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My life story is written on my bookshelves Add to ...

One recent rainy morning, I planted my hands on my hips and stared down the books. “Okay,” I said. “Some of you have to go!”

Don’t get me wrong. I love books. My husband loves books. Our kids are growing up to love books.

After 20 years of living and reading together, we have gathered what some might call a sizable library. One problem: We don’t actually have a library to put the books in.

Despite having shelves in most rooms of our house, we were at full capacity. The books had migrated in stacks (books never travel alone) to settle comfortably on any available surface. The kitchen island, the back of the couch. On bedside tables, and below them too. Paperbacks perched precariously on the back of the … well, you can probably guess.

Looking at our glass coffee table that day, I strained to actually see the table. It was covered in mounds of books, resembling a crumbling Incan temple. It was time to take action.

I started in the office, where the literary remains of five university degrees collected dust. Why did we still have textbooks from 25 years ago? Somehow, with their heavy, dark binding and dense, serif fonts, textbooks exude a gravitas that can exceed their actual content.

The first one I pulled out was a hefty tome on long-range strategic planning. Chuckling at the irony, I figured that even the best-written book on that subject must be hopelessly out of date. Into the recycle bin. Accounting for non-profits? Out. Case studies in organizational behaviour? Goodbye.

I ruthlessly worked my way through the shelves. This was easier than I had anticipated. Feeling good now, I moved on to the family room.

Where to start? I reached in and grabbed a slim reference book on refinishing hardwood floors. And was transported back to our first house.

We had bought it as newlyweds. Every room, plus the stairs, had blue shag carpeting. We spent each night after work for weeks tearing up carpet to reveal the hardwood floors beneath, then bundling and carting it to the curb.

I took a deep breath and willed myself to be strong. Our fixer-upper days are behind us now. I slipped the book into the donation box.

Next came Second-Hand Dog, purchased when we adopted our first shelter mutt 19 years ago. I couldn’t resist flipping through the pages, remembering the lessons learned and applied with all the dogs that followed. The latest, a collie-shepherd cross, nuzzled my hand as I stood there. I stroked his head and put the book back on the shelf.

On to the books about expecting a baby, caring for your newborn, using effective discipline. Into the charity bin. Then, with a shrug, I retrieved and re-shelved the discipline one.

Ghost Towns of Ontario? Kept that. We haven’t seen them all yet. Nor have we hiked the entire Bruce Trail, so the binder full of maps had to stay. The coffee table books on the Nahanni and other great Canadian parks? Too gorgeous to let go. And, once I cleaned off the coffee table, they could be displayed there.

Running my hands over the spines of the novels, I tilted my head to read the names. All of them so wonderful. Fewer and fewer books were going into the bins.

I arrived at a phalanx of titles like this: The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun, Communication Strategies for Your Preschooler, Social Skills Training for Children with Autism. For a long time, that was the only shelf from which I read.

I pulled out the ones that would be helpful for families with younger children and bundled them up for our local autism centre’s lending library.

Then I turned to another row of books. Gardening. Ambitious youth! I spent winters dreaming of ever-blooming perennial landscapes. Now I plant the tried-and-true geraniums, petunias and dusty miller that I remember from my mother’s farmhouse flower beds. Some other hopeful gardener might benefit from these, I decided.

And so it went. Working through the volumes, trying to choose what I could stand to part with, I realized the crammed shelves held much more than a collection of books. They told a story. Our story.

Flipping through these cumulative pages, a historian could assemble a pretty accurate picture of our life over the past 20 years. And not just the milestones, but the workaday realities of family life. The stained pages of our recipe books reflect our favourite meals. That dog-eared guide to childhood illnesses got us through many sleepless nights.

Our books show what we’ve cared about, where we’ve visited (or perhaps wished to visit) and the challenges we’ve faced. How could I give that away?

At the end of the day, I drove to the donation centre with a few boxes. Our shelves are still chock-a-block.

They’re not expanding as quickly as they used to, since we’ve joined the digital crowd. But I haven’t kicked the real book habit completely and I don’t plan on it. Nothing can replace the feeling of a new book in my hands, or the pleasure of taking an old friend off the shelf to flip through its pages.

Still, I think about cleaning out the electronic bookshelves of the future. How easy it will be. Scanning through lists of text. Delete, delete, in the blink of an eye.

This might sound efficient to some, but it makes me feel sad.

Tracey McGillivray lives in Toronto.


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