I had decided to simplify my life, to remove the clutter from my house in preparation for yet another move (rather than move said clutter from house to house like I had done several times already). Some things were easy to get rid of, whether selling, donating, recycling or trashing – like the second tea kettle hidden on a top shelf, collecting dust. Some things were harder – like my “thin” jeans that I had vowed to fit into again but hadn’t been able to squeeze into since 1996. Hardest of all, though, was thinning my library – a collection of 2,000 or so books.
I started with the easy ones, the airport novels, books that were forgotten as soon as they were read. Over the course of the last couple months, I continued to whittle down my library. I used a filter that if the book was available online, I could check it out from a library, so there is no need to move it. But some of the books, now that they had been dusted, suddenly looked so interesting again that I wanted to put them back in my “to read” pile. (Okay, “some” turned into 11 boxes, but that’s just a fraction of what I once had.)
Once in the “to sell” pile, the books would go into two reusable-bag-sized grocery bags. For weeks I made a daily trip to Powell’s City of Books. At Powell’s you can sell books once a day, and two bags was about all I could comfortably carry on the bus and then walk six blocks. Plus, that’s about as much as I could part with at a given time.
As the weeks went by, it got a little easier to sell my books. So I decided to test how serious I was about simplifying my live. Books I held dear but never reread went into the “to sell” pile. It was at this point that I had decided to pare down my Dumas collection. Among my list of favorite books are three by Alexandre Dumas – The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, and The Count of Monte Cristo. All three are books I reread regularly. I kept those. I had a dozen or so of his other books, editions more than a century old, that I was collecting as part of a set. I never completed the set, but I decided it was time for someone else to enjoy them and get the thrill of finding an 1894 translation of Dumas’ works.
When you take your books into Powell’s to sell them, the buyers are polite and friendly, but usually stone faced as they scan ISBNs and even more so when they check through books that are from the days before ISBN bar codes. The day I brought in my Dumas collections, I began to have doubts, thinking that perhaps I had pared my collection too far.
As on the previous days, the buyer began to look at my books without emotion. Then she came to two of the red bound, gilt lettered Dumas from the 1890s, she passed a hand lightly over them and said, “Oh, these are quite lovely.”
In John Gardner’s telling of the Beowulf poem from Grendel’s perspective, the death scene of Grendel came close to capturing what I felt as I parted with those books.
“I give them what I hope will appear a sheepish smile. My heart booms terror. Will the last of my life slide out if I let out breath? They watch with mindless, indifferent eyes, as calm and midnight black as the chasm below me.”
The melodrama passing and the deal being made, I came to peace with my decision. I had simplified my life. Walking home from Powell’s, I felt like my shelves should now be bare and packing would be a breeze from this point out.
Then I got home.
My books had babies.
Everywhere I turned there was another shelf of books and another pile stacked higher than when I left.
Powell’s is easily my favorite bookstore I’ve ever been to and even after selling books, I couldn’t resist browsing the aisles. As the days went by, I did my best not to buy more books after all the work of paring down my collection (I don’t feel a need to confess what “my best” is at the moment), but I was drawn to the Blue Room, home of literature. And there they already were, my “lovely” red bound, gilt lettered Dumas volumes, waiting to be found by someone else.