Old Friends/Bookends

Thinning our overstuffed shelves was, in a way, a nod to mortality — too many books, too little time

Lately, when I make a sharp right turn or step soundly on the brakes, there's a klunking sound from the rear of my Honda Fit.

There's nothing wrong with the car. That sound is caused by three grocery bags filled with homeless books. I've been ferrying them around town ever since my partner and I purged our shelves a few weekends back.

We're both bibliophiles and writers, with books housed in every nook of our three-story Victorian: paperback novels and children's hardcovers in the living room; poetry within reach of the dining room table; soup-stained cookbooks and home-repair guides in the kitchen; memoirs and writing books in my office; a young-adult collection (vampire romance, post-apocalyptic adventure) in our daughter's room down the hall.

That doesn't include the tipsy stacks on each of our nightstands, or the cartons in the attic stuffed with books our daughter once loved (the entire "Little House on the Prairie" series, which we read aloud, obsessively, the summer she was six) and might, someday, want to pass on.

We set some rules for our weeding-out: any book inscribed to either of us was a keeper, even if that meant holding on to twin copies of "An Intimate Wilderness: Lesbian Writers on Sexuality," signed by its editor (and our dear friend) Judith Barrington. If one of us was adamant about saving a book, she could override the other's skepticism ("Really? You need to keep 'The Tao of Statistics'?") and tuck the title back on the shelf.

But for each book laid on the "out" pile, there was another (or five) we clung to. I'll never part with "Franny and Zooey," which saved me, at age 14, from the tedium of a family barbecue while sweeping me into Salinger's hyper-intellectual, emotionally misfit Glass clan. And Elissa refused to chuck "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (hardcover, illustrated), because it had belonged to her sister-in-law.

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Still, when the job was done, our shelves looked a bit less stressed, and we had four bulging sacks of books to trade for a little petty cash. First stop was Powell's, the mammoth new-and-used bookstore in Portland, Oregon, where you can sell books online if you have the patience to type in each ISBN number, then wait for the computer wizard to work its algorithmic magic and quote a price. Powell's took eleven books from our stash and offered me $26.

I carried the cast-offs to a used-bookstore near my daughter's school — a public magnet school where, no matter what part of the city kids hail from, acquiring a smart phone seems to be a 6th-grade rite of passage. The bookseller examined each volume and chose four: one dollar apiece. Better than nothing, though my bags felt just as heavy as I wrestled them back across Fairmount Avenue.

And that's when the metaphor kicked in. There I was, lugging books across the city, trying to find a home for orphaned items that fewer and fewer people value. Had books, even these books — every one of which, at some point in my life or Elissa's, was greeted with happy anticipation — become burdens?

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I drove home, listening to the metronomic klunk from the rear of the car, the backbeat of obsolescence. There's a Goodwill collection center just around the corner from my house, but I couldn't bear to stop. It felt grim as the animal shelter, the last stop for old books before they die.

When I teach writing to elementary-age kids, I ask them to imagine a time before books, when people made stories and poems using their voices, their memories and perhaps the steady rhythm of a rock on hard ground. It's not that difficult a stretch, envisioning a pre-book era, because today's 8-year-olds may soon find themselves living in a post-book era, reading (if they read; oh, please let them read) on electronic devices no bigger than a piece of toast. Already, more than half the population under age 25 takes their news in digital format, not from paper and ink (or even television and radio), and nearly a third of American adults own an e-reader.

From an environmental standpoint, maybe this is good news; my bookcases are, after all, packed with dead trees. On the other hand, all those iPads and Kindles leaching lead and bromine into the landfill aren't exactly a birthday present to Mother Earth. There's a trade-off, true ever since Eve ripped that first apple from the tree — every nugget of knowledge has its price.

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Maybe I'm loath to just dump my books — to dump the whole idea of actual, touchable, paper-and-glue-and-glossy-cover books — because I'm old enough to identify with these soft, creased volumes, old enough to contend with the fact of being finite. Thinning our overstuffed shelves was, in a way, a nod to mortality: Too many books; too little time.

Soon, I'll have to clear my trunk to make room for vacation-bound suitcases. There's always the option of piling the books in a "free box" on trash day. Perhaps someone in the neighborhood is dying for "Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers" by Lois-Ann Yamanaka — a book she can prop behind her cereal bowl or read insouciantly in the tub without fear of ruining a $200 device. A book whose pages might, by September, acquire a smear of sun block or a splash of iced coffee. A book that will forever smell and feel like the summer of 2014, when the sun pressed down like a stone and the story carried her far away from Philadelphia.

But for now, the books remain in my car — well, except for one that I had to rescue from Elissa's outbound stack: "The Round House" by Louise Erdrich. I was reading it late the other night when thunder rolled, and I got up to close my office window. A pale ribbon of light shone beneath my daughter's door. Texting, no doubt, well past our mandated unplug hour.

I grumped down the hall, ready to scold, and nudged her door open. There she was, sprawled on faded flower-power sheets that, long ago, were mine, a paperback copy of "The Book Thief" splayed on her pillow.

"It's late," I said. "You should go to sleep."

But my heart wasn't in it. She gave me a half-smile, a dismissive wave, and turned back to her book.

Tags: memoirs