time + attention + money = one’s priorities
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.
Most of the things we imagine never happen. When the thing imagined is positive but remains solely in an imagined and far-off future, it’s called fantasy. When the thing imagined is negative, one feels a sense of impending catastrophe. Fantasy and perceived catastrophe are bedfellows, and neither lives in the present. Their past-tense equivalents might be nostalgia and regret. Again, nostalgia and regret are bedfellows, and neither lives in the present. How often do you live in these four states?
“It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!”
(Great Expectations, Charles Dickens)