Thursday, February 19, 2009

Being Owned by Books

"I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves."
~ Anna Quindlen

A friend sent me that quote recently, knowing that I would appreciate it. Susan and I are both book lovers, often reading two or three books at the same time. We have lived in our house more than twenty years, and in the course of those years we have placed bookshelves most everyplace a bookshelf could be reasonably placed. These bookshelves are not only full; they are bulging at the seams. Which means we are living at the ragged edge of a major book crisis.

Susan is a wonderful lady with far fewer flaws and character defects than I have, but she has never willingly parted with a book. Because she is a college professor she has acquired an obscene number of books, including textbooks. Worse yet, one of the courses she teaches is “the history of psychology.” Because she teaches this course, she believes that it is her duty to keep a copy of every edition of every textbook that has ever been used to teach psychology.

Many of these textbooks currently reside on bookshelves in her office at the university. Someday she will retire, and when she does she will bring those books home. To make room for them, something will have to be moved out. Something or someone. I have every reason to believe she loves me very much, but if she had to choose between her books and me it would be a very tough choice.

For years now I have been attempting, with limited success, to enforce a rule that I call Mandatory Book Rotation. Books that we have recently read tend to get stacked in piles until the piles become dangerously high. When they do, they must be placed on a bookshelf. But because all the bookshelves are completely full, that means that other books must first be removed from those bookshelves and taken down to the bookshelves in the basement. Those bookshelves are also completely full, of course, so in order to place the books removed from the bookshelves in the den or the living room on the bookshelves in the basement, books must first be removed from the basement bookshelves. The books removed from the bookshelves in the basement are theoretically to be placed in cardboard boxes and taken to Goodwill.

This last step is the problematic one. Susan has no problem parting with clothing or other material possessions, but she is not above retrieving books from the Goodwill cartons and sneaking them back onto a bookshelf when I am not paying attention. Our house no longer stands on a foundation of poured cement; it rests on a foundation of Tolstoy and Updike.

I recently spent time in the basement with a tape measure. If I removed non-essential items – chairs, for example – I might be able to squeeze three more bookshelves down there. But I dare not do that yet because all three would instantly be filled, leaving no space for the books from Susan’s office when she retires. So we need to do some serious negotiation about which books to keep and which to donate to Goodwill. It will not be easy. As we move into our sixties, we are sincerely attempting to let go of possessions we already own rather than acquiring more. But somewhere along the way books became defined as “friends” rather than “possessions.” And you don’t get rid of friends.


the boy said...


Cathy Stratton said...

Oh John, I hear you! Thank God Mike was relocated so "they" had to pay for all his books to be moved yet again across the country. We need to find therapy for people unable to let go of their books. Share your books, that is the right thing to do!

rick in cos said...

I have the answer: the McFadden library collection. Find an appropriate public library, university library, church library, business library, etc and approach them to establish the McFadden Library Collection....put an obscenely high value on the Collection, indicate it is going to be a legacy donation that will help at tax time for you, get the books out of your house, and negotiate a perpetual access for you, Susan, and your heirs.
If Presidents can do it, why can't you???

Dan said...


What a wonderful problem to have. I am so envious of you and Susan. Hopefully I'll get there someday!