Ever since I was in grammar school I’ve had bookcases. My father made them for me whenever I needed them. He made them with smaller shelves as my childhood books became paperback novels. He made them taller when I needed more shelves. So I have always imagined having a room dedicated to my library. A place where all the books I have read live and all the books I plan to read live. Every book I have ever bought I have planned on reading. One doesn’t buy a book without the intention of reading it.
As I grew older, and as I’ve lived in San Francisco long enough, I’ve had to deal with the issue of space. There is not a lot of it. My small studio has an eight foot long book case, five feet high. There is another one that is three feet long and six feet high. And yet, I am still running out of space. I still have three book cases at my parents’ home.
I have begun to downsize and I have to say it’s emotional. I understand that I have a luxury not everyone does; too many books. I’ve bought so many of them secondhand, and I actually think of money in terms of books:
2-3 drinks = 1 book
1 meal = 1 book
1 cab ride = 1 book
As I began to downsize, I started with the easy stuff: the books I am never going to read. But it sounds easier than it is. I really want to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Mao: The Untold Story. So those books go back onto the shelves. I start to pull out books I might have read but can’t remember if I have or not. And then finally, I pull books out that I have read but don’t really care about. They are books that take up space and I don’t quite care for them.
There are some books I know I will never ever reread, like 2066 by Roberto Bolaño. The book is divided into five sections, one of which is 140 pages of women’s bodies found after they have been raped and murdered. Their bodies, the crime, their clothing, and how they are buried are all described. 140 pages. Bolaño was making a literary statement about what is happening in Mexico with the drug cartel. I wanted to skip some of the pages, I thought, no one will know. It’s all the same. But it’s not all the same and if I can’t read it, I shouldn’t have it on my shelf. I have kept that one because it’s brilliant. Just because it is horrific does not mean I do not admire it.
When I was younger, I thought I needed to keep all the books I read, that they were a part of me, and I needed them as markers, as physical chapters in my reading life. But as I’m growing and reading more and losing space I realize that is not how one maintains the perfect library. The perfect library is filled with perfect books: perfect to the library owner. There are no science books in my library, no romance either. There is some science fiction, some magical realism, and maybe some fantasy. But mostly literature and fiction, with some non-fiction. The shelves are curated specifically to my tastes. I am not trying to impress anyone. (I still have my official companion books to The X Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I loved those books and poured over them again and again.)
The problem is that we want to define ourselves—with what we do, where we go, what we listen to, and what we read. Having those books on my shelves allowed a larger portion of who I am to be seen. The flaw in this case is that not everyone has read all the books on their shelves (I’m certainly guilty of this). And not everyone keeps all the books they have read on their shelves. I once dated someone who perfected his bookcases. Not a single embarrassing book was on his shelves. They were all indie, subversive, and cult. And yet he was none of those things.
Perhaps my youthful hubris lay in numbers. I wanted to look at a lot of books. I wanted to know where I had spent my time; what I had done over the years. But now I am not so concerned with that. Now I just want to surround myself with books that I love: those that I have learned from, those that I have fond memories of, and those that I plan to reread again.
Below are some of the books that I am getting rid of at my parents’ house.