I was reading this article from the Guardian Saturday morning, and it reminded me of my own recent library purge.
I’ve always loved books. When I was in elementary school, I used to walk through the halls reading a book. While I never crashed into anyone, my teacher had a prejudice against allowing this kind of nerdery to go unchecked. Similarly, I (though not other children) was banned from bringing a book to the cafeteria for lunchtime. (This problem was solved by reading over a friend’s shoulder – we were both obsessed with The Babysitters Club, so it worked out well.)
Over the years, I built up quite the collection: science fiction, historical fiction, foreign fiction fiction-fiction, mythology and more. Once, I calculated the cover value of my Star Trek novels alone – it amounted to several thousand dollars, and I was only in my mid-teens. Growing older, moving to college and then graduate school and then to live on my own, however, my collection was slowly pared down. First, the books moved to my parents’ basement and garage. Every time I’d come home, I’d go through them and winnow them down to fewer and fewer volumes. Several boxes came to New York City with me, but as my apartments grew smaller and smaller, even these – which I had thought of as the books I could never part with – became fewer in number.
The last few months have seen another reduction, setting bags on the stoop of my building with signs: “FREE BOOKS!” on sunny weekend mornings.
In her article (an excerpt from her book) Linda Grant writes:
“The methodology I used for my cull was very high-minded: I would preserve those books of literary merit, the books I had not yet read but wanted to and the books given as gifts with an inscription on the flyleaf. “
This reasoning approximated my own library reduction. I kept the sci-fi greats, books I would not be able to easily replace. Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card – these were books that remained on my shelf, in part because their writing styles always inspired me but also partly because I can’t imagine going out and re-buying these books.
My books of “literary merit” also included classics and old books inherited from my grandparents. I have an entire set of the complete works of Tolstoy, of Sir Walter Scott, of Victor Hugo. The Tolstoy was published in the early 1900s and the author himself was consulted on the translation; I can’t see how reading another version of War and Peace will take me closer to the original Russian, which I don’t read and can’t see myself learning.
Then there are the plays I’ve seen and loved: mostly scripts purchased from the Traverse Theatre or the Royal Court, or gifted to me by playwrights like Alan Wilkins or Jo Clifford.
There are books of sentimental value: my complete set of Moomin novels, by Tove Jansson, or Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. And there are many books I haven’t read yet, but want to, but suspect I may not: Heaney’s Beowulf, some Balzac, a few graphic novels.
What remains on my shelf is eclectic, and still takes up an entire shelf on my wall, but it is pared down. There is a surprising amount of nonfiction, for someone with reading
roots so deeply associated with sci-fi and other imagined worlds. And these days, I hardly buy books any more: I check out digital editions from the library or purchase copies of the books I want from Kindle. If they’re classic, there are almost always free digital versions (or low-cost ones) and if they’re new I can usually borrow the digital copy from a friend, or occasionally spring for it. I read more indie novels, paging through Wattpad in search of samples that get my mind going.
While Grant laments having gotten rid of so many of her books in her move, I find that I rarely miss the physical volumes I’ve let leave my life. Once or twice I’ve wanted a quote only to find that the book in question left me long ago, but for the most part I have what I need. Most of my college textbooks are finally gone – if I want to get back into filmmaking, rather than scriptwriting, there are websites and other resources where I’ll be able to refresh my memory. I no longer felt attached to my British editions of Harry Potter, and kept only a handful of my favorite Star Trek novels – mostly by Peter David and Daffyd ab Hugh (whose no-holds-barred stories satisfied my affection for bloodthirsty sci-fi, as a teen).
What I realized the other day – and what I found a bit upsetting – is how few of the books on my shelf are written by women. While it’s not yet time for me to rebuild my library – that will have to wait until I own my own home instead of rent a small shoebox – the temptation to refill my shelves with Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Poppy Z. Brite, Octavia Butler, Anne McCaffery, Diana Gabaldon and more is difficult to resist. They and others are finding their place on my virtual bookshelf, but it’s clear to me that I need to put more effort into reading (and buying) non-white, non-male authors.
What books do you read? What are some that you’d recommend? Leave a comment to let me know, and don’t be discouraged by the weird error message that comes up when you click “submit” – the comments are posting, there’s just something wrong with the blog.
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