Now It’s Personal: Getting Rid of Books

Tom Nickel
4 min readJun 1, 2017

I still get wound up a lot, but in general I’m winding down. Time doesn’t feel like it stretches off forever past the horizon like it used to. That changes how I feel about my stuff, makes me want to settle up.

Books are the hardest for me. I think they’re beautiful and when I’m just sitting back in my chair and letting my mind wander, I let my gaze pass slowly over them displayed sideways or front facing on my funky shelves.

I used to have thousands of them but we’ve moved three times already in my adult life so there have been multiple reductions in force. All the easy ones are gone. I’m down to about a thousand now, crammed into a small room mostly devoted to them. And we’re moving again. Maybe for the last time, and even if it isn’t, it’s almost certainly the last time I will be a significant participant in the moving process.

I care about every book that has made it with me this long, some for decades. Some have lived on the east coast and the west coast, like I have. A few were in China with me. Still, I’d like to see if I can shed two books that matter to me for every one that I keep and somehow find shelf space for in what I hope will be my last home office.

What seems to work is to write. After I write something and save it with a little picture of the cover, it’s easy to know which way to go — save or release. Fortunately I’m not making myself write some literary gem worthy of The New Yorker — not even a plot summary, primarily because I couldn’t summarize most of the plots without more effort than I can put in. A thousand books to process. I just need to remind myself in a few solid paragraphs how I reacted, what I remember, what it means to me.

I can do that. Here’s one I did:

My thousand remaining books are organized into an ad hoc set of categories — Baseball, Science Fiction, Philosophy & Culture are a few of them. Other categories come from the Asian countries I have visited — China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, India, Turkey — because I like to read all about them before, during, and after my time there. It’s the setting that matters to me, not the author, so I call ‘My Splendid Concubine’ a China Book. I have 70 China Books, 46 are fiction and 24 are non-fiction, by a total of 52 authors.

I have written all 70 of the China Book pieces. They are arranged alphabetically by author in a big Word doc and just looking at the pages, with all the little book cover pics running down the left and the text chunks along with them, makes me feel like I’ve caught something from my personal stream of experience that just keeps flowing on and made it into something else with a little more permanence.

It’s a tiny, pathetic collection, and it’s ridiculous to put myself forward as any kind of authority on China Books or any kind of books, I know that. I don’t have a leg to stand on and I’m not trying to. The only meaning of the work is the meaning I give it. Its only value is the role it plays in helping me settle things with my most personal stuff.

Well, maybe and maybe not. It’s all in the arrangement. Alphabetical by author is an archival mode. That would be just for me. Another approach would be to see the 70 China Books not as comprehensive, but as a decent start by an informally informed curator. By making some selections and placing them in a useful sequence with some accompanying notes to explain why, I could say, ‘read these 32 books for a good introduction to reading about China!’ Then, for people with less time, I could make a sequence of sixteen, and eight.

I like writing at different levels of resolution. The idea of Reader’s Guides adds energy. I have hundreds more books to say goodbye to, over thirty Crime Fiction Books just by authors with the last name ‘MacDonald.’ Note to Self: Turning personal-needs projects into something more broadly useful is probably where most good tools come from.

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Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos