Apartment Therapy on Books

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I love books. I come from a book loving family and have always loved books. Through most of my life, I have been loathe to part with them. The same goes for the printed word in general. To me, the experience of my college Japanese history class captured in notes or the experience of reading F. Scott Fitzgerald in my high school library was so important that I was not able to disconnect the experience from the material they were printed on. That was, until fifteen years ago when my Aunt began preparing for her death.

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I don’t know quite what inspired my Aunt to begin preparing for her death, but it was not the usual reasons, sickness, old age or loneliness. I believe it had to do with too many books.

At the young age of sixty, she had just finished moving to a new house in Los Angeles and the biggest part of the move (the heaviest, most time consuming and most expensive) was moving her collection of books. In fact, she had moved a number of times in a short number of years and had come to look on her most prized possession – her library – as the biggest burden in her life. It was around that moment that she decided to let them go....

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My Aunt’s library was the best in the family, and it easily filled 100 boxes. My grandmother was an English teacher and Shakespeare scholar in New York City in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and my aunt inherited her library. Added to this, my Aunt is a writer herself and had always looked upon her books as the record not only of her life, but also her mother’s life (and therefore our family). Letting go of this collection was a big deal.

But my Aunt had been seized by the notion that at that point in her life, she had lugged these books around enough (almost 30 years) and it was no longer doing her any good. At one time the library was a positive, but it had long since become a negative.

It was, therefore, time to prepare for death; time to let go of the earlier part of her life and prepare for the end. This was not meant as a morbid goal. Rather, it was time to be free from all the weight and burden that she had created and was still carrying around from her first 60 years. By preparing for death, she would give herself a clean slate and fully live the rest of her life, unhindered by loose ends, unfinished tasks and ambiguous relationships.

This meant far more than simply giving away her library.

In addition to lightening up, she also committed herself to dealing with tying up unfinished business with friends and family, and having conversations that needed to be had, but had never happened. Over the next year, she had intense and gratifying conversations with each of her grown children and with her ex-husband in which issues were spoken about and dealt with had been dormant for years. She also met with close friends and spoke truthfully with them and she straightened out all of her business dealings and sold off investments that had languished for years. And she also began to give away her library.

First, she took out her most essential books, those that formed the DNA of her library and which she could easily keep. These would fit in one box. Then she gave small selections to every member of our family, before inviting close friends to come over and take a book for themselves.

I was given a large, old book about the man who really wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays (yes, it’s true…) which had been a favorite conspiracy theory of my Grandmother’s as well as her book. In the end, the rest of the collection was given to my Aunt’s local library, intact.

At this point, one could still be skeptical and, indeed, our family had long become used to my Aunt’s wild, California ideas, but the voluntary simplicity that she entered into not only transformed her life, it transformed mine. By preparing for her death at 60, her life has never been happier or fuller than in the last fifteen years, and it caused me to look far differently at my life at a much younger age.

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Books are collections of old thoughts captured on paper.
Thoughts are important; books are not.
People are important; books are not.
Books are useful and their use lasts only as long as we read them and are not weighed down by excessive clinging to the paper they are written on. We, especially in New York, shouldn’t have a collection of books that displaces other, more lively tasks or forces one to consider the library as burdensome elephant taking up the entire apartment.

I still love books, but I keep my collection small. I am not waiting until 60. My Aunt taught me that we don’t need the “things” as much as we need what is in them, inspiration and recollections of thought, feeling and action.

When we give up the “things” we may feel some pain at the loss, but more than likely we are just giving up a crutch and will sooner learn to walk. MGR

(Photos: 1. Library of Alexandria 3rd century BC 2. F. Scott Fitzgerald 3. lots'o books 4. nice road in Sweden)

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Maxwell left teaching in 2001 to start Apartment Therapy as a design business helping people to make their homes more beautiful, organized AND healthy. The website started up in 2004 with the help of his brother, Oliver.

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