Pull Your Shelf Together

these books don't have to go home, but they can't stay here

Mike Paulus, design by Serena Wagner

We finally just did it one day. After almost nine years of shoving books into the nice, built-in shelves flanking our living room fireplace, we pulled our entire book collection down onto the floor, stacking them up according to genre, and we started weeding through the mess.

Those shelves are a big reason we even live here in the first place. Our living room is a big, airy space with lots of light. We’ve got the front door on one end and the delightful fireplace/shelf combo over on the other. Some big windows, a piano. It’s a really great room. When we first saw the shelves, stepping into the house with our Realtor, my wife and I smiled at each other, and we knew we’d like to live here. This room. It’s fantastic.

So naturally, we hardly ever go in there. Not for very long, anyway.

Did we love this book enough to keep it? Do we want our kids to read this? Even if we still love this book, is it time for someone else to fall in love with it?

One of the main reasons to visit the Paulus Family Living Room is to get at the bookshelves. To do that, you’ll need to sidestep a series of constantly shifting obstacles. A big box of my son’s “building supplies” – pieces of cardboard, old popsicle sticks, and weird bits of plastic left over from complex product packaging. Stacks and stacks of neatly folded fabrics my wife will soon cut apart and sew back together. A tiny trampoline so the kids can burn off energy in the wintertime. An old rocking chair used by the cat and no one else. The room isn’t messy, exactly, but it’s having a kind of identity crisis. It thinks it’s a big, airy closet. With lots of light.

Anyway, if you’re yearning for a stroll down memory lane, stroll no further than your books. Holy crap. It took us forever to weed through it all, mostly because we had to talk about them. We had to remember when we got them and why. We had to run our fingers around the special nook each one had carved into our hearts.

As it turns out, we had a lot of dumb, useless books hogging up precious heart nook space. Like old textbooks from UW-Eau Claire. Useless, outdated, dogeared textbooks we’d convinced ourselves would remain useful in our post-collegiate lives. They’re useful all right – for reminiscing about college. While the knowledge locked within their pages was of paramount importance in the late ’90s, they’d since morphed into 10-pound nostalgic doorstops. Don’t get me wrong. I love remembering my college days. But I’ve got a dusty stack of Counting Crows CDs in a box upstairs serving that purpose just fine. So a lot of those textbooks got recycled.

My wife has a harder time letting go of these things than I do. But it’s hard for me too. Once we got through the schoolbooks and the novels we didn’t really care for – and the books we’d kept mostly because they looked cool – once we got through all that, we arrived at the hard decisions. Did we love this book enough to keep it? Do we want our kids to read this? Even if we still love this book, is it time for someone else to fall in love with it? Is Michael Crichton’s Sphere as good as it was when I was in high school?

No. No it is not.

We cleared off a lot of shelf space. And yes, we kept a lot of books based solely on the memories they hold. The feelings they make us feel. We wiped all the dust and dead spiders off the built-in shelves and reorganized everything back into place, leaving room for, you know … more. The living room is still a mess, but cleaning out the bookshelves was never really about cleaning.

At the end of the day we had four big boxes books. Sitting there. Taunting me. So I loaded them into the back of our van. We’ll keep them there, we reasoned, and every time we pass one of those Little Free Libraries peppered around town, we’d stop and say goodbye to a few titles, here and there, until they were all gone. What a great idea.

It didn’t work out that way. They sat in the van for a month or so, and later on, when I needed the space, I threw them all into the garage where they sat for a few more months. And then just a few weeks ago, for no particular reason, we loaded the books and the kids into the van and drove around to every Little Free Library box we could find within the city of Eau Claire, loading each one to capacity. It took a while. As we drove around town, my wife and I talked. We joked. We fought. At one point, we even got caught in the rain, just like in the movies, only slightly less romantic. Eventually, we’d narrowed down the surplus to just one box. It’s still in the van.

If we pass a little library in someone’s front yard, we’ll pull over and leave a few of our books for other people to grab, mock, or just ignore. They moved from one cluttered space to another. And then another and another. I hope they find someone who likes them. No one will know their history, but hopefully, at least they’ll get read.

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