The Books We Keep: Part Two

Sejal Shah
May 30, 2016
Comments 3

Getting married ushered in a new stage of dealing with things—beginning with registry gifts. Though I had declared I was not going to change—I was still the same person, same last name, same friends, hadn’t even decided on a wedding ring or if I wanted to wear one—I wasn’t actually the same. Six months into it, I finally understood being married is different from being single. There’s the Swiffer Schedule. (We don’t have one, but I think we should. He claims it’s unnecessary and that he does most of the Swiffering anyway.) We filed our taxes together. We learned how to link Google calendars. And then there’s stuff—and our different approaches to dealing with it: clothes, books, laundry, mail, magazines, etc. For starters, there’s more of it.


A bookcase at Blue Mountain Center, an artist residency / colony where I am currently spending 10 days. I brought many of my own books to read, but also always end up looking at what is there on the shelves.

Bookshelves at Blue Mountain Center, an artist residency where I just spent a few days. I always end up perusing their books even when I’ve brought my own.

My husband, R, buys a book, reads it, and never gives it away—it’s like a ticket stub or playbill for him. I don’t think he ever looks at them again. I don’t keep ticket stubs or playbills, but I still have my favorite stuffed animal from childhood. I have every card or letter R wrote to me. I have books from all stages of my life—childhood onward—but have also given many away. Still, I have four bookcases full at my parents’ house. We live in an apartment and couldn’t bring all of our books with us. I thought it could be liberating to bring only those that felt germane to my current writing and teaching (and it has felt freeing), but splitting up my books often necessitates stopping over at my parents’ house to retrieve a book I left there. Holly Wren Spaulding, a poet and essayist, writes:

I go to my bookshelf several times each day, looking for a line, or a phrase, or a reference. I feel I’m missing part of my brain when I’m apart from my books, which happened when I put most of them in storage for a year, a while back. I honestly felt disoriented and out of my element without my books. Kind of unbearable.

In Marie Kondo’s best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she writes, “Books are one of the three things that people find hardest to let go.” (The others are paper and miscellany / mementos. Perhaps books are especially hard because they involve aspects of the other two?) So how do we decide what to keep and what to give away? I wrote to several friends, mostly writers, curious to know their thoughts.

Some friends reminded me of a recent Lit Hub essay on this subject, in which the writer details how Kondo’s method worked for her—removing all of one’s books from their shelves, picking each one up, and deciding whether or not to keep them based on whether or not they “sparked joy.” Kondo’s method aside, (almost no one I know has actually done it), here is what a few of my friends had to say. Madhu Kaza, a writer in Brooklyn wrote:

Keep the ones that keep you company. The ones that you can open in the middle of the day or during an insomniac night and just begin reading. The ones that you can open, read a few pages of and put back. That’s what I mean by company—they welcome ongoing, brief exchanges even after you’ve read them straight through, if you’ve ever read them straight through.

Certain books are touchstones, they are friends; I feel less alone when they are there. I feel that way when I read Alice Munro’s collection of stories, Friend of My Youth. I even feel that way looking at the cover or picking up the book—there’s something about the corporeality of it.

Kaza’s useful bar on which books to toss: “The ones that aren’t weird in some way.” My friend Steve Bressler, a lawyer in DC, said, “So the criteria for those I keep—books that contain characters or settings I think I’d like to visit again, that I find comforting.  Books that had an impact on me in some way.”

Lorraine Bohonos is a professional organizer I’ve worked with on taming papers, files, and other detritus on my desk and in my office. She wrote:

I feel, like with everything, I get overwhelmed with too much stuff and am less likely to use what I have. I only allow myself to keep books that fit on the bookshelf. The one thing I struggle with is the art books, because I never look at them and they take up a lot of space, but they do remind me of a time I was into painting.

I remember the sensation in my parents’ basement (a palpable pang at coming face to face with a former self) that arose from looking at a shelf of books from graduate school and college—feminist theory, some Asian American literature, queer theory; The Riverside Chaucer. I did give away a lot of those books; I knew that if didn’t even refer to those books when I was professor, it’s unlikely I ever will again. There’s also the library. Chaucer may still be in the basement, though. It’s a beautiful book—a relic of my days as an English major.

My brother took some of the books I inherited from him in childhood when his kids began reading, and though I still care about those books, that seemed okay. They had been his first—though had I not kept them all those years, I don’t know if he would have had them to pass along to my nephews. Of course, I had kept them in our parents’ basement.

Writer Leslie Pietrzyk, who lives in the DC area, also mentioned space, her husband, and the most important criterion—whether or not you would hang out with a book at a bar:

I have limited space and a minimalist husband, so I have to get rid of books. I’m never happy about doing it, but here’s my thought process:

—Keep all books by friends, all signed books, and most hardcover first editions, or at least think twice before discarding

—Keep (a few) beloved and tattered childhood treasures (Winnie-the-Pooh, with teeth marks)

—Keep books I loved, that I want hanging around; if this book were a person, would we have fun together talking at a bar? If yes, keep it.

—Keep books I haven’t yet read but that maybe fall into one of the above categories or that seem like they might be hard to find or that remind me of the time & place when they came into my life

—Keep all editions of Best American Short Stories because I’m a sucker for a continuous series.

I loved what Leslie said—I might respect a book, but that doesn’t mean we would be drinking buddies.

More books at Blue Mountain Center.

More books at Blue Mountain Center.

For a long time, I kept the travel guides I bought for National Parks of the Southwest and California—from a trip my friend Monica Gebell, a writer and English teacher, and I took in 2002. It reminded me of this happy time—our adventures, before either of us had settled down, before we were even 30, and had no idea where our lives would go. I’ve known Monica since we were in fifth grade. As I write this, I realize that I keep friends more than books. I think I finally let those books go; I knew I’d use online resources or an updated guide if I ever went back to the Southwest. (I was right; I went to Arizona last fall and I didn’t miss the guides at all—didn’t even think of them.)

Another Leslie, Leslie Roberts (a painter in Brooklyn), brought this back to me when she wrote that she’s “fine with getting rid of my Zagat New York City Restaurants, 2000 edition, and my Idiot’s Guide to Windows. (But then, when it comes to my 1980 copy of Let’s Go Europe, I stop, inhibited by nostalgia for long-ago travels.)”

Geeta Kothari, Nonfiction Editor at the Kenyon Review wrote not about giving books away, but about putting them away.

I am much, much happier with most of my books in boxes. And Mark isn’t bugging me about them because he sees I’m getting a lot of work done. It’s like being at a colony, with only a select few books allowed to remain in sight, mostly books I use for teaching. Seriously, boxing up the books has been great—I freed up a whole extra room on the third floor. As long as cockroaches don’t nest in those boxes (as they used to in NYC), I’m good. I’m using the free space for a napping while working space. I’m a big fan of out of sight, out of mind, inherited from my father who put any mail he didn’t want to open in his dresser.

Perhaps the books at my parents’ house are a version of them being boxed up. I know that when I have too many books spilling out and about in the apartment, I start to feel they are clamoring for my attention and I can’t think clearly; I don’t know who to spend time with first. I start to sort of resent them all, even though I (I think) love them.

New York City writer and editor Erika Dreifus shared some specifics about what she keeps:

Books by friends, especially those with inscriptions, are typically keepers. Books that have changed me in some way—intellectually, emotionally—are keepers. Books with sentimental value—like a paperback of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter) that my late, German-born grandmother purchased and inscribed and gave to me when I was twelve; I’ve read it only once—are keepers. There are even books on my shelves that I haven’t yet read—but have wanted to, in some cases for *years*—that are, apparently, keepers.

Dreifus and Pietrzyk both mentioned keeping books by friends, and this got me thinking about books by people I know—not friends, but more writer-acquaintances. I will buy books to support fellow writers, I admit, sometimes out of obligation/literary citizenship/guilt/a difficult time pretending to ignore the book table if I go to a reading. But if the book itself doesn’t become a good friend of mine, I will pass it on to a friend, a fellow writer, or the library. Jessy Randall, the Curator of Special Collections at Colorado College, reminded me that it is actually hard to donate books to libraries—we may want to give them away, but libraries often can’t and won’t take many of them. “I find myself disappointing people regularly on this topic,” she wrote.

Perhaps my favorite response came via Michael Martone, Professor, Writer, & Postcard Sender. Martone wrote only about what he gives away; it was the most succinct email I received and it made me laugh. What he gives away is not only written by a Kenyon College professor, it’s also about how art as a gift we must give away and circulate:

The book I give away all the time is The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde—Kenyon prof. It is a marvelous book for artists and writers to read as they toil in both the gift and market economies. His other books on the trickster and the copyright are great too. But The Gift is the one to give away.

Finally, Nadia Ghent, a violinist and writer in Rochester, sent me a lovely, lyrical email about books she loves and has held onto—including books her children read and ones she read to them. I suspect her entire response would resonate with readers of literary journals such as the Kenyon Review. However, my favorite of Ghent’s sentences addresses the heart of this matter for so many of us—space, husbands, minimalism, and clutter aside: “My criteria for holding onto a book is that it is a book.”


3 thoughts on “The Books We Keep: Part Two

  1. The question is timely for me, because I am having new carpet installed, requiring every book to be relocated temporarily — they do not like living in boxes, and I am already frantic, seeking a particular book that I need today. (Which box?) Not only are the boxes heavy, but the cat sits on top of them when she is not occupying the shelves where they belong. Would life be less complicated if I decided to give away the books? Possibly. But I am already bereft, if only for a week.

  2. I keep most of my books and I’m okay with that. I own very little else, and rarely buy new “things”. But I will always buy books and make room for them, even in my two bedroom apartment. They are out art, and they help to soundproof the space, and lend some warmth and soul. They also give me more pleasure than almost anything else.

    Your essay made me want to pull down those precious few that are “comforting,” as one of your friends said. I feel that way especially about some of the books I fell in love with as a teenager, for example ‘Letters to a Young Poet.”

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