Culling my bookshelves
August 11, 2009

A few weeks back, my landlady put a big box of books out in front of our brownstone, with a sign inviting passersby to take a book or two. Ours is a busy street, and within a few hours, most of her books had disappeared—no doubt to good homes and eager readers. So I refilled the box myself.Many people I know blanch at the thought of getting rid of books. "I could never part with a single one of them!" they say, but I feel a good culling every now and then focuses my bookshelves. I prize the books by my very favorite writers. But the rest are fair game when it comes time to weed the shelves.There are the books that weirdly have multiple copies: Do I really need three copies of Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping? (I kept losing copies in boxes.) No. And three copies of The Collected Stories of John Cheever? Yes—one is a first edition hardcover, another is a trade paperback that I can mark up with analysis, and the third is the rack-sized paperback that I've owned since the early eighties and which is falling apart. There are the books that drift into the house thanks to my job: Young adult novels of yesteryear—some I worked on, some I was given, some I just picked up to keep current with the field. If I'm not wholly in love with the book, it would do better in the hands of some younger reader. And there are the books I bought when I thought I was going to be someone else—fat nonfiction books that I never got around to reading, that I can't even imagine wanting to read right now. And finally, books given to me by long absent friends that I never read and never will read. All of them go into the box.The end result of the culling is that my bookshelves become a better representation of who I am and who I aim to be, with fewer shadows of past selves. And a lot of my neighbors get some truly excellent reading material for free!