Throwing Away a Book

I’ve been on a voluntary simplicity kick recently. You know the sort of thing – throwing out old stuff I no longer require or use (of which there is a surprising amount), resisting buying new stuff no matter how big the temptation and so on.

It gives life a bit of discipline and one of the major effects is that it makes me think twice about buying something new just because I feel the sudden urge to spend and I see something shiny. After all, what is the point of acquiring it if I know there is a good chance of throwing it out in the foreseeable future. The process of stripping away the stuff from my life dramatises this possibility and makes it very real.

I started using a method recommended by an article on Lifehacker. I threw out one thing per day, sometimes more, never less. This is about the easiest way I can think of for getting rid of unwanted stuff. There is nothing hard about it. It takes next to no effort. It can be done in minutes, if not seconds, and, over the course of a month or two, it adds up. Things were going smoothly on the simplicity front until, a couple of weeks ago, I hit a major roadblock.

Looking around my office I discovered I had run out of easy things to dump. One object did catch my eye, a copy of The Pickwick Papers, one of the Wordsworth classic editions that probably cost £1 when I bought it God knows how long ago.

It was a nice edition complete with the original illustrations but I own multiple e-book versions of the complete works of Dickens. I have one that I bought from Amazon for my Kindle and one I acquired over a decade ago for my PalmPilot and which I still use on my non-Amazon e-readers. It was not like I needed a print copy of this particular work and the truth is that it would not cost me the Earth if I needed to buy one in the future.

I picked up that copy of The Pickwick Papers and I got ready to throw it out. Actually, I didn’t. I paused. It occurred to me that perhaps I could sell it to a second-hand bookstore or give it to a charity shop. The former seemed unlikely given how cheap the book was originally and I could not find a charity shop in our neighbourhood that would take an old book in English. To be honest, I could not find a charity shop. It all seemed a little too much like work for the sake of getting rid of this one thing.

I decided that I would just throw it in the trash but, when it came to it, I could not make myself do it. This was a book! I don’t think in all my life I have ever thrown away a book. I’ve given some to friends. I’ve sold some to second-hand bookstores. But actually throwing away a book was just not something I could bring myself to do.

When I was growing up, books were treasures. This was in the dark days before the Internet, when there were only three television channels and those showed whatever the programming gods decided was appropriate that particular day. Video recorders were science fiction, at least in my neighbourhood. Books were a simple, reliable means of escape and entertainment. They were what I spent my pocket money on. In my teenage years my personal library of science fiction and fantasy was my greatest treasure.

It’s hard to believe now but there was not the super-abundance of fantastic fiction available back then that there is now. Every book was read and re-read multiple times. Often I would not be able to find the first book in a series but that did not matter, I would still read all the other books if they were there. That was how I encountered Michael Moorcock, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E Howard and many others for the first time.

Over the four decades since then I have accumulated more and more books. The last time we moved house I shipped a ton and a half books internationally. I left at least twice that weight in storage with friends and family. If it sounds crass to discuss books in terms of tonnage, I apologise, but it was a discovery that shocked me particularly since I had to pay for every pound of it.

In recent times our apartments have gotten larger and larger every time we shifted. In part this was simply to provide storage for my ever growing library.

Only one thing has slowed down the relentless takeover of our living space by my burgeoning collection of books and that was the arrival in recent years of e-books. According to my Kindle I have purchased 600 over the past three years. Since a significant number of these are things like The Collected Works of Charles Dickens or Jack London or Leo Tolstoy or Anthony Trollope I strongly suspect that I have over 1000 books on my Kindle. If they were physical objects they would probably take up another room in our flat.

Anyway to cut short this digression, let me just say that I could think of no real reason for not throwing away that copy of The Pickwick Papers. And yet I struggled to make myself do it. It felt sacrilegious, like I was contemplating something heinous. The thought sidled into my mind that this might just be the start of a very long process. After all, I own e-book copies of many of the paper books on my shelf. If I started, where would it stop?

And it really mattered to me – somehow the possession of all those books was a part of my identity. I had defined myself over the years as a book lover, as a book hoarder. I felt as if I was standing at a fork in the road. Down one path lay a future in which my shelves would be stripped bare. Down the other path was a vision of rooms slowly vanishing beneath piles of books.

I went backwards and forwards. I had no sentimental attachment to this particular copy of The Pickwick Papers. It was just something I had picked up somewhere along the line some time ago. I love the book but I can read it any time anyway. In the end I think that’s what decided me.

I walked down stairs and I put the book in the trash. I felt like a criminal.

It’s been a couple of weeks and only this morning did I manage to make myself throw out another book. It was a fat book fantasy that I have never been able to get past chapter 3 of. I disliked it immensely when I read it and I have been known to complain about the stupidity of its premise and characters to any of my friends who are foolish enough to listen. And still I checked on the Internet to make sure that a Kindle version was available in the unlikely event that I ever feel the need to read it in the future. Only after doing so did I toss it. It was still a struggle but a less desperate one this time. I suspect it’s only going to get easier.


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Comments

  1. There was one line from Fight Club that strongly resonated with me:

    “You don’t own your possessions; your possessions own you.”

    Four years after hearing that, I was in Latvia and every single I had accumulated over the first 35 years of my life were still in Prague. Somewhere. I don’t know where or whether they still exist in storage somewhere, or if they were all trashed nearly a decade ago. Then reason that I don’t know is that I realized that I really didn’t care any more. Having lived without them for a couple of years already, I realized that I didn’t need them anyway.

    Since then I have developed a loathing of buying stuff – anything at all. Usually I move apartments every 18 months and toss anything that I accidentally accumulated during the period (usually connected with my phone and various computers, which are really the only thing that I *need*).

    It gives me a tremendous sense of freedom that I can just pack my entire possessions into a suitcase and move to a different continent if necessary with a few hours’ notice.

  2. Tony Graham says:

    I haven’t won the battle for freedom from STUFF as yet. I can slash and burn through everything in the apartment… save books. Too many times when moving in the past, I reduced my possessions to what would fit in a car, and then spent the next few years hunting for books that I wanted to revisit.
    Digital media has made big changes for me. Music? Gone digital. Books? Rapidly becoming a digital library.
    However there always seems to be certain books, hardback & paperback, I can’t seem to surrender. Could be the whole relic thing, but I suspect it’s more the cover and the feel the physical copy of the book evokes. Nostalgia probably.
    I definitely have not been able to drop a book in the trash. Well, there was one popular fantasy door-stop that was repeatedly hurled across the room, but even so, I eventually left it on a table at a coffee shop with a note, “Read at your own risk – time will not be refunded.”
    I like the dumping one thing a day idea. A lot.
    I like being mobile, but I suspect I will always have a cache of physical books somewhere. They task me, and I must have them.

    • Spot on about digital making all the difference, Tony. All the music I buy is digital these days. I haven’t bought a DVD since I got Netflix. There are still some books I WANT as physical objects but those are a lot less than the sum total of the books I buy and read.

      There are books I want to go back to again and again, some of which I have a nostalgic fondness, some of which are still not available in digital. In some cases I want a physical copy, but in many cases I don’t need one. There’s no rhyme or reason to it either.

      With one exception I just realised– I still prefer big illustrated reference books in paper. There’s something about the process of flicking through them that is easier than doing a search on a reader For most linear narratives, I am happy with digital.

  3. Books are my personal treasure. I have more than 3000 books and I know I have some books I will never read it. But do put in the trash is almost a crime in my mind. I am sorry you had to do it. I have given several books but never put them on trash.

    People nowadays give everything for granted. Books? Why – I can buy them or I can downloaded for free. I can have in my computer millions of books and then deleted them.
    It’s so impersonal. They(the ebooks) have no feeling. Now a paper book… I have books twice my age.I have books from 1890 but most of them are(were) brand new. My respect for them are equal. To read, nay to own and to handle them are a experience no ebook will give you.

    We all make choices. My choice was – never enter the ebook market. I try from time to time to read a book and it’s hard to focus on my smartphone.

    Don’t get me wrong, people are free to do what they want. But at 33, I think I am one of the old guys. Most people are changing to ebooks and one day the changes will be definitive.I dread for the day most companies stop printing paper books. BL, is already changing a lot with ebooks getting preferences or hardback novels.

    If I might ask you Herr King – what would you think if that book was one of your books?

    • I understand where you are coming from, Paulo. Like I said, I felt like I was committing a crime.

      I would have no feelings either way if someone threw out one of my books. What someone else does with their books has no effect on me whatsoever.

  4. I never could bring myself to throw out books. As you said, it feels like some sort of sacrilegious act. Whenever we moved house when I was younger, I fought tooth and nail against the very idea that I should give up some of my books, and when my younger brother scribbled his name on my anniversary edition of the Hobbit in yellow marker, I seriously considered throttling him. I still grit my teeth thinking about it, and it was 20 years ago.

    Several times I’ve ended up in a room walled in with books covering every inch of space, and had started invading other areas of the house, I came back from school at least twice in my life to find a skip had been provided and utilised for me.

    I was not a happy bunny.

    When I finally moved house on my own, as I lugged the 30th large box down the stairs, I realised that, just possibly, I hadn’t been keeping control of this aspect of my life.

    Thank god for the march of technology, as I am pretty sure I’d be living inside a large pile of books at this point, as opposed to carrying hundreds of books around in my telephone, if ebooks hadn’t taken off.

    Its also stopped my mum clipping me round the lughole, for my habit of leaving books on the top of high cupboards so I’d always have something available to read.

    • I recognise all the symptoms you are describing there, Tom :). My bookcases are still double-stacked– there are books behind the books on the shelves. Totally agree about the ebooks on the phone. They also address my great fear of being stuck somewhere with nothing to read– a situation in which I have sometimes been reduced to reading the backs of ketchup bottles in foreign languages.

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