Revelations and lessons from cleaning a bookshelf

What do you do when you have a glorious, free day? When you’ve sent all your stories to your editors the night before? And when you have no immediate deadlines? For me, the answer was to clean my bookshelf. I’ve been meaning to clean the bookshelf in the bedroom for the past few weeks after I realized the growing number of books I kept buying and haven’t gotten around to reading yet (or what I call my ‘book debt’). They could no longer fit in the said small shelf and have taken residence on every known surface in the room. There was going to be a way to make them all fit. I was determined. It took more than an afternoon though as there were distractions, but I did discover a few things…

I love this photo by GREEN iS from Flickr (link on the photo), but I am glad that I didn't have to clean these many books

Do not watch Atonement. Or some other depressing, tragic movie. I’ve been putting off watching it because I know the story, I know how devastating the ending will be, and I know I’ll be a weeping mess. I thought, I’ll be distracted with the cleaning, that I won’t really pay attention, I won’t feel invested in the characters, and I won’t feel bad when it’s revealed that (spoilers for fellow late-Atonement viewers) Robbie and Cecilia both die and Robbie was never really able to come back to her after being wrongly accused and sent to fight in the war. And there are wet tissues and some dusty books on the floor. I’m crying and sneezing at the same time and I don’t get around to cleaning the dusty shelf until I get myself together.

Do use all those lonely socks. When it comes to dusting, all those socks that have lost their pair make for great duster. Just slip one on your hand and you’re good to go. Just don’t forget to remove it when you’re reaching for the tissue.

Don’t Do open the books. Go ahead, take a stroll down memory lane. Get distracted by the letters in between the pages, the dedications on the flap page, or spend a few minutes reading again a few pages of those books you felt changed your young-adult life. For me, it was Robert Cormier’s I Am The Cheese and The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. I remember reading it in high school after all the Sweet Valley High and Sweet Dreams and just being blown away by the world Cormier created. Of course, I cried. I thought about Adam Farmer on his bike and Barney Snow escaping the Complex long after I finished the books. It gave me a whole new perspective on stories.

I was also happy to see a few sweet letters from friends back in college in between pages of a few paperbacks. I’m relieved that I’m still in touch with most of them. There was the note an ex-boyfriend wrote on the flap page of a Care for the Soul copy, which he gave me post break-up. “Remember that everything is grace,” he wrote there. Smart and thoughtful guy. And the funny poem P wrote on a secondhand copy of The Missing Piece Meets the Big O a few months before we got engaged. I love how books can hold a specific time and memory from your life.

Sharing your shelf means more interesting books. Ever since I got married, P and I had to share a bookshelf. Most of his books and comic books are stacked in the shelf by the hallway, but the ones inside the bedroom bookshelf are an interesting mix–Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials, The Communist Manifesto, some manga and anthologies of ghost stories, Pablo Neruda books he collected in college, and Captain Underpants Series he got after college. Except for the Neruda books, most of those titles I never would have bought on my own and I’m glad that they’re there. Now I know the difference between a Dilbian and a Dextran, among other things. (FYI, they’re both aliens)

Your book debt is bigger than you thought. Why is it that any activity that involves cleaning always leads to some sort of discovery no matter how insignificant. Doing the laundry? Find a fifty peso bill. Cleaning your purse? Find that missing earring. Cleaning your bookshelf, oh find more books you haven’t read yet. (Damnit.)

Time to let go. Cleaning a bookshelf is also like cleaning your closet, you realize that there are pieces you’re done with, which you don’t feel compelled to keep anymore. Give them to a charity book sale. Give them to a public school library. Give them to your traveler friends (Peter Mayle can accompany them). In their place, I got to squeeze in the newly purchased books. Now I just need to pick which book I should start reading this weekend.

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