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Books, Barnacles

What is he scribbling on the page?
Is there snow in it, or fire?

Is it the beginning of a poem?
Is it a love note?

- Mary Oliver

This is the story of how I finally tackled my burgeoning emotional tar pit of a book hoarding problem. My first experience letting go was after a house fire burned my entire collection of childhood books and I lost an old beloved book of hand-watercolored illustrated French fairytales. Out of the six shelves of books hoarded from childhood - the Nancy Drews, the fables, the adventure stories - I deeply grieved only that one book of fairy tales. Just hefting its substantial weight and touching the yellowed pages and stained fabric hardcover once brought joy. My second traumatic experience letting go was between college and graduate school. A faculty member kindly offered to store my college books in his basement in Virginia as I began new work in DC. After settling into an apartment, I went back for my books and found the boxes destroyed by summer humidity, the books molding and ruined.

Recently I posted a review on a little book about organizing and decluttering by the Japanese writer Marie Kondo, "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing." Kondo's ideas and principles (The KonMari Method) are quite different from the advice we usually hear about decluttering - toss if you haven't used/worn in a year, toss if used once, store and reconsider, etc. Marie writes, "My criterion for deciding to keep an item is that we should feel a thrill of joy when we touch it."

Plates, shoes, notebooks, coats? Umbrellas, books, electric cords? Yes. All of it.

Kondo's theory is that if you love something, you use it or emotionally connect to it, and therefore it belongs in your life. I moved and traveled - my limit was twenty boxes of books, no more - but then a nice stretch of settling in meant books began to seriously collect. I read voraciously and the space these books occupied lined the walls of my study, and then the downstairs. There were craft books on writing, thesaurus editions, the classics, new anthologies, bestsellers, rare finds, research tomes. To be honest, they weren't all great, or beloved, or important. But they sat in my house gathering dust.

Enter Marie Kondo. Her entire section on sorting through books seemed written for me. She addresses common fixations: keeping notes from seminars years in the past, books in collections of which only one book matters to you, books for things a person might need to learn, know, look up. Atlases, gift books, college texts. The Internet has become a reference library at our fingertips, yet we hang onto illustrated workout guides, home repair manuals, travel guides. All right, Marie. I see your point. But handle every book? Ask myself, Do I love it? Does it bring me joy?

Success is ninety percent dependent on our mind set.
- "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up," by Marie Kondo

The night this week I tackled my book shelves began as a perfect storm. I was staring at a stack of books on the floor when I realized I had not read any of the books in the stack. Ouch. What a waste. Moments later, I received a painful and discouraging email. Curling up inside, I drifted to my usual way of handling chaos or preparing for change - I began to shift furniture. I attempted to shelve the entire book stack.

No go. There was not one free inch of space.

Fine. Peeved and full of pent up frustration, I sat down on the floor and picked up the top book in the stack in front of me. I looked at it, opened the pages, thought about whether I had even wanted to read it or still intended to. Yes, keep. No, toss. I put the book in the toss pile. From stacks to shelves I picked up each book. Did I remember it? Want to reread it? Love it? Was it given to me by somebody, did I secretly never intend to read it but thought it an impressive shelf title? There were a whole lot of "Look how well read/on trend/diverse/interesting I am" sorts of unwanted books.

The giveaway piles gathered on the kitchen counter began to grow. I found myself keeping the one Edward Abbey book of essays my first husband had loved because he'd read it rafting the Grand Canyon on the Colorado: the other four could go. The topical nonfiction books I had read but would never read again, the new novel I bought on the basis of a good review but couldn't make myself finish...those, too, could go. The mountain climbing adventure book I knew I would reread, that stayed. My poetry, love love love. The old paperbacks of Bellow, Gardner, Updike, Steinbeck, Lessing, Drabble, Stegner. Stay. The political biographies? Churchill stays, Bush goes. Science, art? Einstein stays, Hepburn stays, Pollock stays, Sagan goes. Once my husband poked his head into the family room (I had finished the shelves in my office and moved on to the main floor shelves). He said not a word and ducked out again.

I handled each book, looked it in the heart, and decided right then to love it or leave it. When I was done with The Great Purge, I had 10 boxes of books for giveaway, and space on every alphabetized shelf for continued reading.

Every book I see is a good one, something I love. Whether new or tattered, timely or classic, each book is one I have a strong connection to. And the stack by the bed of yet-to-read books are books I actually WANT to read. The guilt is gone, the unwanted have moved on to new homes, my shelves reflect me.

Marie Kondo was right. Decluttering is a tactile process. We know and cherish objects through simple touch. When we surround ourselves with those things we feel connected to, we feel better in our lives.
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