Clearing the Shelves
Contributor
Written by
Shari Cohen
February 2010
Contributor
Written by
Shari Cohen
February 2010
I spent a good part of last weekend clearing my shelves of books to give away to Good Will. This was long overdue, but until that moment, I had been unable to do it, even though i haven't touched many of those books for years, if ever. At least 85% of my wall of books was devoted to past professional eras --a vestige of sorts, of my life as an academic specialist on international relations and the former Soviet Union. I realized that while I have clearly moved on, and haven't worked in that area for over ten years now, I was clinging to it as part of my self image.

I parted with titles like, "The Soviet Bloc: Unity and Conflict" published by Zbigniew Brzezinski in 1961, Dmitri Volkogonov's "Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy," (a tome that weighs several pounds), a dense volume called "The State and Political Theory," by Martin Carnoy. Also included in my purge was a book called "The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense," which some well intentioned person (possibly my mother) had given me probably a quarter of a century ago. An issue of the journal Global Governance, from 2003 got tossed, and a copy of the 2003 Writers Market.

Books are like artifacts; sometimes you keep them for show -- to yourself, as much as to others. These earlier parts of myself were precious; they spoke about an earlier passion, like photos of an old lover. I remember the pleasure I felt when I added the classics of Soviet Studies, Russian history, and several other subject areas, to my shelf, treasures I had found in old bookstores. At the time I thought I might need them for my career of teaching and research; but as important, (or moreso), I placed them there as show to students or colleagues perusing my shelves -- that I was a true expert; the impulse of the collector.

As I added books to the discard pile I felt increasingly buoyant and encouraged. These books were weighing me down; they were taking space -- a physical representation of how my prior professional self remained too present in my life.

I held on to one shelf for each of my previous areas of focus --nationalism; international relations; Eastern Europe; Jewish; holocaust/World War II; Russian and Soviet Literature. The one topic I couldn't reduce to one shelf was Soviet politics and foreign policy --my original grad school focus. Maybe it is because I had such a good collection of these books; no need to ask why.

The operative question was: which of these can you leave behind, and which do you want to ship ahead, in case you might need them some day? This question is iterative, I think; I may revisit in a few years, and toss some more. But for now I have made space for the professional self I now am.

I keep looking at the space I cleared on the shelf, pleasantly empty now, but waiting to be filled with new topics, new curiosities and new artifacts. My long transition from my past life feels more complete.

If you are in a transition, try this as an exercise:
What is most essential on your shelf?
What is expendable?
What can you leave behind, and what do you want to ship ahead?

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Comments
  • Michelle Daly

    This post has certainly given me food for thought! Gosh, I still have Erin Pizzy's, Scream Quietly Or The Neighbours Will Hear, on my shelves! No offense to that wonderful woman but I bought it in the 70's. I'm going to give away a few at a time. I am...I am...I am!
    Thanks for the great post!

  • Sarah Irving

    Oh what an excellent post! I'm just starting to very slightly get a grip on this idea - mainly under pressure from the idea that I'm heading to Australia for a year to spend time with my husband's family, and whatever hapless individual winds up housesitting for us will need at least SOME shelf space of their own. But it's so tough, and I love your evocation of how much our books become part of our identity, the face we show the world and indeed the face we show ourselves. For any readers in the UK, I also wanted to flag up http://www.greenmetropolis.com, an online second-hand bookstore where you can make a little money off of your clearout and a woodland conservation charity also gets a cut.

  • Deborah Siegel Writing

    Thank you, Shari, for such a thoughtful post.

    As a sidenote, as Cris' comment here reminds me, one person's discarded books (qua sense of self) are another's treasure, and trigger for reinvention. How cool would it be to establish a book exchange somehow here at She Writes?!

  • Cris Mazza

    I did this in January (also CDs), but brought a big box to Half Price Books.
    But I also do this: I am a professor and director of the writing program at UIC. Outside my office I have a book-swap bookshelf where I put fiction, literary nonfiction and poetry books I have read and no longer have shelf-space for. Students are welcome to take what they want, and drop off anything they're "finished" with.