People write a lot about books piling up in their homes. The tone they generally take is one of abashed pride: semi-pretending to be embarrassed or annoyed with themselves, but in fact proud to demonstrate that they love books so much they are drowning in them. That’s touching and real; I’m happy these people continue to cherish reading, and to showcase that passion.
But I’m thinking these days about the sheer weight of belongings—of stuff, as the late, brilliant George Carlin famously called it.
A year ago we talked, at dinner, with a couple of old friends who disclosed they’d been given the solemn duty of dismantling the home of a friend who’d died. The deceased man had requested this task of them in his will. He’d had an excellent career; he had liked his life. I don’t remember what he did, nor of what he died, but it doesn’t matter here.
What matters is that our friends went through his things and felt very sad. What good was the framed diploma, certificates of professionalism, photos, records, mementos? The man had no family, and no one wanted his stuff.
The same thing occurred when my husband and I had to clean out the home of his aging, widowed mother, who had to enter an assisted care facility in northern England, where she’s lived all her life. We had to throw out most of her things, which (for practical reasons) neither of her sons could keep.
These have been sobering considerations for us, even in what we consider the middle of life.
I used to feel that the serious writer was obliged to assemble a world-class library. Susan Sontag was my model: entire rooms of her New York home were filled with books, grouped by genre. Now I believe that we owe it to each other and to subsequent generations to keep the books moving. Get them into libraries and used bookstores. Offer them at garage sales.
Of course it’s important to hold onto titles whose voices you need to feel near to hand, as if they were food. (They are.) And of course it’s important to read new works constantly, to digest what’s being offered out there by new and emerging writers.
But I now also believe it’s urgent, not just for reasons of space but for reasons of living lightly on the earth, to keep the tidal flow of books moving—like a blood supply cycled back into the world, after it’s replenished you.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.