photo by quattrostagioni via Flickr Creative Commons

photo by quattrostagioni via Flickr Creative Commons

I try to go through my possessions on a regular basis to pare them down. I do my best to adhere to the adage, “Own nothing that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Books and clothing are the two most difficult categories for me. For this post, I will deal with the former.

A few months ago, I bought a second-hand bookshelf to help deal with the overflow.

Between working in a bookstore and being a freelance writer who can request advance copies for review, suffice to say my already large book collection has grown.

A recent trip to Half Price Books left me thinking I should find at least as many books to part with as I purchased (4).

Looking through my shelves, I managed to find seven to “sell” to the Half Price Books. My books are usually fairly specific so I don’t get much for them, but on some level it isn’t as much about the money as the hope they find a good home someday.

While I was waiting for my total to be processed, I browsed the shelves, willing myself not to find anything interesting enough to rationalize buying. I ended up in the drama section, finding myself wondering if I could find a copy of the Riverside Shakespeare anthology.

It’s probably the best Shakespeare anthology out there, and I had a copy in college when I took the course. It was one of the books I didn’t bring to Texas, in part because it is so large and heavy. They didn’t have it. But, they did have the companion book from that course, entitled Shakespeare A to Z. The book is useful as it contains descriptions not only of every character, but a synopsis for each play and also each individual scene within it. It’s a great reference tool for knowing whether you are following the plot – especially with regard to the more difficult histories. You can read the synopsis before each scene or after, to check that you got the most pertinent points out of it.

But I digress.

I thought about buying the book. But I have a lot of expenses I’m dealing with right now, and I ultimately decided that the likelihood I will read Shakespeare any time soon is fairly slim, so I put it back on the shelf.

But it made me realize something about why it is books are so difficult for me to part with. Each book I own gets invested with some vestige of my identity. I have a BA in English and Theatre, so some part of me wants the Riverside Shakespeare or Shakespeare A to Z on my bookshelf as a testament to that. Even if it isn’t practical. Even if, perhaps, its time for me to admit I’m not in a place in my life where Shakespeare is of importance in the way it was in college.

Now, it’s true that some books are more irreplaceable than others. It’s beneficial to hold on to a book which is out of print or from a small press in the case that if it is needed again in the future, it would not be able to be found easily (or at all). That’s the reason I wouldn’t get rid of some of the French plays I bought on a college trip to Paris. But the other part of the reason is that I bought them in Paris.

I can’t part with books which are mementos or gifts. Or the books which were foundational to my Master’s research. Or books of folktales from my native West Virginia. Or my theatre textbooks from college.

And that’s okay.

There are plenty of books on my shelves which I haven’t even read yet. Part of me says that if I haven’t read them yet, I should get rid of them. But I still want to read them.┬áThose books still say something about the kind of person I would like to be.

For those who love books, emotions get tangled into them. So does identity. They hold sentimental value. It’s also the reason it’s so difficult for me to loan books I have enjoyed to others. A formative book can be a placeholder for a certain time and place in our lives. It holds significance. I’d almost rather buy a friend their own copy. Or create the library check-out system one of my college professors had where you put your name on the card and get a reminder if you haven’t returned the book by the deadline.

Getting rid of a book represents letting go of some facet of my past identity, real or imagined. Once I no longer have this book on my shelves, it means I’m no longer the kind of person who has that book on their shelves.

Some purchases hold only utilization value. Getting rid of any item bears some (monetary) cost – the loss of the amount spent on it to begin with, or the loss of replacing the same item should it be needed in the future. But the items which are beautiful as well as useful, or perhaps even only beautiful? Well, the loss of those is emotional as well as fiscal.

The formation of identity is a process of adding and subtracting factors all the time. Some parts of who we are, were, or will be are more relevant at one time than another. Selling books to Half Price Books is a ritualized way of letting go of part of who I used to be and welcoming part of who I will become.

And getting to buy a coffee or something with the proceeds, too, I guess.

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