08 December 2018

Saying Good-bye, part 2

by Janice Law

I’ve written before about saying good-bye to important characters, but recently I have taken farewells to a whole other level. Let me explain. When we moved into our old farm house thirty years ago, I built book cases. We had already lightened ourselves of several dozen boxes of books before we moved in, but no writer can live in a house without bookcases and our new ones were quickly filled.
My husband had runs of Wisden Cricket Anthologies and Rothman’s Football ( soccer) Yearbooks, as well as rows and rows of reporters notebooks. Our son had a vast comics collection, and I had – well, more or less everything – favorite children’s books, philosophy tomes from my undergraduate days, Norton anthologies, those tools of the trade of English teachers, art books, novels, histories – and a growing number of manuscript boxes.

They went onto the shelves, and since I have more or less a truce with dust, there they stayed until a month ago when the planets aligned, the karma was right and I decided to wash the woodwork and weed the books. If you can possibly avoid such a ridiculous impulse, by all means do so.
Piles of discarded books 
I was not so wise and began emptying the shelves. It is quite amazing how many books can fit onto a ten or twelve inch shelf, especially if one doubles up paperbacks and smaller volumes. It is also surprising and depressing how dirty books get and how even gently-treated volumes begin to fade
and develop foxing. In short, books age like the rest of us and after a number of decades some, even those holding the wisdom of the tribe, are too worn, dirty and depressing even for the library book sale. Say good bye to them!

And then, writers do accumulate paper. Now, of course, everyone stores their novels and short stories digitally. But those of us old enough to have lost manuscripts or who have discovered that word-processing programs can become obsolete will always insist on at least one paper copy. Published novels go off to a university archivist who probably unwisely requested my manuscripts. But the unpublished, even ones close to my heart, are unwanted. There they are, first and second drafts, additions, corrections, second and third thoughts, taking up shelf space in their big white cardboard boxes.

I didn’t have the heart to discard them entirely, although one ancient mystery, the second I wrote and a hard luck book, joined the pile. The day the contract for it with Macmillan was due to be signed, the department was terminated. I am beyond retyping a manuscript decades old!

Otherwise, cheered on by my husband who quite rightly points out that just about everything one needs is available on the web, I was ruthless. Would I ever read Kant again? Highly unlikely. What about Hume? I’d consulted him within a decade, give him a pass. Out- dated atlases and reference books? Gone. Various anthologies, well marked for classroom use? Out. Variorum editions of Shakespeare? Ditto. A paper copy of Eric Ambler’s Journey into Fear, dusty with the cracked spine and underlining that I’d studied before writing my first novel? Out, although I was seriously tempted to rescue it at the last moment. I think any book lover will understand my hesitation.

Space for new volumes!
At last, after days of breathing dust, the shelves were washed and clean, and the  reprieved books installed again. Quite a tribute to good housekeeping. My husband repeats that after all, you can find whatever you need on the internet, that the physical book is a thing of the past and that the Kindle is a very nice reader.

All true, but I look at my tidy shelves with their newly freed-up space for family photos and souveniers, and I have another thought: I have space for more books.


  1. I really enjoyed this piece, Janice. And, as you say, we can always use more room for more books.

  2. More books. We always need space for more books. Houses with built-in bookshelves are enough to make me swoon. Good post, Janice.

  3. Oh, I have been there and done that. I weeded and culled and compacted and moved. And I have bought more books since. So sue me, I'm a bookaholic. I think most of us are!

  4. You can never have too many books. A great post.

    I remember the anguish I went through in the two or three months before I retired from teaching. Which of my own books would I leave in the classroom for someone else? What would I take with me? Which books would I REALLY want to read again? Most of the writing/grammar/usage books stayed behind. So did The Scarlet Letter. But Dickens, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Shakespeare came home with me. So did a couple of newer (read, not disintegrating) anthologies of short stories. I wish I still had my older Norton edition of Huckleberry Finn because the critical essays in the newer one are nowhere near as good.

    But, years later, I look at my still overflowing book case for "that book" that went to the great library in the sky...

  5. And Steve, you always will. I'm still looking for a couple of books that oh, how I wish I'd kept them...

  6. Like Eve, I'm a bookaholic. When moving, I usually donated hundreds of books to small town libraries in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Florida. A few I didn't mind getting rid of, but a few were painful. I donated at least two highly recommended trilogies wherein I couldn't find traction. Maybe it was my ADD, but I bogged down early on in The Gormenghast Trilogy. I read the first 3 novels of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, but I ducked the rest of that trilogy trilogy.

    Then I discovered libraries will lend me books! Imagine that! The downside is I might want to reference one book or another, but it's long gone and, in a couple of cases, out of print. Nice article, Janice!

  7. thanks for the kind comments!
    I guess love of books and the pain of parting with them are universal among writers!


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