Gimbling in the Wabe – Doing the Unthinkable

by Sharon Browning


I did the unthinkable this week.  I culled my books.Too Many Books

Some of you may remember the Gimbling in the Wabe where I wrote a poem about it being impossible to have too many books; something I staunchly believe.  Not only do I have books in the basement, by my bed, tucked away in “hidden” bookshelves and sitting around my chair, but I had a corner of my house simply overrun with books – two and three layers deep on shelves, piled high on a corner table, sitting on the floor in stacks.  I would look over and see those books and feel a deep sense of satisfaction.  They anchored me; they told my history and in their pages were more than mere words – there were memories.

But this week, I went through every book in that corner, and sorted them into three areas:  ones to keep close, ones to move to the basement, and ones to give away.  Why did I do this?  The same reason we attempt most of the upheavals in our lives.


Specifically, love for my daughter.  See, she is dating a very nice young man who just happens to have a severe dust allergy.  And heavens knows, my house is incredibly dusty!  Not only do we tend to accumulate things, but I also have a family who couldn’t care less about spotless housekeeping.  (I once told my mother when she was visiting that I was keeping the smudge marks left by my children’s hands in a busy stairwell as a sort of growth chart; she laughed, knowing that we all pick our battles.)  My husband, especially, has stated that he simply doesn’t notice if there is a layer of dust on quiet areas of the house, under furniture and along baseboards.  And since I spent many years on a job that often took me out of town and/or away 50, 60, 70 hours a week, I was more than willing to let the housework slide, especially if that meant more time with the family.  That became the norm, even after I stopped working.  It didn’t bother anyone (except me, occasionally, when I paused to think about it, because, you know, expectations).

But it does bother my daughter’s current boyfriend.  Not that he cares about our somewhat lackadaisical lifestyle, but his health simply makes it difficult for him to spend time with us, as much as he may want to.  He didn’t say this to us, but he did share that with Josie when she asked why he kept brushing off invitations to spend family time in our house.

Now, I tend to be a cause and effect sort of person.  If there’s no cause, I don’t attempt to effect.  But as soon as there’s a reason to do something, I’m on it.  Often with a vengeance.  So not only was it time to dust off and around my hordes of book, it was time to get their sprawl under control.  So that someday the Boyfriend (and who knows who else with dust allergies?) could spend some time with us without suffering for it later. It wouldn’t alleviate the problem, but it would be a big step in the right direction.

Wresting control of my sprawling books actually wasn’t that hard to do.  Oh, getting the initial jockeying for position started wasn’t easy – my “go to” books and the ones I valued the most tended to matriculate to the front of the stacks and top of the piles, so I had to move them first to get to the lesser used and forgotten volumes buried in the back of everything.  But once there was a slice of space to start moving things around, it all started to fall into place.

Every book was picked up, taken down, uncovered.  Each one was dusted off, swiped with a cloth, evaluated, assigned a place, given a spot.  Many books that had been stacked in piles now found a place on an actual shelf where they could be easily accessed.  Lost gems were rediscovered and celebrated.  Memories were rekindled: a journal filled with nonsensical poems written by a friend in our shared high school French class, a book given to me in third grade by friends when I moved away from the neighborhood, a rare set of comic books written by someone who had at first been a dear friend, then an acquaintance and now a stranger, but still cherished.  My signed copy of The Name of the Wind, from when my friend Scott and I drove to Wisconsin to listen to Patrick Rothfuss give a reading in the basement of a small community library (Pat laughed in appreciation when I asked him to sign with “Never give up.  Never surrender.”  Geek unity, FTW!) A hardback copy of the 1937 children’s book The White Stag, signed by author Kate Seredy, which had belonged to my mother when she was a child.  A red United Methodist hymnal embossed with gold lettering.

Each one rediscovered, each one now safely ensconced on a shelf where I can glance over and see them, and remember.  And smile.

Most of the books that went down to the basement were copies of classics: The Odyssey, Madame Bovary, The Brothers Karamazov, Dante’s Inferno, one of my collections of poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay, the works of Friedrich Nietzsche (abridged), a diary of Anaïs Nin, A Canticle for Liebowitz (but not my beloved Riverside Shakespeare!) or books that had sentimental value but no longer any real meaning (who needs a brittle copy of a Star Trek compendium when you have the internet?).

I expected to feel guilty at the pile of books that were to go to various Little Libraries throughout the neighborhood, especially as those piles grew far larger than I ever imagined they would.  Was it really that easy to let go of books I had held on to for years?  But it didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t abandoning these books – I was giving them the potential to become special to someone else.

Some of them I no longer needed:  parenting books (if I wanted evidence of my parenting skills, I merely need to look to my grown children), books relating for past interests (women’s studies, spirituality, dog sledding, biodiversity – keeping a few in case the interest rekindles, but not holding on simply because once I was consumed by them), books acquired to build on my children’s interests (dinosaurs! animorphs! horses! wizardry!), books I enjoyed but would never read again – why had I selfishly held on to them?, books by authors that I treasure – but not these particular books (you can have my Warrior and Witch books, but don’t you dare try to take Midnight Never Come or any of the Lady Trent books!), duplicates (only a couple of those), even some books that I couldn’t remember and simply didn’t care about any more.  Yes, there were a few of those.

They will no longer languish under a thick layer of dust, pushed into a corner or blocked by stacks of more active books.  They will find their way to Little Libraries where anyone can take them, read them, use them.  I suppose I could have saved them for a yard sale when the weather turns balmy, or tried to sell a few of the more prestigious ones to a nearby independent bookstore where they also have a good selection of used books, but somehow that feels disingenuous.  Probably I’m just being sentimental.  So be it.  I nevertheless will carry a sack of footloose books in the back of my car, stopping to add them to roadside libraries as opportunity permits until they are all gone.

But now the books that once were piled on shelves are gone from my corner book-space, as are the stacks of books that had been stacked on the floor.  Every book still here has been somewhat organized -nothing too strict, though! – and there’s even a little bit of room for new books to join them.  Because there’s always going to be new books!

Now I can sit in my chair by the picture window, sip some coffee, type out some ramblings, and look over to see a glory of books unimpeded:  my husband’s books on hyperspace and fuzzy logic and chaos theory, the books of George R. R. Martin over which my son and I bonded, a few Harry Potter books (the ones that aren’t still up in my daughter’s room), and so many, so very many books that I’ve read over the years that are near and dear to my heart.  Still so many of them.  Good friends, all, at my fingertips.

And dust free.  At least for a little while.

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