This weekend, in what could only be described as moment of pure insanity brought about by this seemingly endless NEPA winter, I decided to purge my office of books. That’s right, I went through three bookshelves and absolved myself of almost 200 books. The criteria was that it had to be a book I did not enjoy, a book I would not recommend to anyone else, or a book of which I had multiple copies. Yes, the sad truth is I have kept every book I’ve ever been given and have ever read. I do mean every book.
I went into the purge with the purest of intentions, to make more space, to free up shelves, to possibly pass these books on to someone who would appreciate them and love them (or not) as much as I did. I was supposed to feel free and clear, like when I rented a dumpster and threw away most of my ex’s belongings. What happened, however, was anything but joyous. Rather than feeling light and happy, by the end of the process, I was sobbing like a baby.
You see, to a writer, every book is like a kiss. We remember where we were and from whom we received each one. Some memories are good, like when I came across my tattered copy of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris, and I remembered being a young teenager and reading that book at least seven times because I couldn’t believe someone could write something so modern … (we had been studying Dickens and Shakespeare in school that year.) Or when I found myself knee deep in a pile of self-help books that were given to me as Christmas gifts by my grandmother, and I wondered what signs of mental/emotional illness I must have been displaying so clearly to prompt this gift idea.
Then there were the fresh, crisp covers of the books I hated, loathed even, bought because the cover art drew me in or someone in my earshot spoke highly of the writing. I had many of those. Still, I was surprised that I remembered each one so vividly. A failed book club with my sister, gifts from people who clearly do not know me very well, attempts at being more worldly, all of these moments left behind an untouched relic that would now go into my donation pile.
What I found so emotional about this whole process was not the subtraction of the “bad” books, but revisiting the good. Suddenly, it was like I was in my college dorm room again with the smell of my roommate’s carne guisada puertorriqueña simmering only feet away as I devoured Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, or Chuck Palahnuik’s Fight Club. Or I was 15 and back in high school when a teacher placed The Catcher in the Rye in my soft palms for the first time. And it suddenly occurred to me: this is what books do. They remind us not only of the story in between their covers, but the stories in our hearts. The books I chose to keep are my friends, my confidantes, my bookmarks on this journey we call life. I urge you, when you’re feeling down or if the winter blues are holding your spirit hostage, take a trip through your bookshelf this week. You never know where or when you might end up.
Amye Barrese Archer is a writer and teacher in Scranton. You can read more about her at www.amyearcher.com.