Don’t let the books grind you down

Lily Leadbetter

I used to have enough books to fill two tall bookshelves. In the summer of 2017, I donated almost all of them. It might seem like a bizarre twist of logic but getting rid of my books made me more of a reader. 

Book ownership wasn’t always a problem. As a child books were like oxygen to me and I owned a lot of books simply because I read a lot. When I came to Uni to study English Lit, I stopped reading outside of my studies, being reluctant to take breaks doing the exact same thing that was causing me massive stress headaches. Yet still my pile of books was steadily growing, not helped by my 50% discount as a volunteer at Books for Amnesty.  Book ownership was no longer so simple.  

A familiar scenario helps to illustrate the cocktail of pride and shame I felt around my books. Friends who would come into my room would often admire the shelves, only to ask the dreaded question: How many of them have you actually read? I was no longer proud of my books because I read a lot – I was proud of my books because they made it seem like I read a lot. And anyway, I would reassure myself, even if I’m not finding space for reading now, the books surely indicate that I will, one day. My books supplied an image of me as a reader, both to others and to myself, and this meant I didn’t properly confront my disengagement with reading. At the same time the closed pages embodied, paradoxically, the absence of reading in my life – less promising, more taunting. 

When I stumbled across the blog of The Minimalists, it sparked a fierce change in my relationship with things. I had to confront these messy feelings I had about my books. Donating them felt like an open action that I could later gloss with an interpretation, a way of exposing my true feelings about the role I wanted reading to play in my life – either it was a way to gracefully accept that I wasn’t a reader and that the books would serve a better purpose elsewhere, or it was something that would jolt me into a resolution to read more by removing that reassuring façade I had hid behind for so long. 

Of course, it was the latter. In second year, borrowing books from the library or from friends, I started to read again. I read while cooking, on the bus, outside of my tutors’ offices, at the bookshop where I worked, leaving customers stranded at the till… 

After I donated my books my dad would often pretend-cry whenever he came into my room. I think that my books had become part of his image of me as a person, so it was like a part of me was gone. But really, as I would always defend myself to him, the opposite was true – I had learned to love reading again.