sunday life: in which i declutter my books

Posted on August 30th, 2009

This week I had a good hard think about why I have kept an unread copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace on my bookshelf for 17 years.  This small awakening prompted a frenzied decluttering of dead wood*. Small awakenings can do this.

I’ve been on a decluttering mission lately. This latest chapter was prompted by my appearing in one of those magazine lifestyle shoots, “At Home with ….”. You know, the ones where the subject nurses a mug of coffee at their kitchen island in one shot. And snuggles up on the couch in distressed jeans and bare feet in another.

I, to my utter delight, was asked to do both. It was all terribly “mock bourgeois” and readers were invited to perve on my knickknacks (and filthy skirting boards) and read about how I like to cook casseroles.

In one of the shots I’m leaning against my bookshelf and I can just make out the offending Tolstoy opus. There’s nothing like looking at your life through the eyes of thousands of gossip magazine readers in doctor’s surgeries to wake you up to how you present yourself. Why is War and Peace on my bookshelf? And what picture of myself have I been trying to paint all these years by keeping it there?

A person’s book collection speaks volumes. When we enter someone’s home for the first time we subconsciously make a b-line for their bookshelf while our host puts on the kettle. And we make funny little assessments in our heads about them based on their reading preferences. Ah, The Lovely Bones and the Life of PI:  literate, although not ambitiously so; pop-culturally savvy. The complete works of Dan Brown: um, well, let’s just hope they realise it’s not non-fiction.

War and Peace? An unread copy? Clearly a cultural interloper. I bet she says she listens to Bela Bartok on her Facebook profile.

Isn’t that why we have a bookshelf? And plant it smack-bang in the middle of the most frequented room in the house (the airport novels stashed in the spare room)? It’s to advertise us as interesting, colourful or esoteric.

It’s an interesting exercise, to look at what we hang on to. Karen Kingston is an international space-clearing expert and says collections reflect our current journey. When we collect “we’re responding to an intuitive need to gather a particular type of essence … for our own personal growth,” she says. A teapot collection can say more about a yearning for nurturing and ritual than a rampant thirst for Orange Pekoe.

Which is all very well if you don’t mind being defined by your Smurfs. But if you hold on to stuff when its essence is no longer relevant or useful it starts to smell like one big bag of musty concert T-shirts you’ve been hanging onto since Take That last toured. I know a guy whose flat is lined with cricket trophies from when he was 12 and Star Wars figurines. And we’d all been wondering why he can’t hold down an adult relationship!

Books represent our ideas and beliefs, Karen says. And holding on to those no longer representative of you will block new ideas and opportunies coming into your life.

Of course, I could not sit with this knowledge and War and Peace in the same room. I pulled out a box and swiped my bookshelf of the following: all Mis-Lit (memoirs with titles like She Sold Me for A Packet of Cigarettes), anything with raised, foiled lettering about fictional women living in Manhattan who shop to get over breakups (a vestige from my past in women’s magazines; I’ve never read any of them), The Rules, The Secret, The Bible and all circa-1997 self-help literature.

It can feel uncomfortable exposing our pretentions and attachment to ideas. We let them sit there, and prance around them for years; it’s easier than challenging them. Yep, it felt prickly realising I was a book snob. And it was almost scary tossing books that had been part of my life in the past. What if I needed them again?

But the day comes when it feels better to symbolically shed our trappings and to become alive to the “essences” we want to surround ourselves in. It’s liberating to let go and to know you’ll be OK without them. Because there’s always a library down the road.

Tragically, as I type a British woman has just died from too much hording. She literally suffocated under her collectibles and it took police several days to find her under the boxes of clothes and junk. I’ll say no more.

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