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In Somerset Maugham’s short story The Book-Bag, the narrator describes his passion for books: “Let us admit that reading with us is just a drug that we cannot do without.”
I get it. “My name is Arthur and I’m a bibliophile.” But now this addict must get rid of his stash.
Next summer, my wife and I will move from our four-bedroom suburban home to a newly constructed apartment. It will have two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a huge balcony but not enough space for our collections. My wife is spending a lot of time on Etsy selling her more than 300 dolls. She is taking this a lot better than me as I get rid of almost 1,000 books.
Some have always been with me: From my childhood home, to a university dormitory, then a bachelor apartment in northern Manitoba and a quaint apartment in Winnipeg’s Osborne Village, and now suburbia. They’re my favourite material possessions.
Getting rid of them is painful and the process is not unlike a substance-abuse intervention. One shop owner suggested I start with the books I had the longest that I hadn’t read yet. “If you haven’t read it in 40 years, you probably won’t.”
I beg to differ. In the past five years, I limited book purchases, mostly for lack of shelf space, and concentrated on the books I already had. So about 35 years after buying Victor Navasky’s book Naming Names (about Hollywood in the McCarthy era), I devoured it. Shortly after that I read U.S. Vietnam-era defence secretary Robert McNamara’s mea culpa autobiography, In Retrospect. I finally completed (after at least five unsuccessful attempts) Saul Bellow’s droll Humboldt’s Gift, which I bought in 1977. After reading these and other titles, I thought, “what took me so long?”
A second bookstore owner said she’s heard of my dilemma before and recommended I start with an initial culling of the books I want to keep least.
Easier said than done. I’ve always loved being surrounded by books. Most of mine are in a basement alcove with a comfortable armchair and matching footstool. There’s a sign on the wall that says, “This Library is My Mancave.”
Books can take you to faraway places or help you better understand the ones you’re in. Most of my reading is non-fiction so I can feed my love for history. When I have private leisure time I love to browse bookstores and libraries. Giving up my books is like being asked to end friendships. All right, I exaggerate – a little.
At least, unlike quitting alcohol or drugs, I don’t have to go cold turkey. Realistically there are books I don’t have to keep. How many Hemingway and Henry VIII biographies does one man need? Okay, there goes four titles. I read (and recommend) Conrad Black’s 1,00-plus-page FDR biography. But will I really read it again? And am I really going to read Jane Austen?
I don’t have any rare, valuable first editions and much of my collection comes from used bookstores and garage sales, so there’s not a lot of money at stake. Plus, books are just things. If I get nostalgic for any of them, there are public libraries. In fact, a new one just opened near our soon-to-be apartment, which is also close to Winnipeg’s best bookstore.
Still, this isn’t easy. I’m culling gradually, but maybe it would be easier if I could sell them all at once, like ripping off a Band-Aid. I did that with my smaller, approximately 200-piece record collection but I hadn’t listened to any of them in 10 years. My library is very active.
It’s not easy to get rid of large libraries. I once read an article on collections your children will wish you had disposed of before you die, and one of them was books! One of our better used bookstores isn’t taking any books right now, I’m told that they are way behind in cataloguing their current inventory. Another owner asked me to send pictures of the books I was prepared to sell. She replied they were impressive, but she already had enough copies of most of them. One store owner told me some people (much to her annoyance) leave boxes of books outside her back door, like abandoned puppies at animal shelters.
In Winnipeg, the bibliophile’s paradise is the Children’s Hospital Book Mart, a one-week event where well-organized tables of books are set up throughout a local shopping mall. Much of my library comes from there. Feeling charitable, I thought why not simply give them back? COVID-19 put that idea on hold.
Still, there’s been some success. During more lenient virus restrictions, one store owner (the one who suggested I start with the oldest books) came to my house and left with three boxes of books. Then one man, who said he was planning to open his own online used bookstore, bought nine boxes worth. So about half of my books are gone.
In the meantime, I’m reading the titles I’m willing to sell, but want to read first.
Recently, while looking over the apartment floorplans, I found a spot where I can put a small bookcase, maybe two or three shelves high. So now I’m deciding which authors will make the cut. Congratulations to Robertson Davies, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Carol Shields, Rohinton Mistry, Kazuo Ishiguro, David McCullough and Margaret MacMillan.
Further decisions are pending.
Arthur Chapman lives in Winnipeg.
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