Sunday, January 24, 2010

Five Thousand Books

By Lisabet Sarai

In 1953, the year that I was born, Ray Bradbury published his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 . In his fictional world, television reins supreme and books are considered dangerous and subversive. The state maintains crews of “firemen” whose job involves searching out and burning any books they find. Fahrenheit 451 concerns a fireman named Montag who is, in some sense, seduced by the books he is tasked to destroy. He begins by saving volumes from the fire, one at a time, and hiding them in his home. By the end of the novel he is a fugitive taking shelter with dissidents who commit books to memory in order to save their contents for the future.

In his topic for this week, Garce asks us to put ourselves in Montag's place. What book would you save, he asks, if the firemen were knocking at your door? Would it be Shakespeare? The Bible? Plato? The Origin of Species? Catcher in the Rye? Alice in Wonderland?

I've been thinking about this question for weeks, ever since the theme was posted. Finally, I've come to a conclusion. I wouldn't try to save anything.

You may be a bit shocked by this response. I'm an author, aren't I? Don't I love books?

Of course I do. There are only a few things that I care about more deeply. While working on this post, I figured out that I've probably read more than five thousand books during my lifetime. This estimate is based on the fact that I read at least two books a week. I've been reading for fifty odd years. That works out to 5200 books, and that's probably an underestimate, considering the fact that I spent eight years in undergraduate and graduate school where my reading rate was likely quite a bit higher.

I love the excitement of opening the cover of a new book, the breathless approach to the first few paragraphs. What will this story reveal? What emotions will it evoke? What insights will it kindle? I love pulling an old favorite off the shelves, too, leafing through and re-reading, reliving the experience of my first reading or discovering new depths.

Ultimately, though, books are not things. Yes, they take up physical space (way too much!) and have mass, but their importance, their impact, has little to do with this. Books do not really exist until they are read. Their essence lies in the fact that they change the reader.

Books are like food. They exist to be consumed. And to provide nourishment.

A shelf full of volumes means nothing by itself—it is mere potential. Only when I interact with a book does it become valuable and real. In the reading, I may acquire practical knowledge or spiritual wisdom. I may be introduced to foreign vistas or fantastic characters. A book and I have a relationship—maybe lifelong, maybe a one-night stand—and like all relationships, I emerge from the interaction a different person.

This is why I can't choose a single book to save. I'm the sum of those five thousand books with which I've shared my life. Some had more impact than others, but how can I identify which were the crucial volumes, the ones that made me who I am? Every single one had some effect.

Somehow, too, I believe that even if all physical books were burned, they'd live on in us, the readers. That is actually the moral of Bradbury's tale. Destroying physical books does not quench the fire of literature. Humans are story-tellers. We will re-tell the old tales and create new ones for as long as we persist on this planet.

When I moved overseas seven years ago, I rid myself of perhaps eighty percent of my material possessions. It was a painful process, deciding what to discard and what to keep. The sheer weight of my things turned out to be oppressive. In this process, I sold or gave away hundreds of books. Even so, we shipped at least twenty five boxes of books to our new home.

That experience changed me, however. I want to live more lightly from now on, to escape the tyranny of my worldly goods.

I still read constantly, but I hold on to very few of the volumes I consume. After I've read them, I pass them on. I don't need to have them on my bookshelves. They've taken up residence in my mind and heart, where no one can destroy them.


  1. I was just telling someone the other day how I had to get rid of most of my beloved book collection when we moved to a tiny apartment. However, I will say I've cheated this by loading my iPhone with dozens of reads. So if the fireman knocked on my door, I'd make sure I had the iPhone and the charger and I'd be good to go! LOL

  2. Lisabet, I know exactly where you are coming from.
    I won't even attempt to calculate how many books that I've read.
    I've been reading for nearly seventy years.
    There are so many great books, fifty years ago I could have chosen with ease, today, no way.
    I have no idea whose idea Get a Grip was, but it is a great read, I don't comment often, but I really enjoy all your efforts.
    I don't always agree with the views expressed, but so what, it's still an interesting read.
    So thank you to all who contribute.

  3. Hello, Jade,

    IPhones didn't exist seven years ago. But we did digitize our entire record and CD collection so we could bring it with us on hard disk.

    Thanks for your comments!


  4. Hello, Paul,

    Thank you for reading and sharing your own experiences.

    We actually inherited the Grip from an earlier set of authors including Bronwyn Green, Dakota Rebel and Cindy Spencer Pape. The format was their idea, but we like it some much we've decided to keep it.

    I'm glad that you agree.


  5. Hi Lisabet!

    You know, I had that experience you've had of moving to a foreign land and having to decide which books to keep and which to leave behind. It was really hard. Even now years later I find myself looking for something I've suddenly wanted to read again and - wait - did I get rid of that one in '95?

    Good post! Off to a good start this week.


  6. Ack! You ask a hard question, since I'm the type who reads and rereads and rereads...

    Judging by the ones missing the covers and look battered, I'd save my LMA collection, The Bible, and childhood mysteries. Also the books which I used to keep in my bedroom, Nora Roberts, and Lavryl Spencer. Murphy's Law applies also; I'm notorious for remembering a storyline and not satisfied until I find that book and read it again. Usually after I've already loaned it out, or as the case recently, buried it in a box in storage somewhere!

  7. Lisabet,

    You're a braver person than me. I adore my extensive book collection and whittling it down to one title is going to be a tough call this week.



  8. Lisabet,

    When we built our house, I had to do very much the same thing as you. Not to the extend you did, but I cut my number of bookcases from five to two. The boxes of books I had, I either gave away or sold. The ones I have kept, I don't even have to open to remember the stories, the characters, and fall in love with them all again.

    As for which book I'd keep. There is no way on Earth I could pick just one, so like you, I'd say none. But, I might want to keep a few of their covers, just to trigger the memory of all those amazing stories.


  9. Oy, I had to cut my library down to half when my second child was on her way. I used to have a room to myself, one that I used as a combination office, art studio and library. I had to empty three bookshelves AND get rid of half my art supplies so we could convert the room to a bedroom for my oldest daughter. However, three years later I do not miss the books nor the art supplies. I can't even recall what I gave away back then, except for one volume of Colleen Doran's "A Distant Soil." That I might consider replacing someday. It was a beautifully drawn graphic novel.

  10. I've weeded through so many books, but up until about 10 years ago, I still had box after box through every move. Then I hit a point similar to your closing thoughts, I cleared my shelves and now I read and pass along (print books anyway, not ebooks of course).

    I have a VERY small collection of absolute faves, which I suppose I could have chosen my "saved" book from, had I gone that way with my post. Now adding to that are my own author copies, as well as copies of author friends' books. A new era in book-saving. :)

    Most of my new purchases are ebooks, and I make use of our local library...and support them with my fines when I get distracted and forget to turn stuff in!


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