Michael Redhill is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Twitch Force, and the novel Bellevue Square, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2017.
Cull a bookshelf, go down a rabbit hole. Little lost notes fall out of volumes you haven’t looked at in years: a scribbled recipe for poulet basquaise in the hand of a dead friend, a receipt that shows James Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763 was bought in Basel, in 1989, and there is also a queen of spades moonlighting as a bookmark, half a dozen TTC transfers, a Canadian one dollar bill and a book that is signed to me with the words Oh, shut up.
Every book is an entry in a journal you’ve lived rather than written. A record of your movements, your tastes, even your friends and lovers. If you collect books – if they come into your house and don’t leave – there’ll be times when you have to choose between them and your furniture. You’ll have to decide whether you need everything Martin Amis has ever written or all those French novels in French for which your French still isn’t good enough. Maybe at midlife, like me, you’ve already shed the most egregious and unnecessary objects that used to follow you around. I once collected typewriters, and not the svelte Selectrics, the anvils with keys. When I could lift them, it didn’t seem so dumb to cart them around. I got rid of them 20 years ago. I bet the guy I used to know who collected toasters doesn’t have them anymore, either. But the books. They gather. They flock together; they want to stay a family.
The same is true of the letters I’ve kept and the drawings the children did in kindergarten. It feels like it’s up to me to keep a complete set. I’ve never reread any of the letters, but still, they go in three stuffed boxes from house to house. What if they have something to say to me? Shouldn’t I keep them until they reveal their purpose? Is that the reason I continue to chaperone through time my great-great-grandmother’s poems, in German, which I also cannot read, typed out on waxy rice paper, and preserved between black, springboard covers?
Of course we keep things because they reflect us to ourselves. They place us in time. And they show who we are to others.
I recently married, and in moving to my wife’s house, I had to confront the large number of books that had settled in my rental over five years. And not just books. DVDs I thought I’d watch one day with the commentary, cassette tapes still in need of transcribing, boxes of childhood diaries where lurks my awful true self … all of this, plus 60 years of my father’s slides and photos in the mix, too. Where to begin? (I started by driving all 19 Richard Stark novels to Value Village.)
I’d taken it as my duty to deal with my father’s photographic archive. I inherited the bankers boxes of slides and photo albums a few years after he was diagnosed with dementia. Since 2015, the straight tray projector, the carousel projector and the slides had been living in my house. My father numbered each slide he took, individually, in black pencil, in the upper right-hand corner. Then he recorded that number in a small black vinyl ledger and underlined in black pen the slides that were going into the trays. These are the 23,000 that survived his culls.
My mother and I spent a year of Thursdays looking at the whole collection, keeping what we liked and what we cared about. The actual parting with the rejected slides and pictures was painful, something I was glad my father didn’t have to see after his decades of meticulous ordering. I waited for the garbage men to come one Thursday morning and asked if the old hard slide trays or the slides themselves were problematic, and buddy said, nope, just toss 'em in. So, that day, I threw 1957 to 1966 into the back of a garbage truck. Two weeks later, I threw another decade away. After that I started taking the slides to the dump so nobody could see what I was doing.
I’ve moved 16 times in 35 years, each time dropping ballast in order to fit into a new space. I had a few mid-tenancy culls too, arresting the creep of books in pillars against the walls. Once, heartbroken, I tossed every book I associated with the relationship, any book I’d read in that whole period, anything that connected me to her. When I moved from that place, I downsized to a wretched bachelor apartment above a drug store and had to shed half my remaining books. Off finally went the Agatha Christies, my childhood copy of Treasure Island, useless cookbooks (The Humble Potato, Cooking with Canadian Wine), the Peter Straubs and the Stephen Kings, and some years’ worth of novels I still wanted to finish – or was never going to finish – with their bookmarks, like stop clocks, still in them. I was still too young to be sentimental so I threw out The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander and Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones – a novel that hit my nine-year-old mind like an asteroid. I also miss a strange little children’s novel that I can now only see the cover of. I can’t remember the title.
Culling a book can be freeing. As in, I hated that translation anyway. But it can also be tinged with a soupçon of despair. So: Here are the books I’m not going to get to, after all. It’s not as if I’m taking the ones I’ve read to the grave, but to send a few on ahead of me feels like giving up. Have I lived a full life if, at the age of 53, my unread copy of Dead Souls is already in a free library on a post somewhere in Leaside?
I hope this will have been the last major cull in my life. Next time, I’m going out with the books. My father died in July, but in the years leading up to the end, his illness cast bits of him off until there was almost nothing left. Life can feel like you’ve been collecting selves, but as you get older it forces you to shed them, too. I’m clinging to the illusion that I’m still the boy who read The Hobbit so many times that both covers rubbed off, and that’s the reason it stays on my shelves, its pages furry and torn.
So, what happened to the other books that survived this last cull? Reader, I interwove them with my wife’s. She’d gone through her shelves, too, making room. In the end we had only two doubles: We kept my Hard Times, her Mrs. Dalloway. I put all the little lost notes back inside their books and maybe I’ll never see them again. Now our combined collection is bigger than the ones we each started with. We’ve already built a new bookshelf.
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