Uncategorized | November 16, 2011

Lately, I’ve been reading a fashion message board online. I’m a graduate student with a limited budget, so while I might not be adding many items to my wardrobe this season, I can live vicariously through the purchases of others. The women on the board post pictures of their latest purchases, outfits of the day, and yay-or-nays, in which they show us a series of cardigans or bracelets or cobalt skinny jeans (it’s astonishing how many companies make a pair), and the rest of us decide if each item is a yay, a nay, or a meh.

In October, some of them started a five-item challenge. They pledged to purchase only five new wardrobe items until the end of the year, which has forced them to choose each item with an eye toward versatility and quality. They can’t buy six fifty-dollar blazers, but they can use all the money they would have spent to buy one really nice blazer. One blogger takes this sort of minimalism to an extreme. Her whole wardrobe consists of maybe twenty-five items. Recently, she spent five months shopping for a black sweater. Her closet is two feet wide. The idea is seductive in the way all extremes are: Live in a 200-square-foot bungalow! Grow all your own food and learn how to hand-mill grains! Write a whole novel in November! Yes, yes, and yes. Sign me up please.

I have spare time to lurk on the fashion board because I recently passed the oral component of the comprehensive exam for the PhD. The exam covered 120 books, many of which are still on my office floor because they won’t fit in my three bookcases. Looking at them arrayed below me I wonder: Is there an analogous minimizing project I could undertake for my books? And if so, would it be worthwhile? When I finished reducing my library to only the essentials, would I feel lighter, more efficient? Would I be a better or more prolific writer if the room in which I wrote were not so packed with the achievements of others? I don’t think I would. The books are there when I want to be inspired, to catch a certain voice, or to reread a favorite scene. They are only a burden when I have to box them up and take them across the city or country, which I’ve done twelve times in the past ten years. The moves are just far enough apart that I forget how painful my back gets hoisting those boxes.

Further, what organizing principle would I use for the cull? I’d keep the books I love, certainly, but I wouldn’t want to keep only those books. I’d also hold onto the ones that madden and frustrate me (I’m looking at you, The Public Burning and The Man Who Loved Children). And the ones I’ve annotated heavily. And the ones I might want to teach someday. The general rule for clothing is if you haven’t worn an item in the past year, you should get rid of it. The same can’t be said of books, which don’t go out of fashion in the same way. The relative value of a fishtail hemline ebbs and flows, but Moby Dick will always deserve a place on the shelf. There’s no yay, nay, or meh about that.

Have any of you ever done a major cull of your library? If so, what was your organizing principle? Are there any books you’ve gotten rid of that you wish you could have back?