When Books Become Memorabilia

In my recent post entitled “When Decor Becomes Clutter“, I explained that I had removed the framed photographs from my living room to keep them safe and to prevent them from getting covered in construction dust while we are undergoing remodeling. One of the benefits of that exercise is that I can now see all of the books.

As a result, I’ve been noticing a particular book that I’ve owned for a long time and that has been bringing tears to my eyes every time I see it.

Let me give you some background. In 1979, the summer after I graduated college, I went into the hospital for some routine surgery that turned out to be anything but routine. My father came to visit me in the hospital every day after work. One day, he brought along two books that he had seen in the bookstore and thought I would enjoy. One was a book of lyrics by Cole Porter, and the other was “The Academy Awards: A Pictorial History” by Paul Michael. I was touched that he had been thinking of me and understood my interests so well.

I donated the Cole Porter book a few years ago, but the Academy Awards book remains. For many years, I clipped out the list of Oscar winners from the newspaper and stuck it inside the front cover of the book. The last year I did that was 2005. Now it’s just too easy to do an internet search of nominees and winners.

I’ve written in the past about how to downsize books. In my post “Book ‘Em, Danno“, I wrote: “Books are just like any collection: a bunch of individual items that are viewed as an entity but are actually quite diverse in terms of their usefulness or emotional value.”

Also in that post, I recommend dividing books into 5 categories. Two of those categories are:

  • Books you reference
  • Books that have a strong emotional significance to you.

Reference books have become fairly obsolete in recent years because information is so readily available on-line. Clearly, this book that my father bought me has transcended the category of reference books and has become a memento. It fits that “strong emotional significance” criterion.

I have a deeper appreciation now for my father’s gesture than I did back when I was 21 years old. For one thing, I am now a parent, and I know how terrified I would be if my daughter were in the hospital for something significant. Secondly, I have greater insight into my father’s character. He was a loving and affectionate father but not good at putting his feelings into words. Picking out these books was his way of telling me that he loved me and was worried about me.

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember the words of Australian organizer Peter Walsh, who said, “If everything is important, then nothing is important.” Being able to distinguish the truly special items amongst your collections will allow you to reduce clutter and also spotlight what is left.

Now that I have rediscovered this tome, I’m going to leave it out and peruse it. It’s still fun to look at the photos of old movies. That was an interest my dad and I shared.

Would You Keep This If You Were Moving?

I think it’s pretty clear that we will keep accumulating stuff until we run out of room. Sometimes we continue even after we’ve run out of room. (That’s usually when people contact a Professional Organizer.)

If you’re someone, like me, who has an abundance of of storage space in your home, then it may take a while before you run out of space. So I’ve developed a question that helps me identify things I should let go of even if I have the space to keep them: “Would I keep this if I were moving?”

Relocating is a great opportunity to revisit everything you own and decide if it has a place in your future life. Unfortunately, many people panic prior to moving and don’t leave themselves enough time to do that. They think they will make those decisions when they are unpacking. But getting resettled into a new home is even more stressful than preparing to vacate your old home, so those decisions don’t get made.

I’m in a quasi-relocating situation right now. I’m about to do some upgrades to my home. This will require us to start living in our second bedroom while work is being done to our bedroom and en suite bath. We haven’t moved in yet, but I’ve been making preparations. I’ve already moved a couple of bookcases from our bedroom to the second bedroom since they will just be in the way of the renovation. This required us to take everything off those shelves, which meant giving them a thorough review. A lot of books got donated — and a lot of magazines and sheet music got recycled — as a result of that exercise.

I will also have to temporarily move out of my bathroom and start sharing my husband’s bathroom. So I’m giving everything in my bathroom the once over. All of the items that I have been keeping “just in case” are getting tossed. I plan to move my daily toiletries and makeup into his bathroom, as well as useful sundries like Band Aids and cold medicine. Everything else will go into boxes. My goal is to minimize what gets stored in a box — just the backup items like extra tubes of toothpaste, since I know I will use those in time.

I will be doing some kitchen upgrades as well and I will have to shift things around in my cabinets to make that work. I plan to revisit everything in my kitchen and ask myself what I am likely to use in the future. I streamlined my cabinets quite a bit already, as I’ve written about in Tricking Out My Kitchen and Changing It Up. But there is always more to get rid of!

Don’t wait until you are relocating to give your stuff the once over. Living with less is much more relaxing than living with too much.

Do You Still Have Travel Books?

When I’m helping clients who are overwhelmed with books, we inevitably come across a collection of travel books on their shelves. In the days before you could easily find information about faraway places via the internet, we relied on glossy, fact-filled books by companies like Fodor’s, Frommer’s, and Baedeker. These books not only had listings of sights to see, they also had recommendations of hotels and restaurants.

Many of my clients are reluctant to part with these books, even though they are decades old. I remind them that the information is now out of date, plus you can get more complete information on-line. Besides, how likely is it that they are going to visit that place again?

That’s good logical reasoning, but their connection to these books is usually more emotional than logical. These books represent some wonderful memories. They have transcended the category of books and have become memorabilia. But they are memorabilia that are taking up valuable space.

Sometimes the client will say, “I like to look at these books and remind myself of the places I visited.” My response to that is, “When is the last time you looked at one of these books?” The answer is usually, “Not since I took the trip 25 years ago.”

So what is the solution to this dilemma? If you are overwhelmed with books and trying to downsize, take a few minutes and flip through each of these travel books. Does looking at it give you the pleasure that you expected? Or are the memories you have, and the photos you took, more valuable to you than what’s in the books?

There are probably some books that have more of an emotional pull than others. Keep the ones that mean the most to you, and let go of the rest.

My Mother’s Books

When I was a child, my mother owned just a few books that she had amassed during her girlhood and early adulthood. Having grown up during the Depression, neither she nor my father owned a lot of books despite being voracious readers. The public library was a godsend for them growing up, and that habit continued through their adult years.

From her college years, there was her textbook from her class on the Romantic poets as well as the complete works of Shakespeare and a dictionary that was old enough not to have the word “astronaut” in it. Amongst her small stash were two children’s books. One was “Eight Cousins” by Louisa May Alcott, whose name was familiar to me as the author of “Little Women”. The other was “Five Little Peppers and How They Grew” by Margaret Sidney. I was not familiar with this author’s name, but the title of the book delighted me.

My mother’s books were a source of endless fascination for me. They were a mark of my mother’s intellectual life before becoming our mother. They had no shiny book covers, just cloth binding. At one point, my older sister made construction paper covers for the two children’s books because their bindings were starting to age. Those covers themselves are now disintegrating more than 50 years later.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that my mother told me that she had saved those two favorite children’s books because she had hoped that her children would read them. I was so surprised to hear this. I don’t recall my mother ever expressing that wish. Perhaps she did and I just didn’t pay attention.

When my sister and I cleaned out my parents’ apartment after their deaths, I did not take much with me in the way of souvenirs. I did, however, take these two books. They have been sitting on my own shelf since 2015. During a recent sweep through my shelves, I put them front and center. While I may have disappointed my mother by never reading her favorite books, I am determined to rectify that oversight very soon.

This situation puts in mind one of my favorite expressions: “Unspoken expectations are disappointments waiting to happen.” I see a lot of clients saving things for their children, some small and some grown. Do your children know that you expect them to embrace your favorite things at the appropriate age? If you don’t make it clear to them, you may end up disappointed like my mother was. Perhaps your children will reject your favorites and you will be disappointed anyway, but at least it won’t be for lack of trying.

Redefining My Relationship with Books

For the past three years, I’ve kept track of how many books I read each year. The first year I did that (2020) happened to be the pandemic shutdown year. I read 82 books that year, not surprisingly since there wasn’t much else to do.

In 2021, I outdid myself by reading 91 books. Then in 2022, I read 92 books. This was a shock to me, as I went into 2022 knowing that my schedule was going to be much busier than it had been during the pandemic years. I only read 30 books in the first six months of the year when I was at my busiest, directing a demanding musical while also seeing a lot of clients. But I made up for it in the second half of year, reading twice as many.

Part of the pressure keeping me focused on reading is that I read mainly e-books from the library. Knowing that each book has a due date — and that I may have already waited weeks or months for it to become available — drives me to finish each book and move on to the next one as soon as possible.

I’ve given some thought as to what modifications I’d like to make my reading habits in 2023. I do much of my reading while riding public transportation or while lying in bed trying to fall asleep, and those are two great places to be reading. But I’ve also been known to kick back with a compelling book for an hour or two in the evening. In lieu of automatically reaching for a book during my free time, I’d like to take a tally of unfinished (or unstarted!) projects in my home and get more of those done. Relaxing with a book can be my reward for moving those projects along.

What activities are you using to put off things you know you should be doing?