Yesterday I finally began the project of getting rid of many of my poetry books. Perhaps I’ve procrastinated for months because I knew how painful it would be to say goodbye to them. As with so many of these decluttering projects, it’s not about the objects themselves, but what they symbolize: these books represent who and what I thought I would be and do. This is why I’ve been schlepping them around for years and decades, from rental house to apartment, always believing their contents would make me a better person: learned, a more talented poet, someone unafraid of teaching. Someone who could stand in front of a classroom or sit in a writing workshop and disseminate the knowledge I’d obtained from those books.
A lovely dream, and not out of reach. But I never read them. I purchased them, painstakingly over the course of years, from hundreds of library sales, thrift shops, yard sales, used book shops. I dabbled in some, skimmed a few, began a number of volumes and then stopped in the middle, distracted by another book, an affair, a job, an obsession – or a poem I was writing – and I never returned. Instead I returned the books to the shelf, assuming I’d pick them up later.
Later became a month, a year, a decade. Now I’m past half a lifetime, and I’m tired. Sick of pulling all these books off the shelves, packing them into cardboard cartons, labeling them – “Poetry – Anthologies – Office,” being told by movers half my age, “Wow, you’re really organized!”, opening the cartons with one slice of the box cutter, putting them into alphabetical order by author, and returning them to the shelves – only to do it again two or three or six years later.
Over the course of three decades, those quarters and dollars at used book sales added up, and I don’t even want to think about how much money I’ve spent on these hundreds of paperbacks and a few hardcovers. Besides assuming I’d read them, I’d always figured I’d resell them. When I started buying them in my youth, the internet didn’t exist and all we kindled were romances. I had no idea the market for used books sold in actual stores would dry up in my middle age, so that when I finally decided to let go of half my library, no merchants would be interested.
Like most collectors I know, I want to give my sort-of-treasured possessions to a good home. I hope someone enjoys these books, and has the pleasure I never had of actually reading them. I’m offering them to my friends, acquaintances, and political compañer@s, and what they don’t want will probably go to the League of Women Voters. The Amherst branch holds their sale on the town common in the spring, under a giant tent. I haven’t stopped shopping there. But since participating in a support group for clutterer-hoarders at Smith College several years ago, I’ve learned to scrutinize my selections and ask myself, “Are you actually going to read this, or do you just think it would be a good thing to have?”
I’m not giving up all of my treasures. The complete bilingual Federico García Lorca will probably go to the used bookstore after my death, if such a creature exists then. But from now on, he’ll have much less company on my pared-down bookshelves.