Even though I am a professional poet/writer, this is my only bookcase:
Top Shelf: contemporary poetry
Second Shelf: blank journals, statistics book (I’m taking an online course. Don’t judge.)
older poetry, spiritual tomes, hair ties (I like them there.)
Fourth Shelf: anthologies, autobiographies, cookbooks/nutrition, essay collections, fiction
reference books, children’s literature, photo albums
That’s it. No other books hiding under the bed, left on the floor, or stashed in a purse.
Here are my thoughts on why I own what might seem a small number of books, given that my deepest work requires me to keep abreast of contemporary literature.
1| Love: I keep the books that I love, even if I could access some of them through the public library system. I mark these books up with blue pen. I make sure to re-evaluate my bookshelf every so often, because ‘what I love’ will shift over time and through exposure to new things.
2| Go Digital: I keep print copies of books only when their e-versions are awkward or frustrating to use. (eg. I keep a print version of Roget’s Thesaurus, but I use online versions of other reference books. I love http://www.etymonline.com.)
3| Memory-work = Reading = Resistance: I memorize my favourite poems (eg. Derek Walcott’s “Love after Love”; Czeslaw Milosz’s “Encounter”; Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It”; and Geoffrey Davis’s “King County Metro”) and recite them as I walk to the grocery store, to the bus stop, to the bank. I recite poems when I feel sick and when I feel down. Oral recitation and memory-work comprise a valid kind of reading practice, and this practice helps me to connect more deeply to a piece of literature – to preserve it in my heart and to understand it in my body. No one can take a poem – or its power – away from you if you memorize it.
4| Public Access: I take advantage of the public library system – which, in Toronto, is probably superior to most of the library systems in the world. Sometimes I like to check a book out through the library system if I’m not sure I want to purchase it, or if it would be extremely expensive to do so. I’m not ashamed of my library card!
5| Yes, I still buy books! Of course, I want to support contemporary authors and keep abreast of the work of my peers. However, I don’t hang on to every book I’ve bought just because someone I know wrote it. I don’t feel guilty about letting things go or finding them a new home. Books are meant to be shared: their value doesn’t depreciate through sharing. Sometimes I read a new book and pass it along to a friend when I’m finished, if I feel she/he will connect strongly to it. Sometimes, this loan is temporary. Other times, it becomes permanent.
6| Relinquish the should-dos: Don’t buy or keep books just because a canon or person insists that you must read them. Life is too short to read things that you don’t want to, unless it’s for school. Sometimes, even then.
7| The Ego is a Hoarder: Don’t buy or keep books just ‘for show’ because having them – unopened and gathering dust, as you know they are – on your shelf or on your stairs makes you feel smart. (eg. I kept Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture on my shelf for four years until I realized I had kept it to impress myself and/or to feel superior to house-guests – even though I could only really understand one sentence in that whole bloody book. (Sorry, Homey B.))
8| Archival: With the exception of the hefty anthology The Manifesto Project, I don’t keep the literary journals/magazines in which I’m published on my bookshelf. I keep these issues alphabetized in an accordion folder that I access as necessary. I do this because, for me, it feels like too much of a display to incorporate them into my bookshelf. Perhaps this feeling will change over time.
9| Packing/Moving = Feeling the Pain: Every time I move house, I must pack up all of my possessions, including my books. Dragging that literal weight around really makes you reconsider what is essential.