I had to move recently–and it’s not really until you move that you realize exactly how much stuff you have.
After dragging almost a dozen hulking, heavy book boxes up my steep (and somewhat perilous) outdoor stairs, it crossed my mind that I didn’t really have a place to put them. I jammed book upon book into any open shelving unit I could find, into crevices and in thick stacks where the back row was essentially bricked up and invisible, leaving no real space for my actual belongings.
But that was all right. Up until then, books were the one thing that no one would ever criticize me for hoarding. I mean, I’m a writer, after all. Books are my life’s work. I read a lot. I buy books a lot. I buy them so I can review them as soon as they come out, to support authors–but mostly, just to have. And that was okay, because they were books.
Then I had a long conversation with someone the other night about favorite books. I remarked how I’ve purchased maybe three or four copies of my own personal favorite, The Sparrow, because I love lending it to people. It’s a powerful and important book. Half the time, I don’t get it back. Usually, the person who borrowed it was so moved by it, he/she gave it to someone else on an impulse. “Sorry,” they’ll say. “This other person just had to read it. Just had to.”
That is the happiest ending to a borrowed book I could imagine. Now someone else has read The Sparrow, and will probably then lend it to yet another someone else, who will also read The Sparrow and hopefully learn from it, cry over it, even be changed by it.
And that got me to thinking:
Why do I need so many books, when I could be sharing them?
Maybe I keep them because I plan to read them again someday. Not to mention that uniquely sexy look of a book on a shelf! Sometimes I’ll even go out and buy a book that I borrowed and adored, just to have my own copy to ogle.
As my eyes traveled to the overflowing bookshelf, I remembered a Nabokov book I’d read in college called Pale Fire. Sometime that year, I slapped a sticky note on it saying, “Carter, October.” Carter being a dear high school friend and fellow book nerd, who I just knew would appreciate the unreliable narrator, the wacky framing device, and the unfolding mystery in this odd Nabokov novel. I’d written all over the margins knowing he’d read it someday. I even wrote some at him, like: “Doesn’t this remind you of White Noise?” Or, “Hint, hint!”
Then, for some reason, I never put it in an envelope. Pale Fire never left my house. It’s been traveling with me from apartment to apartment, still bearing a yellow sticky note: Carter, October.
October, of course, being his birthday.
And that’s how the Big Book Giveaway was born. I didn’t just need to give away Pale Fire to someone I knew would adore it (because, let’s be honest, I’m never going to read a novel as dense and peculiar as Pale Fire again if I can help it). I needed to give away lots of my books. I mean, Amber obviously needed to read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. It would bring her and her kids so much joy. And of course, I wanted my little cousin to have The Silver Metal Lover, which changed my own outlook on life as an adolescent girl. Not to mention that my comic-book-loving buddy Tim definitely needed to read Soon I Will Be Invincible before we finished our superhero book together.
It spiraled off from there. Every book, once I looked through the shelf, had somebody’s face on it. Somebody who I knew would read it and love it and think of me when they saw it on their own shelf. I had so much book love that I was hoarding all to myself, when it could be shared, when it could be read and talked about and passed on.
I mean, I may still hold onto a few that I know I’ll read again and again, like The Neverending Story, or Dr. Dolittle–but imagine! Only carrying around five or six books from one place to the next? Writing little love notes to my friends inside the front covers, encouraging them to read it and give it away again? Maybe it’s whimsical, but I can’t help feeling like this is what books are all about.
And besides, if I really, really want to read a particular book again, I can always request it from the library.
It’s only ten blocks away.