There is a certain irritating preciousness that often goes hand-in-hand with bookishness. I see it every time an author humble-brags about how, as a child, they could always be found with their nose in a book. In other words, while all the other kids were off being brutish and brainless, nose-in-a-book author was different—and better, the underlying smugness suggests. I suppose this could be a sort of revenge-of-the-nerds scenario; bookish children are often introverts who have a hard time in social situations, and childhood sometimes seems almost entirely made up of social situations, as though leaving a kid alone for any length of time might sway them over to The Dark Side forever.
I say all of this as someone who has been bookish all her life as well. By all rights I should be one of those people posting “There’s no such thing as too many books” along with photos of the great bookstores of the world so my equally bookish friends could comment “ooh that one’s on my bucket list!” Thing is, at some point in the recent past I had one of those first-world midlife crises when I realized I had too much stuff and almost none of it was necessary for me to live a satisfying life. And the one thing I had conspicuously consumed the most of over the years was, in fact, reading material.
I have easily over a thousand books right now, collected over the past quarter century. Of them there are maybe only a couple dozen I ever take down from the shelves to look at again, usually for teaching purposes. The rest just sit there, waiting for the next time I move and have to shove them all in boxes (carefully balanced with socks and hats—I’ve learned a thing or two about packing after having schlepped my growing collection around for 25 years) and take them all out to sit untouched on shelves once more. At some point it occurred to me that this did not make any sense. A book’s value is in how it transforms the mind; it should not be merely another material object to possess. What did it matter that I had all these books in this house? Nobody would look at them but me and the husband, and neither of us exactly need to be reminded that I read a lot. We know this, just as the husband knows all sorts of things about animals without our having to own a zoo. Granted, books are lot lower maintenance than zoo animals, but the fact remains that I started to think there is such a thing as too many books when you’ve got a perfectly good library in town and you’re running low on cash and as lovely as it is to believe, as bookish people often claim, that you’d rather read than eat, you know that’s a sentiment only said by people who never really had to choose.
As such, last Saturday I pitched a canopy tent on the lawn, dragged out half the living room furniture, and arranged my collection for sale. It was surprisingly hard to do, and I’m not just talking about the number of trips back and forth with armfuls of dusty tomes. I mean, and forgive me for a bit of preciousness, it hurt thinking about parting with some of these books. I haven’t loved all of them—I haven’t even read all of them, and a great many I have read I barely remember—but they were all part of a lifetime of craving new ideas and new visions of the world. But I’m still me. I can still crave that stuff, even while downsizing a bit, and as long as whatever new regime comes to power doesn’t decide that public libraries are the devil’s lair and shut them all down, I ought to be able to fulfill those cravings quite nicely.
It was hot and humid, as only a late-August day can be, and by the time I set everything up I was drenched in sweat but pleased. The display of books was impressive, artfully arranged by subject (until I got tired of doing that and just threw the rest in boxes on the porch). Though it pained me to offer such treasures at such insultingly low prices, friends had warned me not to overcharge: the object was to sell. Yeah, maybe karma would bite me back one day when I came across one of my own novels offered up on a card table for a buck on someone else’s front lawn, but honestly if that ever happens I’d probably be overjoyed. Better a one-dollar has-been than a full-price “thanks but no thanks.”
The sale started at 2pm and by 2:03pm I’d already had a sale. A friend who wanted to read more classics asked me to pick a few things out for her; my selection was quirky and probably would have garnered scorn from some of my former university colleagues, but my friend bought them all without question. For the next couple hours a steady stream of facebook-invited friends came, browsed, and bought, some just a few items, others great armloads full. One friend bought all 12 of my Haruki Murakamis and carried them away on her bike. Now that’s a book lover. I hadn’t put up any signs in the neighborhood but around 3:30pm a man and a woman who lived nearby stopped to see what I was selling and, once they saw, stayed to browse. They seemed impressed with what they saw. “This is a good collection,” the woman said approvingly. They perused the offerings for a little while and ended up buying four Dorothy Sayers mysteries.
After they left, things slowed down a lot. Maybe the heat was keeping people indoors, or maybe it was the opposite—hot as it was, autumn was right around the corner and one last summer hurrah might have been in order. Whatever the reason, I spent the next two hours alone, reading a library book (the devil can lure me into his lair any time he wants), occasionally glancing up at my beautiful forsaken collection. Look, there’s the first book I bought when I moved to New York City. That’s the book I brought with me the first time I traveled overseas alone. This one scared the crap out of me, the one next to it made me laugh so hard my sides hurt, and that one over there makes me furious because it made me cry like sentimental sap. And I’m selling this stuff. Where the hell was everyone? Didn’t they realize? This was my life I was selling, for a buck paperback and two bucks hardback.
The last people who came to the book sale were also neighbors, a man and his young daughter from across the street. As they were coming out of their house the little girl spotted my tent and shouted to her father, “Look! A bookstore! Can I please go to the bookstore?” That made me smile—bookstore. I guess there were enough books that it looked like one. After several more “please”s, the father gruffly relented. The child eagerly entered the tent, fingering spines, gazing at colorful covers. Finally she picked out a large hardback. “I want to get this!”
It was an odd choice: a Rick Bayless Mexican cookbook, certainly worth a lot more than two bucks but a curious selection given Earthsea and His Dark Materials and some kid-appropriate Neil Gaiman nearby. “I want to buy this for Mommy! I want to give her this cookbook as a gift!” She held the heavy book up with both arms so her father could see.
Dad took the book from her. “Yeah, OK, we’ll get it when we come back. Let’s go to the car now.” The girl skipped off to the car, waving at me as she went. The man watched her and quietly put the book back. He also waved at me, a wave that clearly indicated no, we’re not coming back, sorry.
Well, shit. That just about broke my heart worse than the fact that I hadn’t made nearly the wad of cash I’d hoped for that day after putting my heart and soul for sale in a tent on the lawn. I suppose I shouldn’t judge; maybe he didn’t want his child to be so acquisitive, so impulsive with money. I guess I could see that; it’s what I was trying to be myself, after all.
Still, though, I wish they’d gotten the book.
At 6pm I started moving everything back inside. It took a lot less time than it had to move everything out, since I didn’t have to be pretty or organized about it, but my spirits were low. I hadn’t even managed to sell a hundred books in that time, and it felt like a slap in the face somehow, as bad as having my own novel manuscripts rejected so many times over the years. I knew it was illogical to feel this way, but it had been a difficult decision to part with this stuff and now I didn’t know quite how to feel having not parted with it. It was like a TV show where a main character gets a job in another country and everyone is sad and says their tearful goodbyes and then in the last few minutes the character changes their mind and decides to stay. Really? I had to go through all that emotional turmoil for nothing? Man, that’s just not nice.
I suppose I could turn to eBay and sell this stuff piece by piece, but I’m just not motivated enough to do that. In the end I guess what I’ll do when the husband and I decide to ditch civilization and take to the road with our pets in our converted camper, which does not have room for a thousand books even if I somehow did want to bring them along, is donate them to charity. With any luck, new noses will find their way in them this time.