Thinning Out The Books

The workers are coming later this week to begin repairs that need to be done in the bedrooms. In preparation for this, I must empty out the bookcases closest to the area where they’ll be working, so the furniture can be moved out of the way.

It’s a good opportunity for my periodic exercise in thinning out the books.

As a writer and avid reader, I find it difficult to part with books. It has been an effort to get to the point where I do thin out the books from time to time.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read. My mother was forever telling me to get my nose out of that book and go outside and play.

When I was a youngster living in Lamar, a small town in southeastern Colorado, I would pedal my bicycle down to the old Carnegie library on Main Street (unfortunately torn down in the 1970s). I remember that old building with the creaky wooden floors and all those books, there for the taking. I’d come out with an armful of books, six or seven at a time, and stash them in my bike basket for the ride home. A couple of days later, I would have read all those books, and it was back on the bike to return them and check out another armful.

Old Carnegie Library, Lamar, Colorado. Unfortunately torn down for an ugly modern building.

Old Carnegie Library, Lamar, Colorado.

When we moved to Broomfield, Colorado, the library was an easy walk away. It’s the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Public Library. Mrs. Eisenhower grew up in the Denver area, and she and President Dwight Eisenhower were there in July 1963 to dedicate the building. I was there, too, along with a big crowd. I shook hands with Mamie and Ike!

As I got older, in my college days and after, I started buying books. I still have some of those musty old paperbacks. My interests widened and my disposable income increased. I bought still more books, many of them hardcover.

Once I became a published writer, I bought even more books, by people I knew or had met at conventions. The books were double- and triple-shelved and I solved the problem of more space by buying more bookcases. I got out of the habit of going to the library, and bought the book instead.

Then I ran out of places to put bookcases.

My home is small. I’ve reached an age where I want less stuff.

Several years ago I did a major culling of the bookshelves. At first I thought, I can’t do this. I slept on it for a night, thinking, I have to do something. There are books I want to keep for various reasons, including sentimental attachments to some of those musty paperbacks. Or the fact that I can’t or don’t wish to replace the paperback with a hardcover. There are books I want to keep for research, or my interest in the subject.

I devised a mantra that serves me well when it’s time to thin out the books. I’ve read this, I’m not going to read it again (yes, I do reread books), so it’s time to let go of this book and let someone else enjoy it. Saying that to myself as I go through the bookshelves helps me do the necessary pruning.

Over the years, the Friends of the Library have benefitted from my thinning out those bookshelves. I have reduced the number of bookcases, and it’s great to reclaim that space for other things I’m interested in, like sewing. I have gone back to the library. In fact, I check books out from several. If Alameda doesn’t have the book I seek, Oakland, Berkeley and the University of California usually do. Now that I have a Kindle, I buy digital versions.

Still, getting rid of books is hard. I was heartened to read a recent New York Times interview with Walter Mosley that touched on this subject. Here’s what the author of the Easy Rawlins series had to say in response to a question about his personal book collection:

“I am proud to say that I give away or sell at little to no profit almost all of my books. I have mentioned a few favorites earlier, but as a rule I don’t believe in keeping books. After I have read, reread and reread a book it seems sinful to keep such a reservoir of fun and knowledge fallow on a shelf. Books are meant to be read, and if I’m not reading them then someone else should get the opportunity.”

Thanks, Walter. I feel a whole lot better about thinning out the books.

What We Keep, What We Throw Away

In January 2012, I wrote a post for this blog wondering if this would be the year I finally cleaned my office.

As I suspected at the time, I’m still cleaning it, going through files and papers, tossing and sorting.

Making slow progress, emphasis on slow. But progress nonetheless. Once again the Friends of the Library book sale benefits from my periodic forays through the bookshelves.

In some respects, parting with books is easier that going through the accumulated paper.

In the earlier blog post, I mentioned keeping letters, and how glad I was that I have a packet of letters written by my long-departed grandmother. Now I rarely get letters, in this era of e-mail communication. I get e-mails, and periodically I go through and delete those.

I read an article recently that talked about how much electronic data people have stored up there in the cloud, the 21st century equivalent of the storage locker.

That got me to thinking about my writing process. Used to be I’d print out the book as I wrote it. The journey of writing my most recent published book, What You Wish For, was long, with many twists and turns and revisions. As a result, I have multiple versions of the book, enough to fill a couple of banker’s boxes. Those versions are also on the computer. Now that the book is in print, it’s time for those papers to go, so I can free up some space in the closet.

I’ve noticed that I no longer print out the books as I go. Where I used to edit and revise with a pile of manuscript pages and a pencil, I’m doing it on the computer. The pile of paper for Bit Player and the recently completed Death Rides The Zephyr is much smaller, although the latter, the train book, has a file box of research material accompanying the manuscript.

The impetus for this most recent spurt of decluttering, in addition to freeing up some real estate in my office, is a yearly trip, with a friend, to the commercial shredder. Together we collect our boxes of paper and haul them to the place with the industrial-strength machines that will chew up old tax records, statements from various accounts, and other things I wouldn’t want to toss in the recycle bin.

Much of the paper I used to receive now comes to me electronically. My bank statement is posted online. I access it by logging onto my account and then I print it out to reconcile it. The bills come via e-mail notification and the money is drawn automatically from my account. I deposit checks by endorsing them, then photographing them with my smart phone. All of this is convenient, but it still clutters up that data cloud I mentioned.

Then there’s clutter of another sort. Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads – and blogs. Keeping up with all of this eats up time, a precious commodity that would be better spent writing the next book. But the marketing aspect of writing has always been a double-edged sword. We write the books and then we must let people know the books are out there.

I find as I get older I’m saying “no” more often.

Enough rumination. Back to my piles of paper, deciding what to keep and what to throw away.

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