: the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Chicago, and The Subversive Copy Editor. Yes, I still use a physical dictionary.
On my main bookshelf, unread books I bought during previous reading phases sit next to well-loved classics by Jane Austen and the Brontes. Reading phases are real, and they are dangerous. How else to explain why I have three books about the origin of language? (I keep one.) Or four about Shakespeare’s “real” identity? (I keep none because I want to believe he was just a man named Will Shakespeare who happened to be a genius.) Five books about spinsters in popular culture. (I keep them all—I’m not ready to let that obsession go just yet.) Two books about the cultural phenomenon of Nancy Drew. (Ditto.)
Some books I’ve kept around for ten or fifteen years because they were important to me in high school: Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye, a lot of YA novels, a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s stories. Some things I keep, but Charles Bukowski goes in the donate bag. I think I’m ready to let him go off and befriend some other cynical teenager.
This time, I’ve been more ruthless about saying goodbye to certain books. My bags are full of Dickens novels I know I won’t read (I’ve kept the ones I love), and 18th-century novels I read once in university and kept for eight years, and books I bought when I worked in bookstores but still haven’t read. I liked having those books around, the possibilities of all those different worlds between their covers, so much so that many of them travelled with me from Montreal to Toronto to Victoria and back to Toronto. Now, it feels like they’re weighing me down. Isn’t it enough that I love and keep Bleak House and sometimes look fondly over at it while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil? I still have all my Norton anthologies and my copy of Beowulf in Old English, and those will have to do for this former English major.
My bookshelf has space now, enough space to shelve most of the books from the piles all over my apartment. My nightstand only has four books on it: Moby-Dick, Hillbilly Elegy, the first Judy Bolton book, and Joseph Boyden’s Wenjack. I’ve never read Boyden before, and now I don’t know if I ever will. But I’ll keep Wenjack for now.
I move all of my children’s and YA books to the bookcase in my bedroom, including a beautiful picture book I just bought, Jane, the Fox, and Me. Now I can see Anne of Green Gables and Madeleine L’Engle and the four March sisters from my bed.
Most of what I have left on the main bookshelf is well-loved: six Jane Austen novels and a collection of her letters (cynical and hilarious). Signed copies of The Marriage Plot and Maybe a Miracle. An ever-expanding Alice Munro collection. All my favourite Victorians (Brontes, Gaskell, Trollope, Bleak House). My falling-apart copy of I Capture the Castle, which I have lent to at least six friends. Two books by Carson McCullers, both of which broke my heart. Books about diseases (rabies, cholera, the plague). A lovely red-and-gold hardcover of John Saturnall’s Feast that I can’t bear to part with because Norfolk’s writing makes 17th-century English desserts sound like tiny, perfect worlds.
I still have unread books; I’m disobeying Kondo, who says you’ll never actually read them so you shouldn’t keep them. These ones that are left, books about spinsters and Nancy Drew and the last two Neapolitan novels, seem like books I might get around to reading one of these days, at least until a new reading phase takes over.
Discarding, to use Kondo’s term, is something I do regularly, since before it became a fad, and I always feel better afterwards. I feel lighter, even. It sounds strange, but getting rid of things soothes my anxiety. Fewer things to worry about, fewer things that catch my attention when I look around, that make me feel like I need to do something with them.
There’s one book left without a home, and I debate over it for a long time. It’s All My Friends Are Superheroes, a novel my ex-boyfriend gave me for my birthday half a year ago. I still haven’t read it, and I put it in the bottom of a donate bag. Then, the next morning, I creep out of bed and rescue it.
I read it all in one day. It’s wonderful: bittersweet and funny and imaginative.
It goes back on the shelf. When I look at it I feel glad that I rescued it, and grateful for the gift—and yes, still lighter, even though it’s one more thing I’m keeping with me.