Posted by: Emily | 14 June 2012

Shedding some baggage, book-style

You know the joke: how can you tell when two graduate students are serious about each other? When they merge their libraries.

As A mentioned previously, we are in the process of packing up and getting ready to move to a new city. And as we are both recovering ex-grad students, part of this ordeal involves the transportation of thirty cubic feet of books (approximately equal to one metric hogshead). Despite our best efforts to limit our acquisitions, we’ve still got the accumulated history of four attempts at post-graduate education, three of which achieved moderate to complete success. Suffice to say, we have a ton of books we have to move. So part of my job today was to sort the ones we’re keeping from the ones we’re getting rid of, and pack them all up so we can move on to other things.

It’s always hard for me to get rid of books. I’m one of those people who has always been intoxicated by the sensations surrounding books: the smell, the feel of the paper, the pleasure of holding a pristine new volume in your hands, the thrill of putting it onto the bookshelf, and the twinge of regret and disappointment you feel when that pristine new volume’s cover is bent backwards at the corner two months later when you take it off the shelf. Consequently, I tend to hold on to books far longer than I really should. And this habit is suffused with a persistent feeling of someday. Someday I’ll get around to reading that one. Someday I’ll need that one for some research. Someday I’ll want to look at something I once scribbled into the margin of that one. I don’t need that one now, and I can’t really foresee ever needing it in the future, but, well, someday I might.

It can get really overwhelming when you need to get rid of, to downsize, to “rightsize”: you need to make the collection transportable, but you also need to make it reflect what you can realistically do. In some cases, this is easy. The slightly-out-of-date Perl books I acquired back when I thought I was going to learn Perl for some reason? Easy call. The gigantic German dictionary I needed in grad school but haven’t touched since? Again, simple. But what about some of the books of Jewish religious literature I haven’t cracked open since high school, but have been toting around with me for years for someday? Harder to decide. (And they’re all available online anyway, for free…) What about my grammar of Sahidic Coptic that I never worked all the way through and probably won’t ever be sufficiently interested in to complete? Yeah. So this means not only do I have to be realistic about what is possible in my life, but I must also keep from fooling myself into overestimating my current or future interest in some particular topic, or mis(under)estimating any reason to keep or discard a particular volume.

In the end, I successfully pared the thirty cubic feet of books down to about twenty that we will be keeping, and most of our library is now packed up. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that I’ve tossed out some portions of my lives-that-never-were, shadows of different “me”s that have come and gone with the time, as I’ve become more comfortable with who I am and grown to understand more about what I want out of life. Interests have come and gone, and books have been acquired and released along with them. As I go through a transitional period in my life, I can see that transition reflected a little on my bookshelf too. It’s exhilarating, yes, but it’s also a little sad.



  1. Oh god, Emily, this spoke to me in so many ways. I am EXACTLY the same way. I have the hardest time letting go of books, for all those reasons you mentioned. I think I still have an intro chemistry text upstairs that I haven’t looked at in about 10 years – but you never know. I will say, though, that my decision to keep my biochem and physiology books has recently been vindicated. It seems every move is a chance to go through the me that used to be, see how I’ve changed with the new things I’ve acquired, and redefine who I am (or will be in my new home) based on what I choose to keep and what I choose to give away.

    • I should think you’d agree. The notion that when you combine your libraries, it’s for real came from you.

      • Really? I didn’t know that. It certainly *felt* real the day we combined our libraries! I guess so far that’s been vindicated too. 🙂

  2. Mrs. Yid is much better at this sort of thing than I am, but I’m working on it. I probably managed to donate about 3 or 4 grocery bags of books to the thrift store down the street (compared to her several boxes worth). I definitely relate to the pain of discarding books you “wanted to want to read.”

  3. Oh god, this. We sorted our books so that the ones we’ve never read (12 LINEAR FEET OF THEM) are all together where I stare at any time I enter the living room. Seeing them all together helps me realize things like “Oh, I shouldn’t buy any more books of obscure mythology because I never really manage to get through them” or for Tom to acknowledge that he’s not going to read six different memoirs by 1800s American naturalists.

    It’s helped to have an actual adult job. I can pretty much buy myself any books I want at this point, which makes it easier to tell myself that if I really want to read that book, I can just buy another copy off the internet. I can pretend I’m not really parting with my might-have-been selves to some extent. Though I’m still hauling around a full shelf of fiction in german that I’ll totally get around to reading someday….

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