Release the Books

I want to share a funny story with you all this week. It’s a story about my books. They’ve been locked up for about a year in pretty dismal quarters. A closet. Yes, a closet. One that was teeming, filled top to bottom, many rows deep, with books. But just this week I gave them a reprieve. They’ve come out of hiding and can now be found taking up residence in nooks and crannies all around my home. But let me not get ahead of myself.

I am an English and German double major who married an English major and music minor. Which is to say there are a lot of books in our house. And a fair number of musical instruments, too. We are the kind of people who go out shopping for book shelves and come home with a balalaika. But I digress.

When people sold their books back at the end of the semester in college for some nominal pittance, I thought they were insane. Didn’t my fellow students want to cultivate a library filled with the books that had inspired them? Books had always been there for me – to make me laugh, teach me something I didn’t know, challenge an old belief. They comforted me on solitary evenings and joined me and my cup of coffee for many an early morning.

But as I entered my late 20s, I started to feel a little different.

I didn’t know who Bea Johnson (Zero Waste Home) or Marie Kondo (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying) were then, but I did know I was feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff surrounding me. Gallery style walls that I once adored for their stories and composition felt busy. Getting dressed in the morning was a chore because there were so many items taking up space that I rarely or never wore. What happened to the days of living out of my backpack in Europe? Where did all this stuff come from? And more importantly, how could I reclaim my sense of space at home. Something needed to change. I began going through a rigorous purging. My books, not being the main culprit, were largely spared in my early years of clearing. But it was only a matter of time.

The idea of donating books started off a few years ago when we were moving from our DC row home into our current house. I didn’t want to carry excess items into our new space and so I started to look at our books with a critical eye. My husband Colin resisted heartily. Did we really need 3 volumes of Shakespeare’s collected works with paper so thin you daren’t flip through them? And what about that book on the history of tennis that he’d already read and wouldn’t be rereading? Did we need to keep that in our home? (Okay, in fairness I made that last subject up, but it’s exactly the kind of book that could be found on our shelves.) You probably won’t be surprised that the more I pushed to get rid of items, the more dear Colin held onto them. It’s a pretty human response and I can empathize.

And so we moved with most of our library in tact.

Many of these volumes made a new home on built in bookshelves in our new dining room. Sadly these shelves were not original to our 1931 home, but rather flimsily installed in the last decade. The shelves bowed and filled with clutter. Colin and I both agreed they had to go. (That was quite the DIY demo!) But what to do with our books? Cue, the closet. The closet in the attic. (I know, I know, so Jane Eyre.)

Now, if you came to our house in the last year, you would not have found a bookless place. Our bedside tables have towers leaning in a manner that would make natives of Pisa proud. Our living room coffee table is piled high. Our many beloved cookbooks still have their esteemed place in the kitchen. My home office has a homemade shelves filled with favorite books and resources. But we knew our library was hidden away. Colin and I would have occasions where we wanted to consult a particular book only to realize it was in the closet. We’d scan the spines in the front of the closet, but inevitably the one we wanted would be too far buried to access it. Yes, we started to miss our books. Some of them anyway.

This last weekend, we set the books free. In addition to feeling ready to reacquaint ourselves with our long-lost “friends,” we wanted to reclaim the closet. We are doing all kinds of shape shifting around the house as we prepare for the arrival of our new Little Bit. (Hello nesting!) The room where those books were hiding is now the bedroom of our two toddlers and we wanted to use the closet for more traditional means. (You know, for parents to store clothes and for children to hide from their parents. The usual.)

Even though I carried most of those books up two flights of steps to tuck them away, I was shocked by the number of books that spilled out from the closet. Did we really have this many books? It’s been a joy to rediscover many of these books. My Gertrude Stein collection was missed. We’ve located the French poetry book that we wanted to read to our daughter who’s very into speaking “fake French.” (It’s as amazing as it sounds.) There’s the woodworking book that we wanted to flip through as we contemplate some projects around the home. And there were many books that reemerged that Colin and I agree are ready to be enjoyed in a new home. So we’ll be making that donation after the holidays, which feels great.

It’s a gift to hide things away and see what you miss (or don’t). On the whole I’m delighted to have our books breathing life into and around our house. (I’m surprised by how unbothered I am by the messy stacks scattered all over the place!) And I’m reminded of the joy of having objects that tell a story. Not just the literal story laid out neatly on the written page, but the one that only we know when we behold the thing and what is represents – and has represented – in our lives.

Living with less, for me, is largely about consuming less. A mindset that can be hard to hold onto around this time of year. But there is something so lovely about seeing what truly elicits a feeling a calm and joy. More often than not that feeling usually shows up these days when we let go of things (to really see and cherish what we remains) versus adding to the pile. But this week I’m soaking in and enjoying my old “friends,” tattered covers and all.

I hope this holiday season you will find yourself able to dust off some of your old loves and find fresh delight in something new. Much love from our family to yours.