Weeding out books.

by Hugh Gilmore

I’d watched it grow from infancy. How cute, I thought: He’s barely crawling and my baby boy is dragging around books bigger than he is.

I watched it grow through childhood. How cute, I thought: Seven years old – he owns 200 books. He loves Aristophanes, especially “Lysistrata,” and he’s now reading Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.” That alternated with Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” as his favorite book for a while.

By 13, my dear son Andrew owned close to a thousand books, most of them crammed into his small bedroom. Like father, like son, like mother too – each of us owns large personal libraries. Unlike ours, Andrew’s kept growing until his room was bulging with books, records, audiotapes and DVDs – a problem that could not be solved by adding more bookcases.

It’s hard to tell people with full-blown bibliomania that, for every book that comes in, one has to go out. It’s taken a while, but Janet and I have come to live by that mantra (sort of).

Andrew’s 26 now. He still lives with us, which we probably enjoy more than he does. We can’t simply walk into his room and move things around, or throw them out, or give them away. That would be disrespectful and create bad feelings. And we can’t go into his room and tell him what should go and what should stay and demand that he does what we say.

Instead, slowly but surely, as insistent as a starfish, over a series of little car rides here and there, he and I talked, starting with general principles and building to little particulars (such as, “Are you sure you need 42 Garfield books?”).

We talked about what a library is for, and came up with the following. First, your library is a history of all the mental phases you’ve been through. One needs to keep samples of all those stages of your development. Next, on a more practical basis, your library stores knowledge you need handy, but can’t get as easily from the Internet.

Then too: one’s library can contain certain books that tug at your feelings the way your old baby blanket or Teddy bear does. You’ve got to keep those. And running alongside this, your library is your statement to the world, even if the world never sees it, about yourself. Who you are. What books you value. In a way, they’re like trophies.

And sometimes, even if you haven’t read some of the books on your shelf, let’s describe them as a statement of your ambitions. Andrew and I agreed that we’d called this phenomenon, “pride of ownership.”

So, all in all, we had many interesting conversations over the course of several months, and we agreed that his room needed to be made more livable. And that he’d need to remove some items, either for donation, or for sale. The problem was, which deserved to stay and which could go? Only Andrew could determine that.

The records were easy. (In a way – I gave Andrew record space by giving away all my own records. That was painful to consider, but easy once I’d done it. It required me to admit that I’d never play them again – I hadn’t in 20 years, but there’s always tomorrow, eh?) Andrew’s records moved into my old shelves. The VHS tapes went into storage in the basement crawlspace.

When the day to cull the books arrived, I did one dirty, effective maneuver: I suggested that all the books from Andrew’s room be moved downstairs and laid on the living room and dining room floors. I’ve learned from my experience as a bookseller that it’s easier for people to let go of books once they’re not sitting in their customary shelf spaces.

After many trips, his room had been purged. We removed one large bookcase and took it outside to the carport right away. Back in his room we dusted and cleaned the empty shelves. Then Andrew, on a triage basis, started returning books he felt he had to continue to own. Getting in the spirit of things, he started filling bags for public library donation and boxes to sell to a used-book shop. It’s important to state that he alone decided the fate of every one of his books. He retained the captaincy of the little ship he sails back there in that mysterious corner of our house.

I had a heavily nostalgic moment there for a while, once I was certain the plan was working. Seeing him leaning over the long rows of books laid spines-up across the rug, I thought about what an amazingly diverse set of interests he has. Books about jazz, about the history of animation, dozens of Garfields and Gary Larsons, Poes and Twains, a parody book called “Gilligan’s Wake,” a discography of Bert Williams, dozens of Sesame Street books and other childish things lying beside his histories of British radio comedians. Not one, not two, but three! “Milton Berle Joke Books,” well-worn, still heavier than he was when he used to lug his first copy around.

Back then, people would ask him what he wanted to do when he grew up. The answer was, “I want to make people laugh.” I thought, “Oh, he’ll grow out of that eventually.”

As I write this, he’s up in his room now, (This is July!) using his books to plan a one-day film course he’ll offer on Oct. 1, up at the Center on the Hill. He’ll call it something like “Andrew Gilmore’s Hidden Treasures, Now Revealed” or something similar. I know where that treasure’s been buried and how it got there.

“I want to make people laugh,” he still says. I’ve come to think that there are probably many less useful occupations.

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