John Waters famously said, “If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.” People have quoted this to me when I tell them I’m giving books away. But surely the implication that somebody without books is somebody who doesn’t read became redundant as soon as kindles caught on? Even before e-readers the person who you go home with who has no books could be a minimalist who reads, they just give books away as soon as they finish them. And the person who you go home with who has a shelf full of books might not read. Let’s face it, all a shelf full of books says about someone is that they have a shelf full of books.
But if books are just things to read, why do people keep hold of books they know they’re unlikely to ever read again? Why do people transport boxes of books from house to house while moaning that moving house is so difficult because they have so many books?
It must be because we think that the books we own say something about who we are. Along with clothes and records, I see books as the objects that people use most often to express their identity. My suspicion is that those people who moan about moving boxes of books don’t want to be pitied, they want to be admired.
I have a shelf of books I don’t plan to read again, and yet I’m reluctant to give them away.
I think having lonely planet guides on my shelf makes me look adventurous. But I travel because exploring new places brings me joy, not because I’m trying to impress anybody.
I think having intellectual looking books on my shelf makes me look intelligent, even if I haven’t read them. Am I so insecure about my abilities or interestingness that I need to display physical proof?
I think I need to show people who my favourite authors are, rather than talk about them and why their work has moved me so much.
For me at least, I think there are right and wrong reasons to be displaying books on a shelf. The right reason is that I need to have these books in reach, because I regularly pull one off the shelf to consult or I take pleasure in re-reading it. The wrong reason is that I display particular books because I think they say something about the kind of person I am. As I aim to dramatically reduce my possessions, I can’t afford to keep things that aren’t useful or bring me job just because they serve my ego. In fact, what I’m aiming to go (with both physical and mental clutter) is strip away all the “shoulds” to get back to the essence of who I really am and what I enjoy.
So I’ll be keeping those that I look at or re-read, and giving away those that I don’t. And as I continue to reduce the number of things I own, I’ll be working on letting my actions speak for who I am, not my possessions.
Most of the travel books and notable show-off books (such as Gandhi’s autobiography) were given away in my last sort out. Today I’ve relegated the following to my charity shop donation pile.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. I read this about five years ago and enjoyed it, although probably not enough to re-read again and again. I kept it because it is one of the few books I’ve paid full price in a bookshop for (I usually pick things up in charity shops or on Amazon) and presumably to show people that I read classic books.
Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea. I was really inspired by this book when I read it and I would recommend it. But again, I won’t re-read it and have mostly kept it around to demonstrate to people I bring home that I’m interested in other places and helping people.
Abby Lee, Girl with a One Track Mind. This book is amazing, and eight years ago it taught me a lot about sex and relationships. I’ve now had a lot more experiences of my own so somebody else can benefit from reading about Abby/Zoe’s exploits.
Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong. This book completely blew me away, as I think it does to most people when they first read it. I don’t think I have the emotional energy to re-read it.
Sebastian Faulks, Girl at the Lion d’Or. I just love how Sebastian Faulks writes, but there are too many books out there to keep reading the same few.
Meg Rosoff, What I Was. I love Meg Rosoff’s books. I’m keeping How I Live Now, which is my favourite, and donating the others (which I’ve mostly only read to try and capture the feeling of reading How I Live Now for the first time.)