Having the DTR with my books

The things around us help make up our daily lives. They shape it, color it, contain it, enable it. And this is why it can get weird to start to have complicated relationships with our things.

I mostly experience this with books. I’m a perpetual minimizer — I will donate or throw away anything that feels cluttery or is no longer useful, or I just don’t enjoy anymore. I try to limit my purchases and am very conscious of when I’m bringing too much “stuff” into the house.

Books, though? The limit does not exist. I will take any opportunity to jump into my local used bookstore, BookEnds, and feel it is an ethical duty of mine to support writers and authors and to help keep local bookstores afloat. Truly, accessible books is a benefit to any community and to all the people in it.

Tragically, my bookshelves are not nearly vast enough to host all the books I bring into this household. I have two bookshelves from Target, and since we are still very much renters and “where will we live in 3 years?!”-ers, I’m pretty determined not to own too much heavy furniture and too many books that would make moving even more difficult than it already is. Plus, as I said before, I love minimalism. LOVE IT. Plus plus, I have both kindle and nook apps so I have a way of expanding my library (and supporting writers!) that doesn’t take up much space at all. BUT even with all that, I still absolutely adore purchasing physical books and cannot seem to stop myself.

My lack of space and my penchant for buying books means I am constantly reevaluating and recurating my bookshelves. It’s been fascinating to see my tastes and passions change over time, as revealed in what books I keep around and what I give away. (Good thing I LOVE giving away books!!)

I develop relationships with books. I go to my books to remind myself of who I am, or I rediscover myself (or a past self) in rereads of books. These relationships and my current sense of self really determine what books I permit residence in my life. For instance, there are several cheap, well-worn, weather-beaten novels that I pack up and bring with us everywhere, not because I read them every year but because I remember how much I read them back in the day and what precise contribution they made to my growth. I haven’t read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in a decade, but I keep the novel because I love the marginalia and the notes I made in anticipation of writing a paper on it one day. Um, I wasn’t even in graduate school. A friend and I got a good laugh out of the way I read, but I remember realizing even back then that “going deeper” has always been part of my approach to reading, has always been part of the deep joy I get from books. My old, yellowed copy of Slaughterhouse-Five reminds me that I have always been passionately academic and analytical, and that I should continue to make space for that in my life.

So while some books are mainstays, other “sections” of my bookshelves shift with the times. My philosophy book section has grown, for entirely obvious reasons. Yet even with those books, my pride and joy, I tend to be ruthless when evaluating whether or not to keep them. I do not bank on having an academic career waiting for me after earning a PhD, so I don’t need to keep books that introduced me to new ideas but didn’t demonstrate themselves to be books I plan to return to over the years. I keep only those books that resonated with me personally, rather than those books that will prove useful in an eventual academic career (because again, HIGHLY unlikely there will be an academic career in my future).

What is kind of funny, though, is how I now miss some books I gave away (José Medina‘s Epistemology of Resistance, to name one) and how I’ve already changed a bit in who I am and what kind of person I enjoy seeing reflected in my bookshelves (not for performance reasons, but for “how can I return to the person I am through my rereading” kind of reason).

I have noticed a particularly huge shift in the books I’ve given away over the last five years. What I’ve slowly starting culling from my bookshelves, one or two or five books at a time, are my C.S. Lewis books. I used to have an entire shelf dedicated to C.S. Lewis — when I only had five shelves to fill, this was a big thing! I had his primary works, his letters, and a whole slew of secondary works that demonstrated my love for him. Now… I’m just in an entirely different spiritual place. Not only am I no longer a Christian, but even in the moments when I think I might be, I have no interest in much of the Christianity Lewis defended. I do still love several of his books that are not too hit-you-over-the-head Christian, like Surprised by Joy, The Four Loves, and Till We Have Faces. But for the most part, I continue to replace Lewis books with others, indeed continue to methodically replace all my Christian theological books with philosophy, psychology, and other nonfiction books that scratch my “wonder” itch at all that life and being human is.

My changing relationship to Lewis books is what inspired this post. I find I have to, even if just to myself, continually “define the relationship” with my Lewis and theology books. Whereas I used to have a more joyous and comforted feeling seeing Lewis books on my bookshelf, I actually have a slight visceral reaction of revulsion to them now. I feel a pulling away rather than a pulling towards, and I am fascinated (saddened? discomfited?) by that change. In the words of the ultimate minimalist for the 21st century, his works no longer “spark joy.”

I think I have really embraced the idea of books as sparking joy. I’m really enjoying cultivating a bookshelf of books that are meaningful in good ways to me. Sure, there are lots of books that I have a relationship with, but that relationship may be toxic. (Looking at you, Wild at Heart and anything-Chesterton.) I like to think that my bookshelf holds the books with whom I am in the healthiest and best of relationships: ones that bring me joy, that challenge me, that confuse me, that have shaped the best of me, and that I believe will do one of these things once I get around to reading them. (Ooooh, dear third-shelf-on-the-bookshelf-on-the-right, I promise to get to you one day!)

I think this process is something that book-hoarding can never teach us. Every so often we should have a DTR, a define the relationship talk with our books. Just like relationships with people, I’m learning how to let the relationships I have with specific books change as I grow and change. To let go when it’s time to let go. There is something really nice and soul-revealing about a frequently-updated bookshelf. I highly recommend the practice.

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