My Life in Books

by Carol A. Westbrook

If you are an avid reader like I am, then you may be a book addict. You have a huge collection of books, which you have been accumulating since high school. As the collection grows, you require more bookshelf space. Each move means a bigger apartment, one with more wall space for books. You are considering moving again to accommodate even more bookshelves. And so it continues. Am I right? Bookcase before2

Your books are now stacked two and three deep, and there is no more room for new books. You give a few books away, or try unsuccessfully to limit yourself to eBooks. But you can't stop yourself; you need the feel of the new book in your hand. Gridlock. Something's gotta give.

I was at that point. It was time to get rid of some of these books. But I couldn't just throw them into the trash or donate anonymously to Goodwill. I had to make sure these old friends–who followed me faithfully for decades–would go to a good home.

I've got it! I'll invite my friends to a holiday open house and a “Big Book Giveaway.”

My plan was simple. First, sort through my books and determine which ones I could part with, and then start a database that would help me remember those that are gone, good companions all. This Excel spreadsheet would help me recollect title and authors that I really enjoyed, so I could recommend them to friends or gift them. The science fiction collection would be spared–it has a place of its own. Not so for the other fiction that I enjoyed but won't read again. Then tackle the non-fiction, saving those that I use for reference or were important to my education, or shaped my worldview. These are the books that defined me, as it were.

I made the mistake of starting with poetry, since I only had a handful of these books, most of which were forgettable. But two were inscribed, so I saved them. One was a book of love poems, a wedding gift. The other was a collection by Scottish poets, all of whom wrote in the Scottish vernacular. A card fell out, marking a special poem, and it brought back a flood of memories of a brief but passionate affair with a tall, ginger-haired Scotsman whom I met at a conference almost three decades ago, when I was newly divorced.

The poem, incidentally, is by William Soutar, and is called “The Tryst.” It begins:

O luely, luely cam' she in

And luely she lay doun

(Oh lovely, lovely came she in, and lovely she lay down.)

It is one of the most romantic poems I ever read. Look it up if you have a chance.

Oh my, at this rate I'll never finish! It's memories like this which make it hard to get rid of any books, because each book that you embrace fits into a specific time in your life, doesn't it? I believe that for every book there is a season, a time when it makes sense and becomes part of your memory of that time. And of course, that is why we save the books we love, because it is another way to bring back a brief moment of our past.

There were old favorites from my teenage years which I still read, including Rudyard Kipling's Kim, my first and favorite “road” novel. I see it in a different light every time I read it. It still enlightens me in a way that Jack Kerouc's On the Road, never did. The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck, read in high school and read again this year; interesting to compare the China of today to China as it was portrayed in the 1940s. There were a few childhood classics too, all in hardcover. Saved.

The other novels I had were mostly acquired since 1985, when I finished medical training and had a bit more time (and money) to enjoy books.

There was a time when I read South American authors–Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and of course my beloved Elizabeth Allende. During my divorce I read a lot of Fay Weldon novels, most of which have to do with women finding their own voice, which seem a bit trite when I read them now. Then there was my Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoc period, and Robertson Davies, which was about the time I travelled to London frequently, even spent my sabbatical there. I enjoyed the London bookstores and heavily intellectual novels and large epic works such as Pillars of the Earth. That was when I started getting interested in those English novels that we all had to read in high school and I had completely ignored — Jane Austen, and Emily Bronte and Somerset Maugham. My English period has since continued, moving on to Downton Abbey and Doc Martin on BBC television, and current British novels about life among the upper crust, such as those by Julian Fellowes. Later I started enjoying fiction based loosely on an author's family history, about life in China, Japan or India, especially their migration to the US. These include the novels of Lisa See–which prompted another reading of The Good Earth— and The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, about an Indian family moving to the US.

After I left university life and went into clinical practice I had little time to read, and that was when I learned to enjoy paperback novels of crime, mystery, and science fiction. Pure escapism, among them John Grisham and Jo Nesbo's novels. These are relatively short and easy to read. I'm not sure what my next phase will be, now that my clinical practice is slowing down and I have more time to read books that are heavier both in weight and in concept.

Finished fiction! One week, 12 cartons of books, and one database later. Non-fiction turned out to be much easier. Save the Western Civ and sociology books from my undergrad days at the University of Chicago; the same for my (only) art history class. Physics texts? Calculus books? No need. Biochemistry and Organic Chem? Yes, I'm still in medicine, after all and I use them. And speaking of Medicine, get rid of these old, outdated texts from 1972-78, as well as newer tomes like “Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine” 3rd, 4th and 5th editions, and “Cancer Chemotherapy Handbook 2012, 2013, 2014…” These medical books cost a fortune and weigh so much, but go out of date so fast. It's all on the internet, after all.

I have a precious collection Dad's old books–he was a WWII vet. His books were mostly history or biography, many related to The War. For example, Patton's War as I Knew It.

By way of history, I have only a small collection. My topics are Chicago history that relates to me: Hyde Park houses (as a reference to my first house); the Second City Comedy Club; the ethnic groups of Chicago and their churches; local television programming in the early 1950's; and of course, several books about that quintessential Chicago food, the hot dog.

My cookbooks? They occupy a full three feet of shelf space, but I'm keeping every last one of them, including the Betty Crocker cookbook from my mother and an early paperback edition of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I use them all, even Betty Crocker.

Then there is a large collection of books on women's issues. These books helped me to understand how I was shaped by my origins, as a daughter of a “Rosie the Riveter,” and a child of immigrants. They are still topical.

A few philosophy books made the grade, acquired during high school and then again after the divorce. Philosophy books seemed to show up during the introspective times of my life, when I was looking for answers, which, of course, I never found.

Travel books. Most are woefully out of date, or better guides are available online. No use keeping these. Sigh. Memories of great adventures traveling, as well as dreams of trips that are yet to occur. Hmm, time to start a second database on travel.

The rest of the newer non-fiction fell into what I call “NPR non-fiction,” primarily those reviewed on All Things Considered or the New York Times Book Review. One could clearly see the pattern of my non-fiction picks, which includes books about the natural world, science, medicine and food science, and which studiously avoided history, politics, or technology. Some favorites on this shelf include Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Atul Gawundi's On Being Mortal, and of course The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking through Science, by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.

And that is the story of my life in books.

I succeeded in emptying about ninety-percent of my bookshelves, which are now available for the next round of book acquisitions. And The Big Book Giveaway was a great success, with most of the old books gone to new homes. However, I'm afraid I left many of my friends with the problem that I had just solved –too many books and too little shelf space. They will have to begin sorting, too. Perhaps I'll pick up some new volumes at their book giveaway socials, too.