28 July 2017

No, No, Not Bootlegging... But Maybe Booklegging Or...?

By Art Taylor

As I'm writing this, here's what our dining room looks like:

But despite all the liquor brands you see here, I promise we're not bootlegging, we haven't robbed a liquor store, and we aren't planning a big party (at least not yet, and not a chance it'll be this intoxicating if we do).

Instead, we're packing—and when we needed boxes, I thought, "Where would be a place that gets plenty of packages, where the boxes are strong enough to hold fragile material and where they're also small enough that they won't be too heavy?" When the answer came to me, I felt like I was a genius—but since then, I've learned that a lot of people grab moving materials from their local ABC store. So much for genius.

My wife Tara and I are currently in the midst of a big move—not big in terms of distance (we're staying in our general area here in Northern Virginia) but it feels big, given the amount of time and energy we've put into staging our own home (packing, decluttering, cleaning, etc.) and the amount of work ahead before our moving day next Friday. One of the biggest things to consider are the books we have in nearly every room of the house—a problem I think most writers and readers share, of course, and which Tara wrote about herself in a recent column at the Washington Independent Review of Books. The weight of books is, in fact, one of the main reasons to use smaller boxes; it's back-breaking otherwise.

I don't want to simply repeat Tara's points, all of which are good ones—focusing on choosing a home based on space for shelves, on the hard decisions about whether to pack a book or purge it (ouch!) as we pack, or on the way the stager for our own place waved her hand and basically suggested "books begone" as we prepped it to sell! (We didn't take her advice.)

But Tara's column at the WIROB and my own last column at SleuthSayers a few weeks back, looking at books as objects, have gotten me thinking in another direction about books and moving.

In considering why she's been saving certain books and giving others away, Tara gauged several questions, including "Does it bring joy? Will I ever read this again? Where did I get it? Do I remember reading it?" and the kicker: "What if I need it again?"

As I'm packing books and considering potential donations to the local Burke Centre Library (which runs a great book sale, I should stress!), I've been working through the same questions and making some of the same choices—but I've also been hung up on a couple more: What does it mean that I insist on lugging from this place to the next (and in some cases have already lugged other times from place to place) books that I still haven't read and that, thinking logically, calculating time (and yes, mortality), I will likely actually never read? And why is it I'm still buying books at such a clip as well, even as I'm moving these and discarding others and....?

Those comments above about the physical weight of books take on a different weight here, I recognize—lugging unread books toward eternity.

I don't mean to be a downer here, and I've actually heard it said just the opposite: that buying more and more books actually represents a form of optimism—the ambition and expectation that you will indeed read them, despite the odds. And ambition and intentions can indeed work out that way: I've mentioned elsewhere my year of reading War & Peace from an edition that I carried from one house to the next after a failed attempt many years ago. And when I look at other books on my shelf, I see other similar projects ahead: I'm behind on the books by one of my favorite authors, Tana French, so those last two titles need to come along, of course, and then it would indeed be nice to spend a year working through all those Graham Greene novels, and there are so many of my friends in the writing community whose recent books I need to catch up on, and there's never any lack of anthologies and back issues of EQMM and AHMM and....  And so many books I'd love to reread too—so I can't get rid of them, can I? even though the newer, unread books should probably come first, so...?

I know this discussion veers once more into the question of books for reading versus books as objects—the overlap there—and I'll stress that I do use the library too rather than just buying indiscriminately. But I'm curious: How many books on your own shelves are unread? How many might you anticipate never getting around to reading? Do you hold on to them anyway? And if so, why? 

While you answer that, I'll be packing—bourbon boxes and vodka boxes and tequila boxes and....


  1. Art, when I saw that picture I thought you were opening bar. But what you really need is a book that’s cut out with a space for a flask in it.

    We have a lot of books and a lot of unread books, but much less than the number of read books. Some I’ll get around to reading, and some not, of course. But most of them we’ll hold onto and lug from house to house until either we have no room for them – a situation we’re pretty much in now – or we’ll end up like the hoarders one sees on TV with little space to shimmy down the hall or find a spot to sit. As to why we hold onto them, I suppose it has something to do with the optimism that you mentioned that one day we might actually get to read them. But also because books are something special. Things that could impart wisdom or that might just be good entertainment and a good escape from everyday life.

  2. Moving is hard and moving books is the hardest- but remember, books are not clutter! Ever.

  3. Books? Boy, do we have books. We love books. We also have five Kindles between the two of us. We only us the two newest and our iPads with the Kindle program. We do love books. It pains me when I go to a family reunion and a relative member who doesn't read books asks me how the writing's going. The pain isn't from them not reading my books, most read no books. Got lots of books. They are old friends and new friends. Books.

  4. When Temple and I became engaged more than two years ago and made the decision to combine our households in her home rather than mine, we faced a great many decisions about what each of us had to give away or throw away--me so I had less to move and her so there would be space for me to move into. A great many things disappeared from our collective households during the several months it took to accomplish this daunting task prior to our wedding. Books weren't among them. I doubt fewer than a handful of books disappeared from my collection during the move, and I don't think any disappeared from hers.

    I have noticed, though, that the house now seems to tilt in my direction. The vast majority of books reside in my "half" of the house, which hers is nearly book-free. That's because--despite owning two Kindles--I still prefer to read physical books. She, on the other hand, reads almost exclusively on her Kindle, giving her a leg up on keeping her space "neat and tidy."

  5. Thanks for chiming in, Paul, Janice, O'Neil, and Michael!
    We agree, of course, about the value of books--and never feel that they're clutter, no, no, no. But last night as we were packing, we did sort through a few shelves where Tara's collection and mine (still separate mostly) had duplicates, or where we knew it was a book that we would likely never read (and someone else out there might appreciate), or whatever. But most of them are traveling with us, of course—read or unread, and optimistic on that last count always!

  6. Art, four rooms in our house (my office, our den, and two of the four bedrooms) contain tons of books--and I might not be far off, using the word "tons," because about 99% are hardbacks. I've often joked that some of our home's foundation problems a few years ago were probably caused by the weight of our bookshelves. Carolyn has read most of her books--a few of mine are as yet unread, and a lot of them have been read more than once. Many of mine are there just because I love and cannot part with them--and yes, I can remember where I bought almost every one. Most are novels, with some nonfiction and some story collections and anthologies. The dangerous thing is, I sometimes decide I need to buy all of a certain author's books, and, well, you know how that goes.

    Now and then we force ourselves to donate several boxes of them to the library, but of course not often enough. On top of all my "regular" books, I was an Edgar judge not long ago, and I still have about 150 of those novels lying around as well. Another confession: I'm almost as obsessed with DVDs--I own hundreds of them. And, like the books, they get used over and over again.

  7. I still have all the books I had to buy as an English major in college. We have four sets of four shelves (maybe five feet high - built ins) in the living room. Three sets of floor-to-ceiling shelves in the den (also built-ins). Plus my crappy little box-store shelf in the corner. Plus the shelves in my daughter's room, plus the shelves in my son's room, plus the box of paperbacks in the basement...

    You get the idea, I'm sure.

    I had to start asking myself the same questions: Did I love it? Will I read it again? What does it mean to me? Because while there is no such thing as too many books, there is such a think as not enough space. We really should go through all the volumes we have and do a purge, but many of them belong to The Husband and he's very reluctant.

    And yeah, not like I'm going to stop buying books so the hard choices must be made. I cringe to think of the day we have to move.


  8. Mary...I still had all my college books, too, and last night when we were packing I decided to get rid of a bunch of them. I enjoyed reading them, but I'll never read them again (most of them...the ones I REALLY love I kept) and if I do have a burning desire to, I realized I could always...get another copy (or go to the library). Also, most of the copies I had were in crappy condition or cheap copies I bought used. So off they go.

    On another note, I think our favorite agent that came through our house during showings was the guy who said, "I love a house with books." Cheers to that guy.

  9. Books! Every room in my house has books. Sometimes, when I'm bored, I move stacks of books from one room to the other in some kind of ill-advised reorganization scheme. I'd estimate that about half are books I haven't read yet. As with many readers, I know I'll need a certain book when I'm in a certain mood (a stormy summer day? Pull out the space opera!) I guess I'm preparing for some sort of apocalypse where the only activity will be reading books by candlelight. So, come on apocalypse--I've got some reading to do!!

  10. Tara, every time I suggest getting rid of them, my husband says, "But these are classics! We can't do that!"

    And that's pretty much his response for most of the books we have. The only two I'm passionately attached to are my complete works of Shakespeare and my volume of Bulfinch's Mythology. Everything else I either don't care about (MOBY DICK - bleah) or I have in much better copies than the trade paperbacks from the early 90s.

    Alas, I think it's going to take moving to move those books out!

    Mary/Liz (and yeah, thumbs up to that agent!)

  11. I'm with Alan! Every room in my house has books. And oddly, I'm going through the same procedure you are now, Art - weeding out books in a major way, only in my case, for sending on to a women's shelter.
    But one thing is a bit different: There are no books in my house that haven't been read. I wish there were. So now I am taking out the ones that I am happy to pass on. And keeping those few hundred (okay, several hundred) that I may just reread someday. And all my friends books. I can't part with those.

  12. Giving them to the library sale has always made it hurt less for me. Just knowing that they're staying near and helping the library get funding appeals to my neighborly soul.

  13. My husband and I recently went through the kind of process you describe, Art, when we moved to a new house. I had a real sense of deja vu as I once again packed books I've packed many times before--we've moved around a lot during our forty-four years of marriage. We did force ourselves to part with some books (and yes, we too are giving them to the library), but it was hard. And I couldn't give up any of the old, often-read books, not even the ones now held together by rubber bands--too many memories, too many notes in the margins, too much chance they'd end up in a trash can instead of finding a new person to love them.

  14. Thanks, Bonnie, Aimee, Melodie, Mary, Tara, Alan, and John! A flurry of comments while I was at the dentist—and such interesting ones!

    I don't think there's a room in our house that doesn't have books in it—and that includes bathrooms and closets too. It's a good way to live, but as Mary says, while you can never have too many books, you can sometimes have not enough space.

    Books infused with memories—always keep. Books with your written notes—same. And yes, Alan, as soon as you get rid of a book, it's very soon the very book you want or need. (I've given away books and then bought new copies of them another time, I have to admit.)

    And yes, if you have to give up books, the library book sale is the thing: a good cause and someone is going to appreciate it in fresh ways, maybe more than you do. That's my hope at least each time I drop a box off (as I just did, after the dentist).

    Thanks for all the fun perspectives!

  15. When you need to move books, don't use boxes at all. Instead, stack up a few similarly-sized books, then get some strong twine & tie the books together like a package. I've done this many times.

    I probably have 15 or 20 unread books that I bought myself, which won't stop me from buying more books if I think I need them. Husband still has all the books he's ever bought, but he doesn't read much any more except on the puter screen.

  16. Good luck with the move, Art and Tara.

    I still favor physical books by a wide margin over ebooks. I have unread books on shelves in three rooms of the house and some just piled on basement tables. I'm sure I won't get to them all, but I keep them because I might get to them. That said, I've also given some away.

    I just got an L-shaped desk. space for my computer and a corner I can turn to to write longhand or read. :)

  17. Well, I just moved, and while I downsized - some - I still have a ton of books. I'd say I've read 95% of them, mainly because I read books and then if I like them enough to want to read them again, I buy them. For some reason, I have more unread books on Kindle than in hardcopy - because they don't nag as much? because they're easier to forget that I have there? because they're so easy to buy and bring home? I don't know.

  18. In just one donation, I gave a Massachusetts library 500 books. They were either books I knew I'd never read again (I almost never read a book twice) or books I knew I'd never read at all.

    There's nothing like a hurricane for emptying a house of books. The triage was so awful, a friend did most of the work for me.

  19. I drive a truck for a liquor distributor, and I know those boxes well! Best of luck with the move, I have tons of books myself!

  20. FUn piece, but I ma not going to discuss how many books I own in case one of those hoarder shows comes knocking. (My wife works in a bookstore that gets free Advance Reader Copies.. shudder). Are you aware that the term "booklegger" comes from the wonderful novel A CANTICAL FOR LIEBOWITZ by Walter Miller? It's a post apocryphal novel in which all surviving books were smuggled away from bonfires and mobs by monks, under their robes.

    By the way, when I was in library school there was a magazine for radical librarians called BOOKLEGGER.

  21. I fell behind on comments during our moving!

    Rob: Didn't know that booklegger was actually a term! And fun to hear that there was a magazine named this--and for this audience too!

    Jeff: Good to get an informed take on these boxes for our move! I started to title the post here Books, Not Booze, but really it should be Books AND Booze!

    Leigh: 500 books? Yowsa! We're regular donators to our library, but haven't done that many.... though with a hurricane coming, we could mobilize to save them, I know.

    Eve: We've tried to use Kindle and library as well more, to read books without the investment of space (and with library, of money). But often we do want the physical book itself to keep, and then.....

    And on that note to Gerald: I generally prefer physical books over e-books, but I do like the ease of having several books at my fingertips, and easier to read in bed at night (especially after Tara has gone to sleep, with the booklight instead of a lamp).

    And Elizabeth: Great idea about just tying them up! ....though I wonder about stacking them then, especially in a cavernous moving truck.... (We've got our packed at this point.... Now it's on to the kitchen, which is a whole nother matter....)


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