I unrolled the blueprints and pointed to one of the living room walls, the one directly opposite the front door. “Here,” I told the contractor, “I want a wall of bookcases.” It would be one of the few extravagances in my little house. It was a fleece of sorts, a way of manifesting my long held desire to live a life surrounded by books.
In the months to come, the walls and floors and windows and roof would come together to create a house, but it was only when the bookshelves were installed that I could see a home. The shelves were painted bright white and there were tiny brass brackets that made it possible to accommodate books of any height. I carefully chose a place for each of my treasures – the Narnia books, Gone With The Wind, an entire shelf of Agatha Christie – and then stood back to gaze with reverent wonder. That was 31 years ago.
The shelves would eventually hold a large collection of novels and memoirs, thin volumes of poetry and chunky reference books, hardbacks with glossy dust covers and paperbacks with splayed spines and frayed corners. Some of them bore signatures from authors who were my heroes. Sometimes visitors to Sandhill stood in front of the bookshelves and stared, absorbing (I choose to believe) the magic and wonder of all the words waiting to be read.
Eventually the shelves were full. Not one more volume could be forced into the rows. The shelves were so crowded that I started stacking new acquisitions horizontally into the skinny spaces at the top of the books. Instead of inviting and generous, the shelves looked burdened and unkempt. Instead of tempting me to stop and peruse their offerings, they spurred me to look away, to ignore the dust and the fading spines. My extravagance had become an albatross.
One Sunday afternoon not long ago, the late summer sun came angling through the windows like a spotlight. It made a grid on the floor in front of the bookcase, the grain of the wood stretched out like waves. I don’t know what prompted me to stop, to stare. I tilted my head to read the titles and, like dominoes, they fell from my vision as my eyes moved from shelf to shelf.
The realization that came in that moment was stark and raw and surprising: Most of these books I would never read again. Many of them I hadn’t liked all that much when I read them the first time. It was time to make space for what is next.
I started with the ones about which I had only a vague recollection of subject, moved to the ones that no longer spoke to the person I have become, and after several hours ended up with a stack of 98 books – 39 hardcovers and 59 paperbacks. I placed them in boxes and put the boxes in the car for delivery to the Friends of the Library.
The empty space around the books that were left made it possible to actually see the ones I loved, the ones that had inspired me and illuminated my mind. And there was room for other things I loved – the pottery bowl I had bought on a trip with some friends and the little Lane cedar chest I had gotten as a senior in high school now filled with tiny bits of paper and trinkets that memorialize my life.
The whole process was, of course, a metaphor. It came to me as I emptied and dusted and rearranged. Without realizing it, I, too, had reached my capacity. Like my books, I need space, margin, edges into which I can bleed a little. I can’t, if I want to be respectful and reverent of this life I have been gifted, stuff my days, my head, my heart with every offering that comes my way. And, sometimes, I need to empty them of what is already there.