Breaking the Shelfie Optic

I have a confession: I wince when fellow authors post their shelfies—photos of their glorious bookshelves, filled top to bottom with volumes of literary treasures. Not because I hate seeing them but because my own shelfie would be appallingly, even embarrassingly, lacking.

I love books. I love buying them. I love reading them. I especially love writing them. What I don’t particularly like is keeping them. Before you pull the nearest book from your shelf and notionally throw it at me for this seemingly antithetical view as an author, allow me to post a defense. And in so doing, I hope to set at ease others who shy away from shelfie posts because they, too, do not hold on to their books.

Shelfie, Part One. These are a mix of useful, sentimental, and personal copies of my own books.

When it comes to my personal spaces, I believe that less is more. I like clean, uncluttered landscapes. I’m sure many of you had a visceral reaction to my use of the word “clutter” in relation to books. That’s fair, but it’s also a personal value judgement. If something is going to sit on my shelf and collect dust, it needs to earn its place there through either usefulness or sentimentality. Books can be both of those things, and the majority that sit on my shelf fall into those two categories with the remainder being part of the proverbial “to be read” section. The section grows and shrinks, depending on how much I am buying versus how much I am reading then donating. Right now, my TBR pile is probably the smallest it’s been in years. I feel a bit relieved and, dare I say, triumphant about that.

You may now be asking, “But D.M., if you love books so much, why wouldn’t you keep them after you’ve read them?” to which I would counter with, “Why would you keep them?”  Is it because you might want to reread them again later?  There are so many great books out there—both new and old—that I want to read that I simply don’t have time to reread stories I’ve already read. Thus, into the donation pile they go.

Sometimes, I come across a book that I love enough to keep anyway. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry falls into this category. I’ve actually not reread it yet, but I found it so beautiful and charming that it has earned a place on my forever shelf. That’s a high bar to cross. I should clarify that this doesn’t mean any book I don’t keep isn’t a good book. It just means it doesn’t hold a place of significance in my life, and not everything we come across can.

Do you keep books because it feels like a cardinal sin to get rid of them? Generally, we are taught to revere books as among the most sacred of possessions. They educate, elevate, and entertain. They are the culmination of the author’s hard work and emotional toil. They are precious. To all of that, I say, “YES!”  They certainly are all that, which is why I choose not to keep most books I read. Once finished, I like to pay my books forward. I drop them off at the little local library, donate them to Goodwill, or wrap them up and toss them into my writing group’s annual white elephant book exchange. This way, others who possibly can’t afford to buy new books can also share in the joy of those stories.

These great books are now all the property of Hearne High School in Texas.

I recently shipped a collection of young adult and middle grade speculative fiction books to my high school library. I’d purchased most of these to support the #BlackoutBestsellerList initiative last year, which aimed to show unprecedented (and hopefully continuing) support for Black authors. While I enjoyed most of these books, I know I’d never reread them. Donating them to my old high school—a district with a large Black population—is the best future they could have because both character and author representation is incredibly important for children. These books have more value on their shelves than on mine.

Perhaps you keep your books because, in the grand scheme of things, they have to go somewhere. Why not let them sit on your shelves, where you know they will be treated well? This is where a bit of pragmatism comes in. One book is easy to hold and carry around (which is why I actually prefer physical books to eBooks, but that’s another post), but a stack of books is cumbersome. An entire shelf of books is downright backbreaking. As someone who has moved around a lot, I can tell you that books are neither cheap nor easy to pack up and ship.

This also brings me back to what I said about clean, uncluttered landscapes. In my world, just about everything is “clutter,” but I love some of it enough to deal with the sense of minor chaos that we each seem to build throughout our lives. As I move forward in my years, I don’t want to accumulate. I don’t want my personal legacy to be a household of “stuff” that my family will then have to deal with. A huge collection of books may end up being donated in bulk or even tossed out without thought to what they might have meant to me. That’s not a judgement on my children or myself. It’s just life.

Shelfie, Part Two. These are my TBR on the left, keepsakes on the right, and a mix of the two in between.

Instead, what I want is for my heirs to pull down that copy of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and remember the touching story I once told about it. I want them to save my copy of The Little Prince because they know—by virtue of my having kept it—how much it meant to me, and thus, it has meaning to them. And I sincerely hope that some of the books I’ve bought and donated throughout the years have that same special quality to the people whose hands they ended up in.

So all that is to say, don’t take my lack of a healthy shelfie as an aversion to books. Instead, see it for the esteemed value they truly hold in my eyes.

  1 comment for “Breaking the Shelfie Optic

  1. March 8, 2021 at 8:24 PM

    I only keep ones I want for reference or to re-read. But I’m a HUGE nostalgia reader, and I know this a grave sin in the writer community, but I’m enjoying re-reads way more than new reads right now. It’s a terrible dilemma.

    Liked by 1 person

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