Monday, May 25, 2009

Confessions of a Book Addict

So here it is, nearly halfway through the year, and all I've done is update my 'Latest Books Read,' 'Favorite Photo,' and 'What I'm Currently Listening To' lists, the latter of which is now outdated again. The trouble is I really don't listen to CDs anymore--I listen to individual songs thanks to the advent of the iPod.
I have been spending a lot of time on my photography, in fact I just got back from an impromptu trip to Huntsville, Alabama. A photographer at a photo safari session at the Nashville Zoo last weekend recommended the butterfly garden there. I was rather disappointed that though they had a large exhibit, I only saw three very common species--Monarch, Zebra Longwing, and Julia. It was still a nice getaway. The people there were very friendly, more saying "hello" as we passed than not.
I went to a popular outdoor mall to find dinner, but being a holiday weekend everywhere had a long line, so I ended up having a sandwich at the Starbucks in Barnes & Noble. Of course, I couldn't go to a bookstore and leave empty handed, I I must give myself credit for putting back two of the three books I was going to buy and settling on Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which I never read in school. I finished it last night, which put me back on track with my 52-book quota.
Last year I had a goal to read 52 books (a book a week) but didn't quite make it because I changed the rules in November to not counting books I didn't finish. This year I'm on target, with twenty books to date. If I counted the books I didn't finish, I'd be at thirty. Partly, I'm doing it because it inspires me to spend more time reading and less time channel surfing. But I also have a more practical issue. I've run out of bookshelf space and space for more bookshelves.
When I moved from New York, I remember the guy who came to give me an estimate. I'd already started packing, and he looked at the neat stacks of small but numerous boxes.
"What's in all those?"
"All of 'em?"
"I like to read." He glanced at the six-foot bookcase with doubled rows, not an inch between the spines.
"I've only had time to pack the mass markets," I commented. He looked over to where a mirrored curio shelf I'd picked up at the antique store down the street had been commandeered to hold history and etiquette books.
"You know, it's going to cost you a fortune to move all these books." He eyed the double glass-doored cabinet from Ikea full of hardcovers and over sized art books that towered above his height.
"A lot of those are signed," I said.
He grunted dubiously.
"But these are all the books," I said confidently, thinking he was overreacting. There weren't that many, and I'd limited them to the living room. The whole apartment was only 500 square feet, so the quantity just seemed a lot relative to the small space. I once stayed at an apartment in the city where you couldn't see the color of the walls for the bookshelves. Every room--the bathroom, the kitchen, above the door frames--was nothing but bookshelves. It was book-lover heaven!
He moved into the kitchen and began to poke around in the cabinets. Food, dishes, glasses, an entire cabinet full of cookbooks over the fridge. I don't cook much, but I always mean to learn. He shook his head.
"Oh, right, forgot those were there," I said, chagrined.
He went into the bedroom. Seven or so books mocked me from the nightstand. Well, those obviously didn't count, those were the books I was in the middle of reading. Those would go in the car with me. He opened the cabinet built into the dresser. Sweaters shelf, sweater shelf, music book shelf, music book shelf. Well, the stereo was in the bedroom, and it's not like I had room for a piano. His critical eyes slid across the line of dictionary, reference, and writing books lined up on the top shelf of my desk above my computer.
"Those are for work," I noted.
He opened the closet. Work clothes, shoes...a plastic crate on its side full of books too tall for the shelves.
He sighed. "You're really going to pay a fortune to move all of these. You need to get rid of at least half of them."
Get rid of half my books? Was he crazy?
"But I already did. I got rid of as many as I could." I had lugged several boxes off a few weeks before to donate to the church fair booksale. Of course, I worked the book sale and ended up bringing some home, but not as many as I gave.
"At least half," he repeated.
As he left, I mentally ran through the shelves. What else could I get rid of? The books I had worked on as an editorial assistant and associate editor, some of which had my name in the acknowledgments? The classics I fell in love with and the museum art books I'd bought as souvenirs and I'd carried home from a summer in Spain, paying for a third suitcase for the purpose. The complete works of Hemingway, Wharton, and Fitzgerald I'd accumulated during an internship at Simon & Schuster, and the collections in progress of other classic authors. The library of mysteries and romances in mass market already culled and boxed that I used to study the genres for work. The cookbooks, and history, reference and biography. Books that were recommended, books that were gifts, books that sparked my interest in a store, at a library sale, on the giveaway shelf at work. There were no more I could part with. I didn't care how much it cost.
Desperate, I called my good friend Kristine, a fellow book lover and the only person I know who can outlast me at a bookstore.
"Why don't we stop for hot chocolate now?" I asked her once, after we'd been browsing for over an hour.
"But we haven't even gotten to history and biography yet," she replied, soldiering on. Kristine is as big a book collector as I am, a lawyer turned high school teacher, she's one of the smartest and most educated people I know with a constant thirst for knowledge. Kristine will browse the bargain section, picking up any book that catches her interest, reading the copy and skimming the first few pages, and issuing a verdict. She inspired me to read more broadly, not just in my favorite genres. She was, of course, completely sympathetic as I explained what the literaphobic moving guy had said.
"There's an underfunded school I know of," she said. "The library doesn't have any money for new books, and the librarians are desperate for donations."
Kristine came over the following weekend with her jeep to help me weed the shelves again. I picked up each book and asked myself three questions.
"Can I visualize myself reading this book in the next two years? Does this copy have sentimental value? Would I be unable to easily find another copy?" If the answer to all three questions was no, it went in the donation pile. Many of the classics went--it's easy to find those and I never get around them--they require time to think, absorb, and savor that I just don't have. A lot of the nonfiction went. A fair amount of literary fiction too by authors I hadn't had a chance to learn to like. It was easier to think that instead of collecting dust on my shelves, these books would be read and loved by others. That a teen might discover a passion for a subject, or author, or just reading in general from one of these copies. Books are meant to be read, they're not decor despite what the magazines might suggest.
We ended up filling Kristine's jeep with boxes of books, and in exchange for her help she had her pick of the litter and set aside a stack of those that interested her, or that she could use for her own class.
It still cost me a relative fortune to move, but when I arrived in Tennessee I had glorious shelf space to fill again--and an apartment twice the size of the old one. Ah, the freedom to accumulate new books! Within two years I had run out of space again. Now I have shelves of children's books for when my nephew visits, and a shelf of memoir and a shelf of travel essays--two of my latest favorite genres.
And so began the goal to read as many as I could, and donate those I read and wouldn't read again to make room for more. I tried making a rule that for every five books I got rid of, I could buy one new book. The next day I bought five without getting rid of one. If books were harmful, there would probably be a support group for people like me. But since they're as good for you as exercise and vegetables, I guess I'll have to suffer in contentment. And get back to reading--I just pulled a new book off the shelf.