A few days ago, I had a shocking revelation when I got down to packing up my home of five years. As I looked around my earthly possessions-–mostly stacks of books collected over two decades-–I felt a surge of panic. How was I supposed to move all these to another city without burning a hole in my pocket? Even if I were to do so, would I have a house with sufficient space to store them? Most importantly, was all this worth the trouble? How many of these hundreds have I read, continue to re-read, or wish to do so? Given my nomadic existence, it seemed only prudent to bring down the collection to a size that was portable enough to be moved around every few years.
That's when I took a deep breath and started sifting through the pile. From school and college texts stashed away in the farthest corners of the shelves to grim-looking hardbacks gathering dust in mint condition, books started crawling out of the woodwork after months of hibernation.
A good many of these had made their way into my life thanks to my early career as a book critic. Some were gifted to me by well-meaning people who knew I loved books but had little clue about my taste. (For some reason, there seems to have been a popular misconception that I would enjoy spirituality, sci-fi and stories of doomed love. For the record and for future reference: I don't.) Then there were dozens of books I had bought, months or even years ago, thinking I would read them, or theoretically I should read them, but had inevitably picked up the old favourites when I found a spot of time to indulge in some reading.
That left me with about 80 books, my cuddly teddy bears, my faithful friends, who have followed me through three cities and were now going to go to a new one: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, Kafka, Dickens, Austen, Mann, Proust, Auden, Isherwood, Garcia Marquez, Henry James, Waugh, Mitford, Christie, David Sedaris, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, a handful from Bengali literature, a few more from countries near and afar, and I could happily set off with three medium-sized cartons. After seven years of literary education and over three decades of being a reader, those were all the books that I needed to live by.
Having worked as a reviewer as well as a book editor, I have known among the shrinking group of people who like to read a subset that is oddly competitive. Tell them about a book you have liked, and if it happens to be one that they haven't read (or heard of), they become fiercely defensive. They counter you with the names of a dozen other books you haven't heard of either. They smugly tweet every few hours about the latest literary sensation they have just consumed, their Instagram feed is full of dreary photographs of unkempt bookshelves spilling over with the evidence of their conquests. They are part of a fellowship of bloggers, Amazon reviewers, Goodreads geeks and book hoarders who want to be known for their undying booklove.
Is it possible to be a keen and interesting reader without publicly demonstrating your book fetish or waxing eloquent about the lack of shelf space at your home or sentimentalizing gifts of books you never want to read, though you can't bear to get rid of them because of some fond inscription left in them by a writer-friend? After the recent purge of my collection, the answer, for me, is a resounding yes. Here are my five takeaways from this episode:
1. Quality, not quantity, matters:
It's all well and good to aspire to read 50 or whatever number of books in a year and sign up for such a challenge, but please remember, the quality of what you read is more important than the volume you consume. Ergo: You may have spent one full year reading all five volumes of Proust's In Search of Lost Time and your friend might have read 600 contemporary novels in that time and Instagrammed that many photos of these books, lying next to steaming coffee cups and a cat looking on indifferently, and doubled their following. But, hey, there's no need to feel like a loser.
2. Stop whining about storage space and get an e-reader:
Yes, new books mostly smell nice, their covers often look gorgeous, there's a secret thrill to holding them up to your face, making notes on their margins or leaving stains of teacups on their covers. But they also occupy space and most of us do not live in mansions. So get real and get an e-reader. Hoard as many books you want, buy as impulsively you like, without ever worrying about space or having to lug them around with you.
3. Get a library membership:
Once again, if you want to read a physical book but not own it, pay a visit to your local library. You may not find everything you want to read there but chances are you will encounter books you never knew of and would want to read them.
4. Circulate books:
Once you've read a book and know you're unlikely to read it again, pass it on. A dilemma may arise when the book in question is a gift from someone, but the sensible part of your brain knows that giving away a useless gift need not mean disrespect to its giver.
5. Read for pleasure. Not to show off, compete with others, or act cool:
In the end, I kept about 200 books and gave away some 300 to a second-hand bookstore. If I experienced a tinge of sadness saying bye to these volumes that have gathered dust in my shelves for years, I also felt lighter and happier in the knowledge that they were going to find new, and hopefully worthier, homes for themselves now.
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