I’ve been giving away my babies. No, not my actual children – that would contravene various recycling regulations and their grandparents would never forgive me. Instead, I’ve spent the past six months giving away hundreds of books that I’ve hauled, at the cost of many simoleons and slipped discs, around two continents.
I should say “we,” because my husband has been an equally enthusiastic participant in the great giveaway: His library tends toward titles like Social Democracy in the Global Periphery, while mine includes The Royal Family Pop-up Book, but no matter. We’re both book-lovers, the kind of kids who got in trouble for reading in the back of the car. If you ask me to define myself, I’d say I was a reader. But at some point, the books themselves became more important than what was in them. It was time to escape from the cult of the book.
There’s a low stone wall outside our house, and one day we left a stack on it. Nothing too heart-wrenching: one was a spare copy of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas; another was a book about Prairie populism. I was sure that would sit there forever, because we live in London, where most people couldn’t name the current Canadian Prime Minister, let alone Preston Manning. I sat watching from the window like a parent on the first day of kindergarten, ready to spring into action if anyone hurt my babies. People walked by, stopped, browsed, read the jacket copy. And here’s the crazy part: They took everything.
It became a bit of a game to see whether there was anything too dull or weird to be carted away. There was not. Princess Anne’s Riding Through My Life, an account of the equestrian adventures of a minor royal, was snapped up in five minutes. People of Antwerp, a coffee-table book featuring Belgians in various stages of ennui, found a new home almost immediately. Essays in Canadian Socialism nearly caused a fight between two neighbours, with the loser asking if I had another copy. (I did not.)
On Thursday, Britain celebrated World Book Day, when all the children in the country are given a one-pound token toward the purchase of a new book. To mark the day, I put dozens of books on our wall, and realized yet again that people are infinitely stranger and more wonderful than I could ever predict. Joe Orton’s Diaries sat next to Jacqueline Susann’s The Love Machine (complete with semi-naked 1970s cover models, a useful reminder of BW, or Before Waxing). Orton’s diaries were gone within a few minutes; The Love Machine sat there, shivering, for a couple of hours. To be fair, there’s probably more sex in 10 pages of Orton – he was the Marco Polo of London toilets – than in all of The Love Machine.
What began in anxiety – who would we be without our books? – became an exhilarating experiment. It was a joy to watch an elderly couple walk off with Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein or a kid flipping through Walter Farley’s The Blood-Bay Colt. Old friends were off to new homes. I felt only slightly like Typhoid Mary when Justin Bieber’s memoirs got picked up by an unsuspecting passerby.
This week, The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier wrote a paean to his library: “My books are not dead weight, they are live weight – matter infused by spirit, every one of them, even the silliest.” (Maybe I would feel the same way if my oldest volume, like his, was a religious tract from 1538, and not a 1970 copy of Creepy magazine.) A library, he wrote, is a reflection of a life, scarred and imprinted with the unique markings of its owner’s personality.
This was precisely why we’d hauled all those books around for so long; we’d lent them a strange, totemic power. They had become fetish objects, a way of reminding ourselves that we were the kind of people who read. But they were, after all, just glue and macerated tree. It’s the writing and the ideas, not the books themselves, that should be venerated. Heresy alert: I’m reading more these days, thanks to my Kindle, than I ever have before.
Most of our books are now free to roam the world. One day the local street sweeper, on a mission to improve his English, stopped by. He picked up Maggie Siggins’s Revenge of the Land, perhaps attracted by the gothic cover – a fork of lightning above a bucolic Saskatchewan farmhouse. “Is good book?” he asked. “A very good book,” I said, “and you’ll learn something about the way the Canadian landscape shapes people’s character” – but he had already walked on, the book carefully balanced on top of his garbage can.