A House Without Books Is a Home Without Memories


Have you ever been inside a home without any books? None at all. Zero, zilch, nada.

I am not exaggerating here. How do I know this? That this particular house (names of its owners withheld to protect the guilty) contained no books? Because I snooped.

Yes, while the homeowners were otherwise occupied, I peeked into every room. Surely I would find a bookcase in a guest room. Nope. Or bookshelves in their study. Not there either. I glimpsed into the master bedroom, hoping to see night tables piled with books – or some magazines, show me some printed material, please!

But no luck. These people  happen to be smart, well-educated human beings. They are very busy with their jobs, they work hard and when they don’t work, they exercise. Perhaps they read on their laptops while exercising?

I am still puzzling over this a few weeks later.

I know I am being very “judgey” – it is just that I can’t imagine what it is like to live a life without being surrounded by the tangible evidence of your life in book form.

I like looking at all of the books I read as a child,  books I once read to my children, books that got me through law school, books I just finished, books I am now reading, books I want to read, books to share with friends and books to give to my grandkids.

My husband and I are now in the process of “decluttering” and hopefully downsizing (do you know anyone who wants to buy a very well-loved family house?)- and part of that process means purging our “huge” (meant in a very non-Donald-Trumpian-sort-of-way) collection of books.

Over the years I have tried to lighten my toppling shelves but have failed. Our local high school has a wonderful used book sale every spring. Every March I promise myself I will haul boxes of boxes to the school on the designated drop-off days. This is the year to fulfill that promise.

Where to start in a collection of hundreds of favorites?

One shelf is devoted to mysteries I love by Ruth Rendell, P.D. James and Elizabeth George. Another to the multi-volume set of epistolary diaries of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The lovely female-strong, village-based novels of under-rated (IMHO) British author Barbara Pym pack another shelf.

Wartime and spy novels written by Eric Ambler, Alan Furst, John le Carre and their lesser peers fill several shelves.

Three or four shelves contain my own collection of cookbooks, some purchased, some inherited from my mother – and no, I won’t sell you my autographed editions of the older Julia Child’s or The French Menu Cookbook (Olney) or my multi-volume set of leather-bound Gourmet cookbooks.

Spaces filled with presidential biographies, history, novels and political memoirs.

How to choose which books to donate –  and which books to keep?

Like selecting which child I love least!

I sat on the floor by our upstairs hall bookcase to ponder earlier this week. Taking down books, one by one, blowing off the dust (some of these books have been there for y-e-a-r-s) and finding bits of our lives tucked in the pages. Bookmarks (remember those?). Old letters from even older friends. Receipts. Kids’ drawings. Dog photos. Notes with mystery phone numbers.

A parade of books showing who I was at all the stages of my life since we moved into this house when I was 31 years old and pregnant with our first child.

What kind of person keeps nearly every book she has ever read? A person who thinks old books are just as important as old friends? Or maybe they are the same thing.

I like my human friends fine but they don’t nourish me as much as the sight of all of my beloved books on the shelves. The kindle is handy but hardly evocative of memories.

Looking at an old book I remember exactly where I was when I read it.

The David Maraniss book that kept me so engrossed when I was on a bus ride crossing Northern Israel that I totally missed out on the beautiful scenery. The Ruth Rendell mystery that comforted me with its strong characters when I was very ill in the hospital. The lovely short stories by Laurie Colwin that I first read as a young mother and re-read often today. And the Jhumpa Lahiri book where I cried when I got to its last page because the book had ended and I wanted the story to go on and on.

It took me a long time to fill up the 21 boxes of books I donated last week but I did it. Still the shelves are hardly denuded. Some favorites, I just couldn’t let them go.

I can’t say goodbye to some of them yet. And why should I? If we ever complete the “decluttering” process (hello, JP, are you listening? are we going to keep your old sports memorabilia forever?), and get around to selling this house, I am sure there will be empty bookcases in our new place.

I already look forward to filling them up with old printed friends to make us feel at home.





Filed under Aging, Baby Boomers, Books, Empty Nest, Family, friendship, Husbands, Midlife, Parenting, Reading, Women

10 responses to “A House Without Books Is a Home Without Memories

  1. Congratulations. It is a good first step in a difficult parting!


  2. We moved 8 years ago and I didn’t get rid of books but when we moved again 3 years ago I did. I did not get rid of a single children’s book though, and probably never will 🙂


  3. Vicky A

    Maybe you can find a nearby Little Free Library to donate books to? We are always happy to get extra books for ours, and only about 1 in 20 books that leaves the library returns for another reader. Find one nearby on the map at littlefreelibrary.org


  4. I am moved by your post. It almost brought tears to my eyes. my husband and I are just beginning to THINK about down-sizing and I look at the books in every room of our apartment and think it’s time to begin sorting through. Children’s books? I keep those as reference for illustration and inspiration. Cookbooks? Those have already gone through two rounds of purging. Art books? I could never part with. Novels, self-help books and text books? Who knows…maybe those could use a little triage.
    As for your friends, the book-less people… I don’t know… I suspect more and more readers use Kindle and audio books. But I am totally with you: books are part of the fabric of our lives and perhaps a reflection of who we are as individuals. Maybe some people just don’t care to be “on display”.
    Are you sure your friends don’t have a second home somewhere?


  5. I totally agree. I was into my Kindle for a while a few years ago. I sometimes use it now, but I mostly prefer REAL books!


  6. My house–a 1 BR apartment–is also filled w/books. But the shelves aren’t filled with the authors you name because I don’t know who they are. Instead, I have Star Trek novels; WEB Griffin OSS novels; Steven Saylor Ancient Rome novels; Clive Cussler thrillers (don’t recognize Clive Cussler? He wrote Raise the Titanic! and Sahara, both of which were made into movies about 30 years apart); David Lynn Goleman Event Group mysteries; old college, grad school and B-school text books; sci-fi novels such as the Dune series; and nonfiction books such as biographies and travel guides. One of my favorite uncles, who was in the book and magazine distribution business, gets the kudos for starting me out in creating my library.


  7. Every once in a while, I donate a box or two of books to our local library, but the process each time is painful. Plus we have myriads of books in Hebrew and in French. And shelves of children’s books. I find the easiest books to donate are recent novels (anyone want “My Name is Lucy Barton”?). Less emotional baggage associated with them. Fewer memories.

    And the there are the multiple copies, like the three of GATSBY…….so I’m not moving anywhere!


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