Sunday, May 22, 2016

Making Space

One of the joys of writing is reading—soaking up words, absorbing sentences, inhaling paragraphs, stanzas, lines, metaphors, rhymes—and over the years I’ve watched as books in our house have piled into stacks on nightstands and tables, on the floor and on bookshelves, especially in my office.

Most of the time I’m too busy writing (and reading) to notice the quantity of books that I’ve accumulated. It’s rare that I look up from my desk and notice the walls of my office or any other room in the house where we’ve lived for the past dozen years. But, recently, I looked up after finishing my session of morning pages and discovered my office walls have become dull and spotted with age and dust, so dull and spotted, in fact, that it was clearly time to paint them.

So, I moved my laptop and writing journals to the dining room table, selected a color (three shades of blue) to replace the dull beige that the house’s original owner had used, and began preparing the office before starting to paint.  After stacking all the books that I'd taken off the shelves in the hallway and in my daughter’s empty bedroom and on the floor in the bathroom, trying not to topple them whenever I walked down the hall to reach my office, I used a handcart to wheel all the bookshelves into the front hall and foyer. And then, once the room was empty, I stretched blue tape around the ceiling and baseboards and corners to help me paint clean lines before lifting a brush.


Now, after two weeks of painting—painting four walls is a lot harder than I’d imagined!—I have to decide what books to move back into my office, which means looking closely at all of the books and asking myself if I’m ever going to read them again, the books that I fell in love with as a teenager, the ones that I studied over and over again to learn the craft of storytelling, the ones that touch my heart when I re-read them each year, the books that I saved because someone who I loved gave them to me, the books that I kept on my shelf because I thought I needed them to make me look smarter or more learned (and on some days, I guess, I needed to feel that way).

Where do you start when you know you need to reduce the number of books in your library and remove the clutter and give yourself space to think and imagine new worlds and, yes, put new books on the shelves? One of my friends suggested that if I hadn’t opened a book in a year, it was time to give it away. Another suggested five years. But how can you know if you might not need to open that book tomorrow or next week or the week after?


One way I knew it was time to give a book away was by the size of the type on the page, which seemed to have gotten much smaller since the last time that I’d opened the book. Pocket paperbacks were no longer easy to read. The lines were packed too closely together, the letters like sardines. They were going into the boxes that I planned on taking to the used bookstore, especially since I knew most of my old paperback editions of Updike’s early stories, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Chekov, and Cheever, and countless other classics, were on the shelves of our local library, or else I could get digital versions online without any trouble.

Other books were easy to give away, too—books with broken spines, books with brittle pages, books with signatures falling out. I might have loved them once, and, to be honest, still loved them. But I had to admit they were merely collecting dust on my shelves now. No longer were they books that I longed to open and read. They still gave pleasure, but the pleasure was in the memories they contained, the days that I’d spent with them, in love with the words on their pages, the feel of the paper, the smell of the ink, the remembrance of the breeze against my skin as I lay on the grass one summer day to read or as I rolled over in the sand at the beach holding the book in my hands.

I am trying to make space for new growth—for new ideas, new ways of seeing the world, and for new books. So I’ve spent the past week putting books in boxes and carting them off to the used bookstore and to the local library and even to the local dog rescue sanctuary where I once volunteered, hoping others might find the same wonders in their pages that I once found there.

Each time I drop off another box of books, I feel a mix of emotions. It’s not easy to say goodbye. But I have to admit I’m excited by the new space in my office, and by the prospect of what might replace the books that I’ve given away. I think about the effort that it took someone to write the words on the pages, and how this writer’s act of faith in books and in language inspired me and others, I'm sure, to write and explore the world and its mysteries through words.

When I sit down at the dining room table to write each morning, I am surrounded by piles of books that soon will go into the back of my car. I open my journal and pick up my pen. I watch the ink flow onto the page. I think about all the words of writers who have written in journals over the centuries. I think about how all the words flow like fresh streams and rivers into an endless sea of words. I think about how these words keep the world afloat, how they have kept me afloat. I think of the flame of imagination that words can ignite in the hearts of readers everywhere. And I think of how this light has glowed in hearts ever since the first words were carved in mud and stone thousands of years ago.

And I think of passing a torch, flame to flame, heart to heart, each letter, each word a spark of hope that can melt the distance between us, which is part of the magic that can be found in a book and why, I guess, after so many years and so many books, I still love them and look forward to reading (and collecting) more.