At about 2 a.m., my life partner, Tim, smelled smoke. Our main source of heat is a wood stove. He went outside and looked at the chimney, smoking lightly as it should be. He checked the exterior walls near the chimney for signs of heat. Nothing. There was a faint curl of smoke where the stove flue meets the wall. He adjusted the flue, no more smoke.
We have the chimney professionally cleaned every year. We were due. We agreed we’d call in the morning.
Tim, fearing carbon monoxide, opened most of the windows in the house. It was a cold night. I grabbed an extra blanket and drifted back to sleep.
At about 4 a.m., Tim got up, checked for smoke, found none. He closed the downstairs windows, left two upstairs, where our bedroom is, open.
At about 4:30, I was awakened by a flicker of light. I opened my eyes, turned my head, and saw flames at the window right next to my side of the bed. “Baby, we’ve got a fire.” I remember saying it calmly. Tim remembers an edge of fear in my voice. And the heavy smoke in the room.
In the smoke and the dark, I could find only one of my favorite cowboy boots, so came downstairs without them, putting on a pair of muck boots by the door on my way out. Tim grabbed a couple of his guitars.
We threw buckets of water while we waited for the fire trucks. They arrived surprisingly quickly, considering how far out in the country we live. We put out the visible flames. However, the fire was already in the walls and in the roof.
I’d been in the process of backing up my writing. I had both flash drives in my computer – upstairs, where the fire was. I announced my intention to get my drives. A firefighter got them for me and covered my computer to protect it.
We watched the smoke roll out our upstairs window as the sun came up.
We lost all our clothes and almost all of our furniture. The house is old. By the time we fix everything, we may as well have a new house. So probably, we’ll start over and the farmhouse that stood for a hundred years will be no more.
But Tim’s guitars are safe. So are my flash drives. Even the computer made it, and no longer smells smoky. The fire never reached the part of the house where most of my books live. The Flannery O’Connor I was reading burned with the night stand. But most of my books are fine, and they smell like books, not like house fire.
Like most writers, I’m a voracious reader. Like many non-stop readers, I have a lot of books. Probably close to a thousand.
A lifetime ago, I had well over a thousand books. Like, 5,000 books. No joke, no exaggeration. They dominated every room in my apartment. Everywhere I turned were books. In a way, it was really cool. Like living in a library. But when I walked out of that life, more than two decades ago, I took only as many books as would fit in my pickup. I’ve never regretted it.
But that’s still a lot of books. And of course, there’s still accumulation.
Tim built a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in the house that burned. I filled it in one day with most of the books that had been in boxes. He was building a second floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. And, since there’s always half a dozen books on my nightstand, we’d talked about a bookshelf for upstairs.
My first exposure to Marie Kondo was memes. You know the ones. Kondo suggests that fewer than 30 books is her ideal, and the meme expresses outrage in varying degrees of funny.
By now, most of us are willing to admit that Marie Kondo never threatened their personal libraries, never said the “no more than 30 books” ideal applies to everyone. Maybe some of us have even looked at our book collections and wondered if we ought to keep every book we own.
I’m not a collector. I don’t care about first editions. I write in my books. I carry them with me, and they get scuffed and sometimes spilled on. I’ve been known to dog-ear a page.
And sometimes, I go through and edit my collection.
I don’t ask, “Does it spark joy?” I ask, “Will I read this again?” And for the ones I haven’t read, “Is it still relevant?” “Will I really read this?”
I’m not drastic when I edit my book collection. When in doubt, keep it. But I’ve given away or traded in enough books that, despite my constant-though-slow accumulation, the number of books remains manageable for two or three shelves.
Obviously I don’t agree with the 30 books ideal. But I do agree it’s not worth keeping a book merely for the sake of keeping it. The house fire made me realize this all over again. Soon I’ll be putting my books back in boxes. They’ll sit in storage, where I won’t have easy access to them, and then they’ll move with me into a new house with new shelves. I’m sure I’ll keep most of them. I’m also sure some will not keep their shelf space.
For me, it’s worth it to edit my personal library from time to time. I don’t feel weighed down by a sense of obligation to read books I’m no longer interested in, or books “I ought to read.” I have only books I’ve read and loved and learned from, or books I am certain I’ll read. Books that are me, today.
That doesn’t mean I won’t keep books dear in my memory. Despite my many collection edits, I still have a dozen Marguerite Henry books about horses from my childhood. Will I read them again? Doubtful. But, illustrated by Wesley Dennis, you bet they spark joy!
Oh hey, is that a library book sale? Hard left into the parking lot. I’ll just be a minute.