I’ve been back at my family’s house in Maine this week for the holidays. It’s a particularly nostalgic visit as my parents are planning on moving house next year so it will be my last time being in the house I grew up in. I’ve also (to my horror) been asked to clear out the many boxes of books I’ve stored here which won’t fit in my apartment in London – which is already chock-full of books. Of course, I’ll save a few but the rest of my carefully acquired collection I’m giving to a good bookish friend who runs an antique and ebay-selling business with her husband.
Going through these treasures makes me consider why we develop such an emotional attachment to books. They are just paper, but they also feel like friends or family. Is this because with fiction we can feel so close to the characters found inside as we’re privy to their innermost secrets, thoughts and the events of their lives? Or because the ideas of the authors can sound so in sync with our own? There are certainly many books I’ve felt this with growing up. I’ve identified with a wide range of disparate characters over the years. I felt this early in life reading about Shea, a sole descendant of a great fighter, in the fantasy novel “The Sword of Shannara.” As a teenager I hoped I could become the thrifty, clever and enduring character of Úrsula Iguarán in Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” In college I sympathized deeply with uncertain Delia Grinstead in Anne Tyler’s “Ladder of Years.” In Eugene Ionesco’s only novel “The Hermit” the existential fears of the protagonist whose consciousness moves inwardly like a logarithmic spiral became my own. I wanted to approach life with the same determined logical process that detective-hero Xavier Kilgarvan takes in Oates’ novel “Mysteries of Winterthurn.” These are characters that became a part of me – that I both aspired to be like and learned from.
There are also many books I’ve acquired over the years which I haven’t read yet, but which seem to me to contain great potential. They are books whose meaning is more than just what’s written inside but the ideas I think it might contain. Since I haven’t actually read them yet, they exist for now as projections of the books I imagine them to be and the wiser person I hope to be once I have read them. Like relatives who you never actually speak to, you know that they are there waiting in case you want/need them.
Books are a physical presence in our lives. They sit on the shelf or piled by the bed or stay packed in a rucksack when we travel “just in case we need something to read.” They have a distinct smell. Their covers have a satisfying texture and weight. Used books sometimes have sentences underlined or old ticket stubs tucked between the pages. New books have a satisfying crispness like they are an important cultural document which will last forever. You glance at these objects and your mind connects fleetingly with what they contain. Your heart feels connected.
Of course, I’m only getting so ponderous and reflective about books because getting rid of so many (most of which I acquired in my university years) is making me sentimental. But I think it’s meaningful the way bookworms have such a precious attachment to their own personal libraries. They are more than just objects in our lives, but things we’ve spent some serious alone time with. Getting rid of them feels like sending granny to the old folks’ home when you know you’ll probably never see her again.
Have you ever had to make a painful book purge? Do you have some books you’ll refuse to ever part with?