Why I’ll Never Get Rid of My Books
Some things you are meant to keep
I’ve always been lost in words. My mother gave me a book of Major English Romantic Poets when I was twelve. Keats, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Longfellow.
When I was sixteen, I found Shakespeare. At seventeen, I found Thoreau. Eighteen, Walt Whitman. Nineteen, Orwell. Then Hemingway and Carver and Cisneros and Bellow and Kerouac. Then I stopped. It just went away.
I had spent four years teaching high school English because I felt compelled to inform people of the power of Gatsby’s light.
Luminous, romantic and out of reach. It tore my heart up, teaching. I spent more time in the principal’s office than my kids.
Three years or so ago, for reasons I can’t even recall, decided I was going to reduce my belongings and live with less. I spent a whole night going through my things and boxing up all my books. I tidied.
I had told myself I didn’t need these anymore. What could I possibly do with three books of literary criticism on Flannery O’Connor? A friend, who at the time was working in a school library, agreed to take them.
We planned to meet for a glass of wine so I could donate all of my books. But planning is hard. So they sat in my garage for over a year. Boxes and boxes. I kept only a few books in the house still.
Not too long before my divorce, I was looking for a book I couldn’t find in the house and went to the garage and opened a box. I pulled out a stack of books and was mortified.
The box was all of my poetry. Every bit. Tess Gallagher, June Jordan, Alberto Rios, Frank Bidart, Sharon Olds. I grabbed the books promising to find a place for them somewhere in the house.
I was scared to know what was in those other boxes but for whatever reason I couldn’t bring myself I look, so I didn’t.
I turned out the light in the garage and went to bed, not even remembering what I was looking for in the first place.
Weeks later, I wanted to find my copy of Fahrenheit 451. I went through every box. I pulled out every book. Some I pulled out ran my fingers down the spine.
Others, the old ones like my copy of Thoreau’s Walden, I literally breathed in. That old musty smell. I never found Fahrenheit but I found an autographed copy of The Illustrated Man. I nearly gave it away.
What the hell kind of place was I in that I thought this was okay? Some of these I loved. Some of these I still had not read. Some of these I taught from. My copy of 1984 with every note from every reading and every lesson from the first time I read it to the last time I taught it. This I was willing to give away?
Beloved, A Moveable Feast, Tender is the Night, The Bell Jar, Pride and Prejudice, Howl AND Kaddish. Every word Flannery O’Connor ever wrote.
I almost walked away from every word. It was like I boxed myself up. Threw it aside. Deemed it unnecessary.
I sat there in my garage with The Violent Bear It Away in my hand and I wanted cry. The same book I let two students read in lieu of whatever book I was teaching that they could not stand. I created lessons and tests just for them because they were smart enough to get it and not tell my principal I went off curriculum.
It wasn’t my original copy with highlighted sections and notes in the margins but it was the replacement one of the students mailed to me years after he graduated as an olive branch extended after he unapologetically and intentionally kept my original.
Something at some point told me I needed to walk away from that. And whatever that was was wrong.
I almost gave away my books and in the process my heart and my soul. These books had made me… me.
I had, however, kept that part of me that would wake up in the middle of the night because I had to find one particular book with one particular poem and absorb myself in that very moment, no matter the hour, and I’m glad I did.
Now, these books fill every corner of my house and I keep buying more. Sometimes, it seems like the only comfort I have.
C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.” I firmly believe that. I get lost in other people’s words somewhere and when I come back I’m better for it and I still have a lot of getting lost to do.