Embracing the Bookshelf: The Dilemma of Choice

I like knowing that there are certain things in this world of ours that I can rely on — like the changing seasons and that spring invariably follows winter.

Though I can’t tell from looking out my window that spring is here, I have smelled it in the air for the past few weeks. And, before DST descended upon us and ruined it, I was in awe of the ever growing amount of sunlight, four minutes at each end of each day makes a discernible difference, one I love.  Alas.  But that story has been done. 


a far too recent scene out my office window.


Spring brings with it another constant that I like — a time to clean out, sort through, and rearrange.

Before my years in Kazakhstan, I hadn’t been a big “spring cleaner.” Then I learned about  their celebration of Nowruz, which I first wrote about here, and became a believer.

This week my focus is my office. Once again. One of my very first blog posts, Weeding Through the Clutter, walked us through an earlier sorting of office stuff, motivated in part by getting a new office floor. My goal this week is to clear my office of past projects, leaving room for the new.

The various piles of paper have been sorted, more or less. Recycle bins were filled and delivered; a few boxes of  history have gone either into the storage area behind a knee wall or into one of my two files drawers (I now have a section for “writing projects” that I may just pick up again, someday). I’ve made good progress.

My three-tiered in-box is now sorted into papers to-be-filed, papers to act on, and papers to read.


Then I moved along to BOOKS.

Marie Kondo says we should have no more than thirty books.

Well, I do declare

Yeah.  That’s not gonna happen.

I’ll never meet Marie’s ideal, a fact I accepted when I first heard it. But, I do think differently now about my books.  Now I know that they speak to me.

One group of books tells me of a future “someday” — one that may never come, I know.

Another one says, “Just in case.”  For, truly, one never actually knows.

And a third says, “But I’m your friend; no one else will understand me the way you do.”

It’s a dilemma.

For example, here’s the pile of books on race, white privilege, and understanding my American culture anew: all topics I hope to write more about. Someday.

I’m currently reading the top book, a new one from a favorite author, Frances Moore Lappé, entitled You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear. Great title; I’m hoping to get a blog post out of it. Someday.

The rest, I tell myself, will work their way up to be read, except that I’ve owned four of them for over 20 years and have still not read them. What’s going to change, I wonder.  “Just in case,” does me in again.



On my window sill in the living room where I sit, I have a pile of books written by my non-virtual friends and that I’ve promised to read.  And want to read, I quickly add.  How I’d love to be able to make a competent comment on their book the next time I see them.  Alas. Still, “Someday” hovers.

There’s a collection of books in the guest room we rent out through AirBnB. There’s a sign on that shelf welcoming guests to help themselves and, if they haven’t finished it by the time they leave, they are welcome to take the book with them, leaving it in another public spot when they are done. There aren’t many of those books left. My system there works

I had a pile of two next to my bed for a few months. This is a terrible place to leave books for I know I don’t read print books in bed. So, I moved them to my dresser where they’ll now live another few months. But at least my bedside table is empty except for the lamp. That’s a step in the right direction.

I swear, my books multiple during the night!

I have six places where I officially house books, seven if you count my Kindle (which, for our purposes here today, we won’t), which I do read at night. Sometimes.

There is a small nook in the wall of the stairwell heading to the second floor.

There I keep the books that speak to my heart more than my head, AA’s Big Book is there, a few of Harriet Lerner’s classics, and my collection of Zen and Buddhist writings.  But, there are also a few political books tucked away in there — Reefer Nation, which I’ve still not gotten to, and Slow Food, which I have, among others. This is truly a hodgepodge at the moment. Good to know; I’ll revisit this spot after the post hits. Seems like a good place to start.

There are two bookshelves in my office. You’ve seen them before:

The first one, to my right as I sit at my desk, is a built-in bookshelf. It’s in balsam fir and pine grown here on the land. This one holds the remains of my memoir collections (sorted by various sub-genres); books on writing and editing; and books on travel. These are the topics that currently make up my life, I tell myself.

And, tucked away on the fifth shelf down, is the first book I ever had published, the textbook on stuttering (cleverly entitled Stuttering) that I co-authored with my speech pathology professor husband (C.W. Starkweather, for those who need to catch up).

Off to my left is the metal and glass baker’s rack I bought over forty years ago when I lived in Ohio.


It used to have brass edges on each shelf.  Time has a way of changing the look of us all, even book shelves. It’s been repainted its original flat black twice already. And, I now see it could use another coat.  I’ll do that this summer.

On the top shelf is my collection of Bertrand Russell books, which I haven’t looked at since I finished his two-volume autobiography many years ago and fell in love with him — the fact that he was long dead by then, totally irrelevant.

I had them packed up to store a few weeks ago, but couldn’t bring myself to put him in the dark. If I knew someone would love him the same as I do, I might consider passing them on. But oh how I would miss him.

The second shelf holds my books on  culture and other old friends.  I see Selma Fraiberg’s Magic Years is there, a lovely book for first time moms, as I was when I read it, over and over and over; I recommend it highly.

My copy of Smart Girls, Gifted Women lives there as well; written in 1985, it’s an excellent book for understanding the cultural challenges facing young girls in fulfilling their potential. It helped me understand myself better too.

The two bottom shelves hold the remnants of my music collection. Do you listen to music when you write? I often do. This too could use another good culling. These days I often listen to Pandora or my own iTunes playlists while I write. Do I really need the “hard copies?”

Behind me as I sit at my desk, I have a short shelf with books tucked in; of course I do.  Those are my classics on writing: William Zinsser, Natalie Goldman, Sue William Silverman, Lisa Dale Norton, and Julia Cameron live there.  Along with my nearly antique CD, radio, and cassette player.



I moved one of my bookshelves downstairs to the living room a few months ago — along with most of the books from my various graduate and undergraduate school lives that were in it. They are old friends that once served me well. I still live with the hope that I will read them again. Someday. When I have time. Or refer to them. Or at least remember them. I like seeing them.



At the other end of the living room, we have a built-in shelf (yes, again from home grown trees) filled with books that feel more like those books visitors look through while waiting for you to return to the room.  Movie scenes often add a sense of judgment to the perusal.

I won’t go into those; you’ll have to visit and judge for yourself.

I want my office to feel more spacious, to no longer hold me fixed to the past. I want to sort through, cull, let go of, and pass on . . .

First, I’ll make another pot of tea.

How about you? How do you sort out your books, your papers, your growing collections of whatever? How do you fend off the promise of “Someday” and “Just in case”? 

REMINDER!  Have you filled out my 2019 Survey Monkey?  Just a few more days until it closes.

NEXT WEEK: Let’s take a closer look at this thing we call choice. It’s got my curiosity going. Not sure yet where we’ll end up, but I’m on a roll.

17 Responses

  1. Ally Bean
    | Reply

    This post is delightful. I enjoyed learning about what books you have and how you sort them– and rationalize keeping them around. A few years ago I sold about half our books, so now what we have left, which easily numbers in the hundreds, are either on bookshelves or in what used to be our linen closet. I took out the towels and created our own library, a home for treasured books that only we know about.
    Ally Bean recently posted…Bad Marketing Is Worse Than No Marketing, But Maybe Not Everyone Believes This?My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Ally, Thank you so much. Half you books at one time! I know what that’s like. I did that when we were getting ready to go into Peace Corps. But a new Used Books store was just opening, so it worked out. I got rid of all my Hannah Arendt books and now wish I hadn’t. But they are the only ones I regret. I love the idea of the little library in the closet. I hope you’ll blog about that and add a photo. Good idea?
      Janet Givens recently posted…Embracing the Bookshelf: The Dilemma of ChoiceMy Profile

  2. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    I agree, books multiply during the night. But who cares! I try to balance my book intake by ordering online to support authors and checking books out from our amazing city library. Lately I went on a Julia Cameron kick and read 3-4 of her books, including a fanciful novel, Mozart’s Ghost. I still love her first book best of all, The Artist’s Way. On my nightstand now is Mary Pipher’s Women Rowing North.

    About tidying up: Until the book is launched, I don’t worry too much about the piles on my desk and floor. I know where stuff is, and that fact trumps neatness these days. By the way, the time change will not monkey with the ever growing amount of sunlight, even though the shift is disconcerting. Lots to think about here ~ thanks, Janet!
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Tidy Trees and Logo LaunchMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Marian. I didn’t know Julia had written a novel; I imagine it’s quite good. I tend to stay away from novels, for reading them brings out the worst in me (LEAVE ME ALONE! I yell, if I speak at all.) but I did get a lot out of her Right to Write. It’s on that shelf behind my desk right now. I used to think she was once married to the director John Cameron. Wrong. I’ve done Artist’s Way a few times. Did you know Debra Eve runs a FB group for going through it with support? I found the more times I did it, the more critical I got of the book. Curious, I know. As for the time change, of course we have the same amount of light. Silly. But I was so enjoying sitting by the window as we’d sit down for dinner and noticing the ever increasing light. Then, poof, in one day my awe got squelched. Though it was easier to get up in the morning. I’m thrilled to learn we may actually be able to do away with the time change here in Vermont by this July. Probably a long shot though. Must check that out further. Thanks for swinging by.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Embracing the Bookshelf: The Dilemma of ChoiceMy Profile

  3. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I support authors by buying their books at our local independent book store. If I love it, I buy it again, this time on Kindle—that way I have it “forever.”

    Once I finish reading a physical book, I gift it to someone I know who will enjoy it.
    Or I place it in one of two “Little Free Library” boxes near our home.
    Or, if I’m about to travel (which is often), I catalog it on BookCrossing.com, affix one of their cool labels, and then leave it in a public place “for the taking” when I travel (like a book faerie).
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…Plight of the PollinatorsMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh Laurie, how I wish . . . I just today picked up another one, a freebie this time from the FREE BOOKS shelf at the local Amtrak station, taking W’s g’son and family home. But it was a Harry Potter I’ve not yet read (so that’s OK?). Poor Woody will have to suffer my going off into fantasyland for the next few days. And then, yes, I will gift it away. I’ve done that quite a lot, but still, so many do call to me. Thank you for stopping by.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Embracing the Bookshelf: The Dilemma of ChoiceMy Profile

  4. susan scott
    | Reply

    Ah Books – my life would be the lesser without them. Even though we disposed of a few hundred before moving down to Plettenberg Bay, my bookshelves in my study are overflowing (note the possessive ‘my’). There is some sort of order … fiction and non fiction have separate bookshelves. I also have spines upright and facing but to break it up and make it easier on the eye I have them lying on their side, spines facing …

    I recently mailed (via overnight) a friend of mine a bag of books, delicious and precious ones I have to say but which I know will keep her entertained while she recovers from her hip op yesterday.

    I keep on meaning to join the local library here in Plettenberg Bay which I will do. But for me there’s nothing more pleasing than scouring 2nd hand bookshops and finding just the one or two to escape into another world.

    Yes, I filled out your monkey survey a day or so ago.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Susan, it’s so good to hear so many of us here are talking about our books in the hundreds. We are of a similar ken. I packed up a box of books to send to a new student in Kazakhstan a few years ago, then learned it would cost me over $100 to mail. So, it went to a local organization and my apologies went to my student. It’s a good feeling when I can give my books away, but that only happens when I know that where they are going they will be appreciated. They really are old friends. And your love of second hand bookstores, oh yes. I should have written about this. YEars ago, 1989 actually, when I lived in Ohio, I took our foreign exchange student to NYC for a week before she flew back home to Spain. Just me; family stayed home. My evening flight left the next day. The afternoon of my flight, I stopped by a used book store near Columbia University in NYC and spent all my cash, except for the $20 that I knew it would take for my cab to the airport. I got two tote bags full of great used books (some of my Bertrand Russell too, I remember). THEN, my flight was canceled because of weather (which means an “act of God” and airlines won’t spring for a hotel) and I had no cash to get me back into the city. My books and I spent the night on the floor of the baggage claim area at LaGuardia Airport (my bad was already checked). I could have gotten cash from my credit card and gone back into the city for a hotel room, but the Scot in me refused to pay the fee for the cash advance. It was an adventure. In 1989 I was a lot more limber. I do believe I’d pay the bank fees now. 🙂
      Janet Givens recently posted…Embracing the Bookshelf: The Dilemma of ChoiceMy Profile

  5. Joan
    | Reply

    Hi, I’m Joan, and I’m addicted to books. I have piles on my night table and in hidden corners and not much space to store them. But that’s okays I give them to friends unless they are must keep books. You know, the ones that speak to my heart and I’d consider reading over and over.

    The only time I read books on kindle is while I’m traveling and I’ve almost decided that I’d rather bear the weight of a book rather than have to go a push buttons and so forth . Plus, for those heart books I like to write in the margins. I love the feel of real books, the smell of real books, especially old ones, and though I have an addiction to them, they don’t make me feel weird as a drug might or too much booze.

    So I ask, what’s the harm? I could be addicted to a whole bunch of things that could harm me, but I’m not. So books will remain in the category of my best friends.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      That’s funny, Joan. I’ve come to the conclusion that we are all addicted to something; we all get that oxytocin buzz over something. The trick is to know what it is for us. Why not books, indeed. Currently, I’m addicted to exercise. I find I’m really grouchy if I don’t get my daily quotient in. Reading a good book on my recumbent bike (in the basement; this is Vermont after all) is the best of all worlds (at the moment). Thanks so much for stopping. My best to Bill.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Embracing the Bookshelf: The Dilemma of ChoiceMy Profile

  6. John Rieber
    | Reply

    Terrific post, and I can’t believe that anyone would suggest not to own more then 30 books. Books aren’t hand towels or summer T-Shirts; they are works of art and entertainment that can be shared, re-read, or inspiring just by seeing it on a shelf. I have almost a hundred books NOT YET WRITTEN, sitting alongside fiction, nonfictions, cookbooks and so much more!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes, Marie Kondo is the rather famous (now) organizing and decluttering guru. Her motto is “don’t keep anything that doesn’t bring you joy.” I do believe she’s backtracked a bit on the 30 books bit, but it doesn’t matter. I love how you phrased it, “books are works of art . . . ” And I realize I do get pleasure from just seeing them on my shelves. It feels like money in the bank somehow. An investment in my future. I have stopped buying cookbooks though. Did you know they have been the highest selling genre for, like, forever? Everyone loves a new cookbook. Until now when we have the internet and the ability to look up nearly anything. Plus, I’m going now more and more back to my standards rather than the new stuff. Anyway, thanks for stopping.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Embracing the Bookshelf: The Dilemma of ChoiceMy Profile

  7. John Rieber
    | Reply

    Here is my latest post – my Wednesday Bookmobile – all about great food books!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh no; the link didn’t come through. You checked it off, yes? What’s your blogging platform? (I’m hoping this feature is not limited to WP blogs only). DM with the link and I”ll post for you. It’s a good one.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Embracing the Bookshelf: The Dilemma of ChoiceMy Profile

  8. Merril D Smith
    | Reply

    Books and papers everywhere–all over my house. Yes, some day I’ll sort through them. 😉
    Merril D Smith recently posted…Harbingers of Hope and FearMy Profile

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