There’s nothing noble about stuffing your shelves.
“Book macho” is a term I coined in college to describe people who fetishize books, stockpiling their shelves with every volume that has ever meant anything to them. Almost everyone I know is afflicted with book macho.
As someone who has moved frequently, I have an ambivalent relationship with books. I love reading them but hate that they are so cumbersome. I’ve carted heavy boxes of books into New England student housing, New York walk-ups, and New Mexico adobes, and across continents and oceans, unpacking and packing them without ever opening them from one move to the next.
The last time I moved was 14 years ago. Since then, our book collection has grown, greatly added to by review copies, books written by friends and colleagues, gifts, and must-reads picked up from independent and secondhand bookstores. One day in my middle age, I realized that I’d become a book hoarder.
While I enjoy browsing the prodigious shelves of my book-macho friends, I never wanted to be one of those people. When I was a teenager, I was hired to sift through the collection of a recently deceased bibliophile in a large basement crammed with library-like stacks containing a dizzying array of volumes, all uninteresting to the owner’s relatives. The woman who hired me fretted about getting rid of the books in time to sell the house. She was torn between honoring her father’s lifelong pursuit of building his collection and moving on with her own life.
My parents, who passed on their love of literature to me, also have a sizable collection of books. Having once been tasked with getting rid of their own parents’ possessions, they are being very conscientious about eliminating material possessions in anticipation of their earthly departure, yet they continue adding to their library.
The sad truth about books is that not many age gracefully. From the New York Times list of fiction bestsellers from the year of my birth, 1967, I only recognized The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron and The Chosen by Chaim Potok. Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement, which was on the list for 23 weeks, has been out of print since the 1980s. And does anyone remember Robert Crichton’s The Secret of Santa Vittoria, which dominated for 12 weeks, or The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder?
Thinking of my own children, I began to skeptically eye my shelves. Did I really need to hold onto those classics, like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, that first expanded my mind? If I want to reread them, they’re easily accessible through the public library (or, for those out of copyright, online). And how many of my contemporary titles will be appealing to readers in 20 years? Maybe I should pass them on before it’s too late and they become so dated that no one wants to read them anymore.
But what to do with all the books?
I looked into ordering a Little Free Library, but there was nothing free about the hundreds of dollars charged for a structure, post, and signage. So, my thoughtful husband asked my handy brother, Dan, to make and install a DIY give-away library for my birthday. He built a one-of-a-kind structure out of recycled materials, including a boat’s slatted wooden cabinet door.
I worried that people would be discouraged because the door isn’t see-through. In order to browse, you have to figure out how to open the door by sticking your finger in a small hole and finding the latch. My concern was unnecessary; neighborhood bookworms have made good use of my library.
While some people stock their little free libraries with the latest hardcovers and pristine paperbacks, I throw in whatever catches my eye on our shelves, including tattered, broken-spined volumes; books with writing in the margins; and out-of-print books from yesteryear. It’s the rare book that never gets taken, though sometimes many months will pass before the right reader comes along for it. In four years of maintaining the library, there have only been about a dozen books that never got chosen, and those I eventually transferred to more distant libraries in the hopes they’d someday find readers.
Books are also deposited in my library, making it a true community exchange. Occasionally, I find an intriguing one that I wouldn’t seek out on my own, including my next read, Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.
I am also discreetly culling my parents’ shelves, picking out tomes I know they won’t miss and probably don’t even realize they own, including many out-of-print paperbacks. Most recently, I stocked my give-away library with Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento and Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, prize winners both but largely forgotten today.
There’s an old saying, “If you love something, set it free.” Books deserve to be set free instead of being kept as sentimental mementos or to prove book macho. The really good ones reside in you always, even if they’re no longer on your shelf.
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, as well as a book reviewer, essayist, short story writer, and a columnist for the Independent.