(sorta) Losing my religion

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.

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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.

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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 The old, yellowed books with outdated cover art hadn’t been checked out in years.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.

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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.

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This was the version in our library.

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. 🙂

Old book

Once recommended this to many reluctant readers.

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.

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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.

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There are treasures here–but it’s hard to see them!

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This display from Portland’s Maven is so different from the basket aisle at Goodwill, and yet–I’ve seen baskets like most of these there.

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.”
(page 61)

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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.”
(page 42)

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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.

Favorite book

This is an old, yellowed, cheaply-made book with tiny type. But my grandfather gave it to me and my children loved when I read it to them. This one’s a keeper, but it’s one of only a few from childhood.

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.

 

 

 

30 thoughts on “(sorta) Losing my religion

  1. Kathy says:

    This is a great essay. I really enjoyed reading it.

    And I totally had that copy of ” Are You There God, it’s Me, Margaret”.
    It was such an important book to me when I was 11, 12 – but I never ever suggested my daughters read it. I thought I would have to explain too much – even when I read it it was a little dated.

    • Rita says:

      I read somewhere recently that it’s been updated–no more reference to belts and safety pins for pads. But yes, that was an important one for me, too. Judy Blume did so much for teen lit.

  2. Jill says:

    I went through this exact same thing when I weeded at my school. I had teachers say the same thing, “Why are you getting rid of perfectly good books?” It was hard at first but by the end I was kind of enjoying it. And the shelves are less crowded and the kids can actually find the good stuff. And really, who needs “I Live in East Germany” anymore??
    Jill recently posted…Tales of the White BoardMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Or a book with the scary “foreign” lady? 😉 The section we weeded was fiction, which I think we tend to think is more timeless, but what I saw is that fiction is often just as much of its time as non-fiction. I came to really enjoy it, too. The shelves looked so much better, and the library just felt better to me. The books that were left were all books I thought the patrons of that library might love and might even pick up, now that they could better see the books they might love. I know, I know: I’m preaching to the choir again. 🙂

  3. Kate says:

    I love old cover art. I understand needing to do the book purge and how the dated cover art wouldn’t appeal to the generation of people checking out those books today, but my heart always beats a little faster when I’m digging through a book reseller’s shelves and find a classic with the same cover art as when I originally found it.

    Also: while Catholicism is my faith – books will always be my religion. I know I’m completely preaching to the choir, but they’ve entertained me, comforted me, validated me, and even saved me from time to time.

    • Rita says:

      I do, too! There are some books we weeded that I wanted to take home because I so loved the art on the cover and within the book. I don’t think I’d want an updated version of Blume’s Margaret–but I can understand why the cover I love wouldn’t appeal at all to today’s tweens. And I know just what you mean about being saved by a book. I really do think they save lives. Literally.

  4. Marian says:

    There must be something in the air in libraries on both sides of the border, because my spring was spent helping to purge my youngest son’s school library. Our teacher librarian (who is allowed to spend only 10% of his time in the library) was given the directive to purge anything over ten years old, something my fellow parent volunteer and I – not to mention the teachers – had a very difficult time with! (At one point we actually speculated that he must have mis-heard; Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone is more than ten years old!). But I do have to say that as we worked (quietly ignoring the ten year rule!), as we saw just how dated some of the material was, the feeling got turned on its head, and far from it being a bad thing, it felt like it was the right thing to do. There absolutely IS good reason to chuck dated (non-classic) material, and I agree with you on all the reasons for doing so.

    That was the edition of Are You There God that I read too 🙂 . I have very few books from my childhood. I have a copy of Charlotte’s Web (which is a keeper), but the Katie John trilogy, by Mary Calhoun, and the two Ruth Chew witch books, and Pippi Longstocking probably could/should be let go of. Unfortunately, sentimentality gets me every time I try to chuck them, even though I know if I were to apply Kondo’s test and hold the books and ask myself “does this bring me joy?” I would undoubtedly say No!

    I’d be very interested to hear what you think of Kondo’s book, in general. Like you, I heard about it quite a while ago, but then I read the reviews, which are very mixed, and decided to forgo the read. The first (and I think only) clutter clearing book I’ve read is Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston. There’s a bit of “woo” but I manage to read those parts with a grain of salt and to take things figuratively, even though I know she means people to take them literally (“we are connected to our belongings by strands of energy” for example). I’m feeling the need to have a massive de-clutter of our house, books included, in part brought on by hearing about my in-laws’ adventures/misadventures purging their house of 43 years in preparation for a move. There’s something about hearing that they’ve just tossed/recycled an entire large bookcase of National Geographic magazines (dating from the 70s, which have sat in their basement, untouched (but added to monthly) for at least 25 years) which brings things into perspective…
    Marian recently posted…Two People Hear the Same Number …My Profile

    • Rita says:

      First things first: I would NEVER arbitrarily toss all books past a certain date. We started by looking at all books that hadn’t been checked out in 5 years. If it hadn’t circulated AND it was dated OR seemed age-inappropriate (too young or too adult) OR it was just ugly (yellow pages and such), we tossed it. If it hadn’t circulated by didn’t meet the other criteria, we kept it. Perhaps without all that other stuff hiding it, our students might give it a try.

      Also, I, too, loved Katie John and Pippi. I’m not familiar with Ruth Chew. I still have my childhood copy of Pippi and it does give me joy when I pick it up. And that’s why I keep it.

      I found Kondo’s book very interesting/helpful. She tossed on their heads two ideas I’d clung to: That we shouldn’t strive for perfection and that we can tackle organization in pieces. These might be gentler approaches, but she claims they are fundamentally flawed. After reading her book and trying out her methods, I’ve come to agree with her. There’s way more woo in that book than I want/need, but there’s still lots of good stuff.

      • Marian says:

        Oh, I wish our librarian had approached the purging with such clear-cut guidelines! He went about things with such haste and ended up tossing books that one of the teachers used in her classroom every year for a specific unit – my fellow parent volunteer was driven to dumpster diving at one point, and was in tears about it all. She ended up begging him NOT to touch certain areas of the library, and I think he was probably nervous about his volunteers quitting, so acquiesced and let us do the job (with more care!). There seems to be a strong push from our board to make libraries (with physical books, that is) a thing of the past; part of the reason for the big purge was to eliminate shelves in order to make room for couches. You know, because kids need more sitting time! Aarrgh!

        Sounds like Kondo’s book is worth the read. (Goodness knows, if anyone needs extra help getting stuff out the door, it’s me!)
        Marian recently posted…Two People Hear the Same Number …My Profile

          • Kate says:

            One of my classes is discussing the pros/cons of creating maker spaces in libraries and how the digital age is shaping how we think of books and shelves and even the culling of media. One of the arguments that I know to be true in my head is that libraries can’t be sentimental for risk of become obsolete but my heart screams “but, but, but”. I struggle when I see stacks being removed for computer terminals but then, I also have an old library card catalog from my childhood library. I AM sentimental.

          • Rita says:

            I completely understand the “but but but.” I want any libraries I work for to be the opposite of obsolete AND I think there’s still a place in them for paper books. I do think we need to spend fewer dollars on paper research/reference materials, but it’s still important to have lots of traditional books in fiction. (At least, for the school libraries I serve. Our circulation stats indicate that’s true.) One mission of libraries is to foster love of reading, and while I know many people use digital devices to read, there are still many (of all ages) who prefer a book with physical pages to turn. It’s a balancing act, I think.

  5. Melanie Fraser says:

    I am guilty of holding onto all the books I have loved in the hopes that my kids will read them. Your post made me re-think this mindset. I know it is time to let go of the stacks of old cluttery books that just take up space. Still, I will never part with Judy Blume’s “Are you There God It’s Me Margaret”! Thanks for a meaningful post !

    • Rita says:

      It was so hard for me to realize that my kids were not going to love all the books I did as a kid. One thing I did is buy new copies of them. That did make them more appealing–but I did it for myself as much as them. I love a pretty, new, clean book!

  6. Jen says:

    When we moved, I made a very conscious effort to get rid of things. So many things. I thought when I moved home from Louisville that I had done a good purge….bags and bags of things to the Goodwill, so many pages to the trash that the compactor jammed, and I started stacking them out beside the road. But this time around, I told my husband to make the boxes of books that I brought home from Louisville but haven’t touched in almost 4 years (I couldn’t do it – I had to have him do it). I tossed yearbooks, cookbooks, pieces of paper, clothing, jewelry…so many things that are never used. I would have loved to do the same thing to the book room that was right outside of my office at school. So much crap and just relics that had no more real connection to me or the life I’ve decided to live.

    There’s still so much still to purge, though.

    I have to say, though…Homecoming? I think that was the first book I loved. At the very least, the first book I read again and again and again.
    Jen recently posted…Photo Friday – Kremer LandingMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      It was so hard for me to let go of Homecoming. I loved those books. But they hadn’t moved in many more than 5 years (are initial screening criteria), and I know they were not likely to move, even with the shelves cleared of so many old, unappealing books. One thing we’ve done a bit of, though, is getting new copies of old classics. Jill (who commented above, and is one of the phenomenal library managers in my district) did that with The Westing Game a few years back and saw it fly off the shelves. I think it really works with updated cover art. I wish publishers would update the covers of more classics.

  7. Sarah says:

    So interesting to consider which books will stand or have stood the test of time. I have accumulated a couple of boxes full of classic kid books from thrift stores for my daughter — can’t go wrong at 69 cents a pop and there was something meditative about combing through the shelves looking for the (I thought) wheat amongst the chaff. Perhaps I should have considered that there was a reason many of those books were donated in the first place…as reflected by the fact that my daughter is uninterested in most of them.

    Instead she has discovered Harry Potter this summer (I am just a little to old to have read that series as a youth) and is also reading a YA fantasy series called “Ranger’s Apprentice” that I suspect is (a) a little too old for her and (b) execrable. But oh well — her reading, her choice. I do have some hope that she may pick up some of the more classic literature when she is a bit older and the old-fashioned diction presents less of a barrier. At least we got through the All-of-a-Kind Family books as read-alouds about a year ago — probably the most important series from my childhood that I wanted to pass on to her. But our reading of the Little House series together seems to have stalled out.

    Interesting, too, to think about how books cycle in and out of fashion. There are some wonderful older series that were out of print for many years but have been reissued recently and don’t seem dated at all — I’m thinking of Jenny and the Cat Club, for example.

    Would love to hear more of your thoughts on Kondo’s book. I resisted for a long time since it was such a “thing,” but I finally read it and, yeah, I’ve drunk the kool-aid. Your post on books is timely as I’m just about finished with “tidying” my clothes (honestly with all the thinking about wardrobe structure I’ve done in recent months this feels a bit like cheating) and books are up next as you know.
    Sarah recently posted…Eating lately: JulyMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      It was hard for me when my son and daughter weren’t interested in some of the books I loved as a kid–the Little House books being at the top of that list. (And I, too, loved All of a Kind Family!) They didn’t always like what was popular, either, though. My son tends not to read fiction, but when he does it is of the epic fantasy variety. (He’s a Game of Thrones fan, the books and not the TV series.) When he was young, I thought he’d for-sure like Harry Potter, but no. This spring, out of the blue, he read his way through the whole series in a few weeks. All of which is to say that I whole-heartedly agree with all you express with “her reading, her choice.” I think giving kids lots of choices and the freedom to make them on their own is the most important part of growing readers. The daughter who didn’t have much use for Little House did read her way through the entire Anne of Green Gables series as a 6th grader (heavy description, old-fashioned diction, and all), at the same time she was inhaling Twilight. Go figure.

      I was the same way with Kondo. Can you see the Kool-Aid mustache on my lips? 🙂

      • Sarah says:

        I mean, in fairness, I read some pretty execrable stuff when I was my daughter’s age, too. But I also read a TON, so there was plenty of time for lots of good stuff as well. (And my daughter is a pretty enthusiastic reader, so it’s easier to trust that the calculus will work similarly for her.)

        The thing that I find it harder to let go of is insisting on reading a read-aloud book straight through, together. My daughter always wants to read ahead, or jumps from one book to another after a few days. And I find it a drag to read random chapters from random books each night — I want to discover a story with her! So that’s an ongoing tension.

        To me the genius of Kondo is her insistence on tidying by category, not location. I mean, DUH, it makes so much sense — but that is not how I had ever done things before. And her spiel about thanking objects before releasing them — sure, it’s woo-woo, but it’s a pretty neat psychological trick for getting around the guilt that often causes us to hang onto things that aren’t serving us. I think just generally having appreciation for the objects in our lives is something most of us could do with more of, too.
        Sarah recently posted…Eating lately: JulyMy Profile

        • Marian says:

          I hope it’s OK, Rita, that I jump in here as well …

          Sarah — your comment about wanting to discover a story with your daughter — that is exactly what I love about read-alouds! I’m really lucky — my 10 year-old son still loves for me to read aloud to him. He does, on occasion, skip on ahead without me. The last time he did this was with the Percy Jackson series, and I have to admit that even though I had ALREADY read the books with my older son, I still felt robbed! To prevent this, I’m trying my best to read “up” to him … in other words, choosing books he wouldn’t necessarily choose on his own (whether classics, or books his older siblings (and I!) have enjoyed and I “know” he would enjoy if only he’d give them the chance, if he weren’t so darn stubborn at times!). That might be sounding a bit ogreish…but I can’t think of one book or series for which I’ve said “we’re reading this, period!” that he HASN’T ended up enjoying, and the end result is that he’s heard a lot of really good – and many fairly complex – stories (for example The Hobbit and the LOTR).

          All that being said, I’m not sure when it is that “most” kids stop wanting their parents to read aloud to them. (I’m dreading that day myself!) If your daughter is feeling like she’s ready for the read-alouds to stop completely, but you still want to discover stories with her, you could simply read the books once she’s done with them (if the thought of reading children’s books silently, to yourself, doesn’t bother you, that is…). This is something I’ve done a lot with my older two. I got quite a ways into the Ranger’s Apprentice series alongside my older son (they were still being published when we were reading them; he LOVED them, and I thought they were actually not too bad! My husband even read them 🙂 ), and I read a lot alongside my daughter as well. Although it doesn’t *quite* compare to reading aloud, it comes in a pretty close second (in my mind, anyway). From the way you worded it, it sounds like your daughter is reading Harry Potter on her own? If she loves this series as much as my kids do, this might be one you want to discover alongside her! (I’m currently reading the series to my 10 year old, despite the fact that I already read it to him last year. For whatever reason, he wants to hear it again – out loud – and despite the fact that I’ve already read it numerous times (silently, on my own, before the kids were old enough, because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about when it first became a “thing”, and out loud at least two other times) I STILL love it 🙂
          Marian recently posted…Two People Hear the Same Number …My Profile

        • Rita says:

          I remember that reading aloud got tricky around 5/6th grade. It was so hard for me to let go of it. Snuggling on the bed with both my kids and reading to them before tucking them in might be the thing I treasure most about their childhoods. When they got to that age, though, it got harder to find books that both my son and daughter liked, and my daughter became like yours: If she really liked the book, she couldn’t wait for me. And then, once she’d read ahead, she didn’t have any interest in listening to it. I like Marian’s advice to read up. The last book I read aloud was To Kill a Mockingbird (6th grade). That was one I knew they likely wouldn’t read on their own, and it’s a book I treasure and I knew they’d read it in high school. I wanted to give them a fighting chance at loving it, so I didn’t want them to meet it in an English class. (Did I just say that out loud? Yes, I did. Maybe I felt that way because I watched so many of my own students hate it because of the way we had to read it in the Freshman English class I taught.)

          • Sarah says:

            Hey, I just wanted to say thanks to both of you for this discussion! It’s helped me sort through what might be going on and some strategies for moving forward. I don’t think she’s ready to stop read-alouds completely. I like the idea of “reading up” although I find that she often resists. I think you have inspired me to be slightly more ogre-ish! We have started reading Liesl and Po, which I think ought to be a perfect fit for her, but she says it is “too scary.” I have no idea why a gentle, winsome ghost should be more terrifying than He Who Must Not Be Named, but there you go. So I’m giving her “Oh, piffle, ghosts aren’t real, it’s just a story,” and I do think she’s coming around to it.

  8. Katherine says:

    My husband found his way back to faith through books, after a period of agnosticism. Books are powerful! I tend to want to hold onto them for that reason, but have recently been more apt to pass them on. I love thinking of someone else getting inspired by a book, like I was.

    I love reading the various reactions to “Tidying Up”. I am totally on the bandwagon, especially after moving. It was the perfect chance to touch everything and sift out major areas that would have sat dormant otherwise.
    Katherine recently posted…House StuffMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Books are powerful, and maybe that is the true reason I’ve tended to hold onto them (in my personal life). The physical object embodies all that the book meant to me, and I think letting go of the object might mean somehow losing what the book meant. My logical mind knows it’s not so, but my logical mind isn’t always the boss of me. 🙂

      Sometimes I think I want to move again just to have the opportunity for that kind of seeing/cleaning…

  9. May says:

    Once again you and I have been having shared experience unbeknownst to either of us. I just read Kondo’s book. I found it to be so in tune with what I loved about doing the William Morris projects. That philosophy just resonates with me. Kondo made me nervous though when she spoke of getting rid of tax receipts and banking records, because when have you really needed to go back and look—and I was thinking of three separate times when I had! But overall I loved the book.
    You are so right about books having their time and place. I first discovered that when I must have been about nine. My sister (13 yrs older than me) who I adored recommended The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew to me. It had touched her heart in the same way the Little House books did mine. But the Peppers left me cold. I don’t think I read more than three chapters. I had her copy and it was yellowed and a little musty. I just couldn’t get into it. I have often thought to look for a copy in used book stores wondering what I would think of it now, but have never found it.
    Margaret and My Hamburger…you are talking my school library now! Antiquities!

    Rita, have you seen the site Pages4Progress? Pledges are being made for numbers of pages being read this summer. Proceeds combat illiteracy and poverty. Very easy to register and log your pages.
    May recently posted…Another JulyMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I’ll have to go back and re-read what she said about banking records, but I remember that I agreed in general with what she said. There are very few of those kinds of documents I keep. I have so rarely needed them, and I can usually get them electronically if I do need them. I liked her advice about not needing to parse them into many different folders, either. I have one large one for various kinds of manuals. She’s right: I so rarely need them, and it’s less effort to sift through them on the rare occasion that I do than it would be to have a more complicated filing system.

      I was a big Five Little Peppers fan! Had forgotten all about them until I read this comment. 🙂 Just checked out Pages4Progress. Thanks for passing that on. The founder of the parent organization sounds like an incredible woman. Enjoyed reading about her.

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