Wednesday, January 06, 2016

'Tidying up' and 'finding joy' in the Thompson Memorial Library

When I moved to Rockbridge Lane 23 years ago, my parents gave me funds to pay a fine carpenter to build floor to ceiling book shelves in the room at the very center of the house. As a thank-you, I dubbed the room the Thompson Memorial Library. Each shelf is adjustable and some shelves are deeper than others, so as to accommodate every size book that I own. The shelves were painted a deep aubergine and the walls behind the shelves a soft lime. 
Weeding out books in one corner of the library. Five empty shelves. 
Now need to reorder those remaining.
Of course, in two decades time, my collection has grown, and ES and I are forever in book-buying and reading modes. Books stack up beside my bed, on windowsills and on floors under paintings and tables. We are book lovers and read favorite passages aloud and share ideas gleaned from all these books.
I also come from a family of readers. My dad could go through a couple of thick novels a week, John Updike being a favorite. When we lived in Aruba, Mom and Dad joined a British book club, much like the U.S. Book of the Month Club, and for years, novels would arrive from Great Britain. some of which are still on my shelves.
Books that I gave my Dad for birthdays and Christmas with handwritten inscriptions on the title pages were returned to me with hand written notes when he and Mom purged before moving to the Pacific Northwest.  The inscriptions in John Updike's 'Marry Me' read: Christmas '76, to Dad from MMH' and he writes back, 'Some Updikes are better than other, Dad.'
This blog post on books is the result of reading Marie Kondo's 'the life-changing magic of tidying up, theJapanese art of decluttering and organizing' on the plane home from Seattle. Caroline loaned me the book, knowing that we are both in dire need of 'tidying-up'. I was entranced with Kondo's technique of holding a possession in one's hand and asking, "Does this bring me joy?" She advises putting a category of possessions all in one place: clothes, kitchen utensils and dishes, books, bedding, whatever, and then holding each one while asking, "Does this bring me joy?" If one does not get a sense of well-being or outright joy by holding the possession, out it goes. At the end of the process, which could take weeks or months, one is left with possessions that bring joy. She writes, "We process our past...it's like resetting your life and settling your accounts so you can take the next steps forward...the question of what you want to own is actually a question of how you want to live your life."

I chose to begin this process with my books and I am loving it. What I'm finding is that asking the question  "Does this possession bring me joy?" provokes the same good feeling I get when shopping. One peruses and selects the most interesting object, thinks of a use for it and a sale is made. It's an editing process. Choosing is addictive. By asking the very positive question, "Does this bring me joy?" instead of, "Do I need this?" or "How long has it been since I used/wore this?” I experience the same fine feelings that I do when wandering through a thrift store, Half Price Books and Anthropologie. Asking a positive question about joy makes it easy to cast off lots of stuff. I am on it, with pleasure.

In two days, I've gone through thirteen shelves and six are now empty. As I reorganize the seven that still hold books, I am sure that more will go into bags and boxes. I emailed my friend Joy at New Hope Housing to ask if her establishments needed literary infusions. She answered a resounding yes, and so a dozen bags of books are already loaded into my car. And this is just from one corner of the Thompson Memorial Library. And I have not even looked at the books in all the other rooms of this house.


Here are some books I held in my hands and asked, "Does this bring me joy?"
1. Books from 1960s classes at Cornell U include 'The Idea of the Holy, An Inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational' by Rudolf Otto. The first third of the book is studiously underlined. For what class was this assigned? Sophomore year I read portions of Volumes I, II and III of Greek Tragedies. They do not bring me joy and they have taken up space for over fifty years. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is inscribed Mary Margaret Thompson, 472 Sage, so I know that this book was for a sophomore lit class. Out they all go.
2. On a big party weekend at Cornell when I did not have a date, I hid in my dorm room for 2 1/2 days and read all of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. The very idea of reading them in one weekend - and the reason why - bring me a perverse joy. I am keeping these books with pages browning at the edges. Might I read Justine a second time - just to see if holds the same magic?


3. Books bought, read or unread during the 1970s and 1980s include several of Gregory Bateson's treatises, Joseph Campbell, Sigmund Frued and Carl Jung. I handled most of these without a tinge of joy. However, when we read Jung's autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections in book club, I recall that I felt myself in an altered state for days after reading it. How can a book do that?
4. Books from religious studies courses I audited at Rice U went into a give-away bag. In the early 1980s, I did my best to hone my faith. I was an active member in my Presbyterian church - I was an elder, for heaven's sake and chair of the social justice committee -  but academic courses and Sunday school and faithful church attendence never, ever made me a true believer. I simply became more and more aware of social justice, or the lack thereof.
5. In the 1970s, I believed that I could own every feminist book published. I collected and read them eagerly. Grace Paley, Carol P. Christ, Audre Lourde, Betty Friedan, Carol Gilligan, Tillie Olson, Kate Millet will all remain on my shelves. Oh, and I have an almost complete collection of MS. magazines, including the original issue. Keepers, all

6. After China opened its borders to 'foreign guests', Sally, Mom and I were lucky enough to travel there with a 1979 MFAH tour group, spending days in Beijing, Sian, Shanghai and Canton. I have a shelf of books on China, including a copy of Naegel's China Encyclopedia Guide that comprises 1504 pages, and which in 1979 cost $55. Inside the book, I found a postcard I wrote to Mary B with the message "Miss you, little girl. We saw two panda bears yesterday, like Caroline's bear. Today we visit a Chinese farm. Tell Cad I bought her a nice present in Shanghai. Love to you - Mommy, xxx"
The China shelf holds book by travelers and scholars Orville Schell and Ross Terrill. I think that Schell's Watch Out for the Foreign Guests, China Encounters the West may still bring me joy. All the other fat books on China will be dismissed.
7. I collected books on Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, the Navajo and the Hopi, during the years when I travelled again and again to Arizona to experience landscapes that filled me with awe. And then, there are my books on Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill. Those books with their maps and diagrams still bring me joy and will stay on a shelf. I am remembering two trips to London and Cornwall in the 1980s, when my friend Elizabeth and I traveled the countryside to walk among stone circles.
8. Just two years ago, ES and I collected four shelves of books on Rome and environs as we prepared for our two-month trip. My friend Sally wondered aloud if the trip itself would be as fine as the experiences we were having reading books about Rome. I can attest that the books and the trip complimented one another. Both were wonderful. Still bring joy. Books kept.
So on it goes. New Hope Housing will have its literary infusion, and I will have taken the first step advised in Marie Kondo's the life-changing magic of tidying up. I am finding joy, or not, as I hold each book.

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