I lugged two boxes to my classroom, my arms aching. Once there, I spread out scores of books on the table in the front of the room.
“Take one or two,” I said. “There’s some good stuff here.”
My students exchanged puzzled glances, and then a couple darted forward. A few others cautiously joined them and soon everyone was up there.
Since this was my inter-cultural communication class, I’d brought a mixture of books. Some were travel themed. Others captured a sense of culture, places or history. And a few told stories of ex-pats living abroad.
There were murmurs of surprise and delight. I’d hoped to bring books that would tempt them. But these students have grown up with the Internet and do much of their reading on computers, tablets, and smart phones. Would low-tech, rectangular piles of paper still interest them?
I wasn’t sure… until I saw them rooting through these small stacks. Their reaction seemed to be summed up in the astonishment of one student:
“Really, Mr. Lightfoot? We get to keep ’em?”
I nodded, pleased. But then one student, grinning mischievously, asked the question I’d been expecting:
“Can I sell mine on Craig’s List?”
“That’s a choice,” I said. “They’re used; look inside the cover. Most cost two dollars, but who knows?”
I shrugged. “Maybe I’m a fool and you’ll get rich.”
My doubts increased a bit as several students, giggling, went through the line twice. Maybe they were going to have a pizza party on me. But most were engrossed in their new possessions.
Inquisitiveness seemed more abundant than acquisitiveness—almost all the books vanished.
In a way, this was encouraging too. Still, I was surprised, and a bit sad, to see that Joan Didion’s “The White Album” sitting there unclaimed.
I tucked it back into my bag and began taking roll, launching the day’s lesson. But I’d aroused my students’ curiosity, and they weren’t ready to start.
A hand went up.
“Hey, Mr. Lightfoot, are you retiring?”
“Not any time soon,” I said.
“Moving?” asked another.
“So why don’t you sell them?”
I smiled and nodded.
“Thought about it. But years ago, in grad school, one of my professors did this. He came in one day, out of the blue, and gave away a huge stack of books. Cool ones, too. Rare and out-of-print books that he’d had for years.”
“We figured he was either fleeing the country, getting a divorce, or terminally ill.”
Looks of alarm crossed their faces, and an awkward silence fell over the room.
“But no worries. He wasn’t, and neither am I.”
My students relaxed, and resumed flipping through their treasures.
Then a hand went up in the back of the room. A student pursed his lips, narrowed his eyes, and asked:
“So is this some sort of trick? You gonna make us do a book report?”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve collected books. I was reading before I got into kindergarten, and had a set of Golden Books in my bedroom.
I zipped through these in no time, and to spare their meager finances, my mom began taking me to the Oildale Branch Library. There, I’d max out the allowed number of check-outs, consuming these in a flash. Mom found it easier to go to two libraries on the same outing, taking me downtown to the main branch where I’d check out some more. They had no way of knowing I’d already borrowed the maximum.
There were some advantages to growing up in the pre-Internet age.
My friends and family knew that books were a safe bet for birthday and Christmas presents. But I had uninspired literary tastes. I devoured the Hardy Boys mysteries, and I feasted on books about pirates, bandits and buried treasure. I then moved into my hell-on-wheels period of snacking on stories of race cars, dragsters, and hot-rods, before finally discovering the wide world of science. I zeroed in on my favorite topic for years—the Space Race, America’s goal to reach the moon.
I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough of science.
I remember exactly when this happened, in the 5th grade, because I was bedridden for months with Valley Fever. My doctor worried about my lungs and feared the fungus—a serious illness—could spread if I exerted myself. So I wasn’t allowed outside for months, a horrible fate for a 10-year-old. All I was allowed to do was read. So I read.
And read some more.
Mom felt sorry for me, and since the public library was now off-limits, I couldn’t wait for the school’s book-club orders that arrived when my tutor visited. Mom indulged me by buying every book I wanted. I checked off almost all the books in the Scholastic Book orders that came home from school, skipping only the Nancy Drew series. My library now filled my room and overflowed into the den, crowding into the space reserved for our encyclopedias.
And it didn’t stop there.
When I got stronger, Mom took me to Pickwick’s Books and let me clean out the science section. She bought huge, hard-covered books in astronomy, oceanography, and physics. I pored over them for hours.
If a little bit of knowledge was good, more was even better!
In time I got well, but I never recovered from my book addiction. Since then I’ve accumulated books like a forest full of squirrels gathering nuts. There was no such thing as too much, and I kept collecting them even when our storage space was bulging with boxes.
This amused my parents at first, and for a while was even was a point of pride. But when my collection threatened to displace me from my bedroom, they urged restraint.
It didn’t help.
What did help was moving out to a place of my own. Yet even this was a short-term solution. I moved to a bigger place, and quickly filled that, too. What eventually placed a limit of sorts on my insatiable appetite was the act of moving itself.
U-hauls max out at 32′ and 12,000 pounds.
So when I moved, I reluctantly parted with a few treasures, promising myself that I’d replace them when I settled into my new apartment or home.
Which I did, and then some.
Over the years, I’ve lived in few towns that probably had public libraries smaller than mine. Of course, much of this was in storage at any time. This pained me. It was a source of joy when I got my first big office as a teacher and had yards and yards of shelving. I immediately added more so that every inch of every wall was covered which shelving.
I quickly filled these.
My boss dropped by my office to say hello and see how I was settling in. She greeted my books, some of them shelved double-deep, with considerably less enthusiasm.
“Don’t you worry about earthquakes?” she asked.
“Not really,” I replied.
She shook her head.
Her eyes kept going up and down, up and down, getting bigger and bigger.
“Robb, if you’re sitting there when The Big One hits, you’re a dead man.”
I laughed. She didn’t.
“I’m serious. You need to thin these down, and get them off the walls.”
“But… but… I don’t have anywhere else to put them.”
“Well, you need to find a home for them.”
My lower lip dragged on the floor.
“Aaawh, really? I’ve been waiting years for my own office so I could put them all up.”
“You must have a death-wish.”
She tilted her head, looking at me intently and waited for my response.
But I exercised my right to remain silent, and just grinned.
“OK,” she said finally, made a helpless gesture, and left, her head shaking. I was worried for a while, fearing that she’d sick campus safety on me. She didn’t, but then she never returned to visit me in my office again, either.
I think she feared for her life.
But she wasn’t entirely through with me. A week or so later I got a friendly book-intervention from the school’s librarian.
He dropped by to see me, and smiled at my bomb-shelter-thick book shrine.
“You know, Robb,” Ed said, scanning my shelves, “you could probably get rid of a few of these.”
“But it’s taken me a lifetime to collect all this,” I whined. “I can’t part with them.”
He nodded sympathetically.
“Let me tell you a story,” he began. “Once, when I interviewed for a head-librarian position, I was handed a book and told to tear it in two.”
He paused to gauge my reaction. I was wide-eyed.
“What kind of library tears books up?” I gasped.
I’d taken the bait.
“Most, actually,” he said. “They wanted to know if the applicant was a hoarder.”
“But libraries collect books, don’t they?”
“You can’t have them all,” Ed said. “And if a book is getting little use, and is easily replaced, then we have to ask if we really need it on the shelf.”
He raised his eyebrows, and let his gaze wander over to my shelves.
“Did someone put you up to this?”
“Hmmm…” he said, ignoring my question. “So, how long before you get around to reading all this?”
“Eventually, when things slow down…” my voice trailed off.
“Of course, and you won’t be buying any more before then.”
Busted, I thought.
His point made, he stood, smiled, shook my hand, and left.
He had me, and I knew it. When, really, would I ever get to it? So Ed set a process in motion. I decided to start paring down my library. And I did.
It’s taken a mere 20 years.
I’ve experienced a s-l-o-w process of withdrawal.
The early phases weren’t too hard. I parted with books I’d enjoyed, yet I knew I wouldn’t reread. These, my wife has said lovingly, were my “trophies.” But, remembering Ed’s words, I ditched those that were replaceable. I gritted my teeth and pulled them.
This amounted to several dozen boxes.
But then came the next phase, gradually letting go of books that I knew I’d never have time to read. This was much more painful. It forced me to confront my priorities, my limits, and my mortality.
I’ve been able to do this, of late, because I’m edging up on a “milestone” birthday. Let’s just say it’s hard to consider myself middle-aged anymore when, if I double the number, my longevity would rival that of folks in Genesis.
My problem is best explained by a book-themed coffee cup that sits on my desk. It’s a New Yorker cartoon, and it depicts two men standing in front of a huge bookcase. One says to the other, “These are the ones that I never had time to start, and those are the ones I never had time to finish.”
And it’s true. For some time I gave away the stuff I knew I’d never get to. But I still was left with hundreds, perhaps thousands of books I just knew I’d get to sometime.
Alas, what to do?
I’d gone about as far as my boss and Ed could take me. Then I remembered Professor Freeman, and the joy he seemed to experience in giving away his books. I hadn’t thought much about it at the time, but by giving his books away he was able to re-experience them again through the lives of his students. No, he didn’t make us do a book report, but we couldn’t help but talk with him—and one another—about the collection he’d placed with us.
This was the motivation I needed to get real, as Freeman used to say, and cut loose of the books that are more a part of my past than they are of my future.
That’s why I’m just a few boxes away from having my personal library fit snugly in our study. My office at work is now devoid of wall-shelving, and paradoxically, it is now an open and inviting space for people to drop in, visit, and talk about the books they’re reading. I think it was the right move.
Life, it’s said, is a journey, and those who plan to go far should travel light.
It’s taken me a long time to learn that, and of course it helps to own a Kindle.
Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe – “Or So it Seems™” – Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County. He can be reach at email@example.com.