I was raised (sorta) Catholic, but as a teen and young adult it was in books that I placed my true faith. When I needed help knowing what to do and how to be, I turned to fiction, memoir, and poetry, where I found solace, companionship, adventure, wonder, and answers to important questions.
Because books were so important to me, I kept all of mine for many years. Many I read and re-read, getting something different with each reading. Books were sacred objects, so much so that when a college boyfriend once threw my big fat collected works of Shakespeare across the room to provoke me–to say, no, they are not–I wondered if I should end the relationship.
While I knew some books were light or “trashy,” I once assumed that the books that were weightier would always be weighty. I assumed that they would always be relevant, important, a source of wisdom and light to me and anyone else who might read them. I knew they should always be kept. I knew their authors would always be important.
Um, no. Not really.
During May, I did a massive weeding at one of the libraries in my district, and I was able to see with the perspective of years that, in truth, most books are very much of their time. This particular library was filled with old books. Yellowed pages, dated covers, tiny print, characters no teens of today could relate to.
While I remember loving Cynthia Voight’s award-winning Tillerman books (beginning with Homecoming) as a teen and then as a young teacher, I reluctantly parted with them. The old, yellowed books with outdated cover art hadn’t been checked out in years. While they are books that still have tremendous value and are often taught in English classes, I understood why the teens in this school weren’t checking these books out for independent pleasure reading (the primary need this collection meets). The books were long, with dense descriptions and ways of living and being that were common in the early 1980s but aren’t now. The early ’80s happened nearly 20 years before this library’s patrons were born.
If you are a reader of a certain age, you most certainly remember Paul Zindel and My Darling, My Hamburger. It was pretty cutting-edge in its day, which was actually before mine. Skimming through it this spring, I read a few pages of mother-daughter interaction, and it was almost like reading about a foreign culture.
Even books from the early 90’s, when I began teaching, seemed out-of-touch. This made me feel old and a bit irrelevant myself. 🙂
At first, it was hard to part with the books. Books! Books I (and others) once loved. Books that meant something to me and students of the past. But the case for parting with them was clear: The books hadn’t been checked out in years, and our libraries are supposed to be places that houses resources people need today, not a museum to preserve those they once did.
When our shelves are filled with books kids don’t want or need to read, they can’t find the ones they do. They come to believe that “there’s nothing good to read here” because it’s so hard to find the “good” things amongst all the other stuff. Think about the difference between a thrift store and a carefully curated vintage boutique.
It feels counter-intuitive–Libraries are supposed to keep things!–and when resource-strapped teachers see us discarding boxes of books, they protest: “Those are perfectly good books! Why are you getting rid of them?”
But I came to see, in those boxes and boxes of books that no teen of today is going to read, that there is no point in keeping books that do nothing but take up shelf space. It does more harm than good.
During the same time, I was also reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It’s been all over everywhere, so I’m probably not breaking news of it to any of you, but I mention it here because I so love and agree with her thinking about stuff:
“To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose. To get rid of what you no longer need is neither wasteful or shameful.”
My criteria for what’s useful in a personal book collection is different from that for a school library, but so much of what Kondo says applies to both: “…we should be choosing what we want to keep, not want we want to get rid of.” (page 42)
Such a subtle distinction–but such an important one! So many articles and posts I’ve read on minimalism and decluttering focus on getting rid of things that are extraneous. The focus is on what doesn’t work and what’s not needed. Instead, Kondo’s focus is on what works. It’s on what has value, rather than what does not:
“Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard the rest.”
When I pare down my belongings, I more fully appreciate the things that remain. There are some books I continue to keep, because there is something in the physical object I want to hold onto. I get pleasure from the tangible object.
I’m learning that I can let go. I’m learning that what I got from the books that shaped me is not really carried in the books themselves. I can worship the process of reading–and thinking, and feeling, and living–and release the tangible products that were conduits to the experience.
I guess I’m not so much losing my religion as finding a new way to live my faith.