“I need help,” she said. “I can no longer change clothes in my bedroom.” Pausing my work, I promised our daughter, Michelle, that I’d help clean her overcrowded room. I knew the usual suspects were partly to blame: Shoes needed to be returned to her closet, papers needed to be sorted, and a good sweeping would do wonders. But this time the true culprit spanned her floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. We had installed those bookshelves a few years before to forestall the chaos of overflowing books. Instead, like carp in a new pond, the contents only swelled to fill the enlarged space.
Intending to organize one twin’s bedroom, my husband and I knew it was time to do the same in the other’s too. My son Michael’s shelves—worse even than Michelle’s—were so heavily double stacked that they hid his best and favorite books. (As most of us can appreciate, bulging bookshelves are often part love, part compulsion.)
Rather than jump headfirst into their clutter, I first wanted to tiptoe into their hearts and minds. What do books mean to you? I had not asked the question in years, if ever. Which books have become the most meaningful to you, and why? I hoped the answers would assist our task. The ultimate question would be: Which books are worthy of residing on your personal and limited shelf space?
I was curious to hear their thoughts. After all, the ordering of one’s personal books carries far more meaning than straightening dishes in a cupboard. I needed to tread respectfully.
Michael has often said, “If I ever have to live somewhere else, I just want to be sure I can take my books.” I started with him.
I asked Michael, “What do books mean to you?” He said, “My books give me rest. Books allow me to travel to different lands. I have a love of books. I would say reading makes me less stressed. I like to read in my hammock because I relax when I have my book. (Pause.) I have a lot of happiness in my life because of books.”
I asked Michelle the same question. “A lot,” she said. “If you take a book up and start reading, it’s as if you’re actually living in the story. You could be a humble peasant or a royal king. You can go from one place to another while enjoying the story unfolding. What appeals to the person could be logic; it could be rhetoric; it could be knowledge; it could be fantasy; but really what is important is getting to know the characters without necessarily relying on the plot to see you through. A book can only be as good as the very heart of the matter.”
At my daughter’s request I tackled her room first. Many approaches would work for such a task, but I share our process for anyone—myself included—who needs a nudge. Space often does not permit us to keep every book we might have or want in our possession. We all need a means of determining how to keep the best, most beloved, and most beautiful books available to us. Ours is a cautionary tale.
Back in Michelle’s room, she and I sat on the edge of her bed across from the profound mess of books, pondering the mess. We closed the door to have privacy and quiet. I suggested we first determine how many books were on the shelves. We counted the books on a single shelf. We multiplied by the number of shelves. A staggering 1,400 books had accumulated in her petite ten by ten room. Again, part love, part compulsion.
On a piece of paper I drew a pie graph with quadrants. Familiar with such visual arithmetic aids, she listened as I asked, “What percentage of books do you think will need to go, if we are to restore order and beauty to your room?” Previous decluttering efforts had resulted in sending away one or two books, or perhaps a paltry dozen, only to leave the tumbling towers crowding her shelves. I suggested fifty percent to let her know how massive this issue had become.
(I reminded her that she could not even change clothes in the room.) We settled on twenty-five percent. Armed with a number, we gathered necessary bins. My husband lent bankers boxes to the operation. Our next step became obvious: We needed criteria for keeping and culling.
How do we determine what is worthy to have in our homes and schools? Which books are not only worth reading, but worth owning? Such questions should have preceded so many twenty-five-cent purchases from local library and garage sales.
Respecting Michelle’s ability to discern, and wanting to cultivate this further, I asked her the possibly easier question: “How do we determine what must go?” Immediately she had one criteria: Books too “creepy” must go because they trigger disturbed sleep. She grabbed an example or two. Then she decided that books too “fluffy” lack substance and, though perhaps fine for a quick read in a waiting room, do not need to be owned. Books “poorly written” could be placed in the boxes. “Trendy” or “contemporary” books without a redeeming purpose could also go. A side note: For Michelle, any wholesome, humorous book that elicits hearty giggling redeems itself. This provides lighthearted refreshment to troubled days.
We began. For two days, series by series, author by author, I stood on a chair and handed them to her as she pondered each book, weighed them against her criteria, and placed discards in boxes. As you can imagine, this was not for the faint of heart. Some decisions were harder than others. A few hours into the task, she began keeping everything. We had to recall our twenty-five percent calculation more than once.
At some point, Michelle created a new category: “just not my cup of tea.” As in, “I started this but it was just not my cup of tea.” My own judgment trumped this criterion if I knew the writing was stellar and the characters would enrich and delight her. I told her the book could become her cup of tea if she sipped patiently. We restored these to the shelf.
Her discernment and wisdom grew visibly as we continued. With increasingly mature ruthlessness, she sorted as I organized remaining books by series, author, size, and color with her direction as needed. The pleasing aesthetic of the new arrangements spurred us on. Together we persevered until we knew that every book residing in her small room was worth owning.
When the boxes were full and the last beloved book was placed on the last shelf I stepped back to admire the results. Michelle opened her arms, a bright smile illuminating her face, and she twirled in grateful contentment. “I love my room!”
Best of all, I know that she loves her books. Each shelf will welcome her to ponder, chortle, or travel. Each book will let her explore, grow, refresh, and feel as if she has visited favorite friends.
The moment we finished, my husband came home. He called upstairs, “Michelle, I have something for you.” He handed her a book. Michelle and I exchanged glances and burst into laughter. We share one final suggestion: When organizing your books, save space for any new friends that may come your way.