If there’s a silver lining to living in virtual lockdown, it’s this: Plenty of time to attack those lists of “things we should do around the house.” Which is how we came recently to complete a book purge, ultimately donating 27 boxes to a used bookstore, getting rid of six overflow bookshelves in the garage and moving one other back into the house. Now, for the first time in two decades, we can park in our two-car garage.
It was a bittersweet experience. With the bitter outweighing the sweet.
My wife and I have always lived in a small library by choice. We’re readers, not hoarders, but we do have a problem letting go. There were more than 8,000 books jammed onto shelves in four rooms of our house, and another seven shelves in the garage. The nonfiction and children’s books (my wife, Margaret, is an elementary school teacher) got the house, with the novels consigned to the “stacks” in the garage.
It was overwhelming. More than half the walls in the house were devoted to bookcases and there were seven freestanding shelves in the middle of the garage (which over the years has attracted its share of odd looks from neighbors walking by). And that doesn’t include the hundreds of books from our sons’ childhoods (they are now 29 and 26) stored away in plastic bins stacked along the garage walls (that will be a more politically fraught purge).
Our pre-purge shelving decisions were not a reflection of the books’ relative worth to us, or any misdeeds by the books themselves. (“You novels! To the garage with you!”) It was just easier to sort them that way, and easier to find titles as we needed or desired them.
The adult books, fiction and nonfiction, were shelved by author’s last name; the children’s books followed a sorting system my wife devised based on when she needed books for her classroom.
Sifting through them was a depressing process: Which child to abandon?
But it also was a comforting review of our adult lives.
We share an indulgence for the mysteries of Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich. Grafton famously wrote her Kinsey Millhone series alphabetically, beginning with A’ is for Alibi, and Evanovich writes her Stephanie Plum mysteries numerically, beginning with One for the Money. Easy to shelve, those, but we decided we likely wouldn’t be rereading them, so off into boxes they went.
Ditto for John Grisham, who got me through endless airplane flights when I was covering political campaigns for the Los Angeles Times. And the same fate, too, for myriad novels and obscure nonfiction and history volumes that came in when I wrote about books (off and on since around 1990) and chose not to review, but hung onto in case I wrote about the author later.
The collection of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries stayed; I’ve been a fan since an aunt introduced me to them when I was a teenager. So, too, did the books by James Baldwin, Louise Erdrich, Graham Greene, Adam Hochschild, Laila Lalami, John Steinbeck, William Styron and on and on and on.
Even after the cull, there are more than 5,000 books on the shelves: nine cases in the living room, three in the small family room, two in the master bedroom and seven (mostly children’s books) in the home office. Just in case Curious George gets more curious, I suppose. And in the spirit of Laura Numeroff, if you give a reader a book, well … .
The tougher ones to get rid of were those I amassed as I wrote my own books, six now, all nonfiction. Arcane volumes about Colorado history and labor wars in mining districts; the prosecutions of post-World War II American communists; the history of Detroit; John Paul Jones and Ambassador Horace Porter, who repatriated his body; and Civil War-era volumes about Boston Corbett, the man who claimed he killed John Wilkes Booth. All those books were vital to the projects; most now are expendable.
So off they went, along with a mishmash of political and social science books that were significant in their moment but no longer so contemporary. If I need, for instance, to consult the late David S. Broder’s 1980 book Changing of the Guard: Power and Leadership in America, I know where the library is.
But there was something comforting — reassuring, even — about knowing that book, and hundreds of others, was on a shelf somewhere here in the house or garage if I needed it, or even if I just had a question I wanted to explore.
In a sense, ditching all those books was an act of unmooring. Not everything can be found on Google, you know.
This isn’t our first book purge. In the past we have, with painful deliberation, sent off one, two or three boxes of books at a time to the friends of our local library, though those newly empty slots on the shelves would soon be filled by new additions.
We’ve never purged like this, though, a slow process that began before the lockdown but then grew to fill several days’ labor. And this time we decided to donate them to a for-profit used bookstore, The Bookman in Orange, California, figuring that libraries will survive the economic crisis while used bookstores are starving for business. Extra free inventory, we thought, might help them fill online orders and maybe, just maybe, stay afloat.
But getting rid of books — whether by the dozen or by the dozens of boxes — can be fraught in another way. I’m looking into a possible new book project that touches on the 1932 presidential campaign, in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt won his first term. But that election also was a high-water mark for the Communist Party USA, whose candidate and then leader, William Z. Foster, picked up more than 100,000 votes.
So off to the shelf I went Monday to grab my copy of Edward P. Johanningsmeier’s 1994 biography, Forging American Communism: The Life of William Z. Foster.
It’s no longer there.
I ordered it last night from Bookman.
Scott Martelle, a member of the Los Angeles Times editorial board, is an author, most recently of William Walker’s Wars: How One Man’s Private American Army Tried to Conquer Mexico, Nicaragua, and Honduras.