Tuesday, November 3, 2015


“It’s a loving addiction,” said my poet friend, about our shared passion for buying books.
Over the years, I’d collected thousands of books. I outgrew one house, using up every inch of wall space, and when we moved into another house, I preplanned to accommodate my copious collection, building floor to ceiling shelves. At one point, it was a $100+/month habit, during and in the aftermath of my creative writing MFA.

As a teacher, I felt compelled to buy not only books for myself, but for my students. I’ve taught childbirth classes, parenting and breastfeeding classes, creative writing classes, and yoga classes, so I built up libraries in all these fields. When I threw myself into the anti-war movement, I had to build up a library of peacemaking, social justice, and post-colonial studies. I developed a passion for primates, and what apes could teach humans about themselves, so built up another library. I worked at Woodland Pattern, a literary center and the world’s premiere small press poetry bookstore, where I got the employee 30% discount, and could order any book on the market. My kids inherited the love of books, and grew up with the best of children’s lit. And so on….

I joked that I’d never become enlightened until I got rid of my books.
What had begun as pleasure and education for self, family, and community, had become burdensome. I couldn’t possibly read everything I’d collected. They presented an organizing nightmare. I developed a dust allergy. I recognized the unhealthy attachment, but didn’t cease my habit. Truthfully, my books kept me from leaving my marriage. Part of me longed to live simply, to forsake home ownership and the middle class life, to live modestly in one room, in intentional community. But what would I do with all these books? How would I move them and where would I put them?

Ultimately, I did end up leaving my marriage, my house and gardens and other middle class trappings, including my books. After a year’s separation from my books, I gathered them up to build a community library in the housing cooperative I had helped start in Milwaukee, only to decide I had to move to Detroit.

Since 2010, I have moved 7 times, and my books 4 times, sitting boxed in basements when I didn’t have the capacity to take them with me. Finally, on my 52nd birthday, last week, I decided the time had come to dissolve my library. I refused to ask my friends one more time to help me move my books. I had burdened them one too many times, bagging and boxing and loading them into cars over and over. No more! Besides, books didn’t belong in basements. They had already been water-damaged once, and I wouldn’t risk it again. I knew I never wanted to be a householder again. I knew I never wanted to live in more than one room, making a small footprint, so I could travel back and forth to Korea, India, and wherever else I felt called.

Decades of yoga practice helped me recognize the false ego identification I had invested in my books. They represented all the parts of myself I valued and wanted to present to the world. You know, a Frantz Fanon-reading, Anne Carson-carrying inter-genre poet, and a school of bell hooks radical feminist mom, cooking vegetarian gourmet, standing on my head as an Iyengar yogi healing justice activist. I had mistaken my books for myself, the classic error of confusing the temporal for the eternal.

That thing I said about my books holding me back from enlightenment? That was just a joke. But now I knew I had to do it.

A few years back, I had a yoga student who retired from his position as an English professor. He spent months dissolving his lifelong book collection. I was both shocked and jealous.

“How did it feel?” I asked him.
“Terrible,” he answered flatly.
“Then WHY DID YOU DO IT?” I asked, identifying with his sorrow. My books were like my children. How would I live without them?
“I HAD to,” he explained. The only room in his house to practice yoga was his study. His study was so littered with books, he couldn’t even lay a mat down. It was his books, or it was yoga. And he chose yoga. He only held on to 6 books, the books of BKS Iyengar.

I filed that story away and knew it was critical. I thought that one day in my 60s or 70s I might do the same.

But as usual, that day came a decade or so sooner than projected. I do everything fast and a bit early. Like getting married straight out of college, and becoming a mother right away, when all my friends were backpacking across Europe. But then, I was in my early 40s when I became an empty nester, when same-age peers were checking out kindergartens. So by 52, I was ready to take the next step of a yoga nun: radically lightening my load.

I started announcing this resolve months in advance, at first with great trepidation, barely whispering my intention, knowing I had to say it to make it manifest. Then with growing determination, I started telling more and more people that I was going to be giving away my books. At first it was a proposal more than a decision. But my friends received my announcement with excitement, having eyed my library and taken interest.

I decided I would give away my books at my birthday party. I laid them out on tables, shelves, and stairs, and invited friends to take a stack. At first I recommended books to particular individuals, and told them they didn’t have to take them. But soon I became giddy, matching up books with friends, and insisting that they take them. Finally, I took a picture of each friend with their stack, as a commemoration of the books and the friendship. Some folks I didn’t even know showed up, I suspect to check out the collection, and I gladly let them take their fill as well.

So now I am one step closer to enlightenment, and literally lighter by a ton. I made one more inroad to the sharing economy, and made a lot of people happy and excited. In the spirit of sharing, we also had a potluck, open mic, and jam session. It happened to be the evening of Grace Lee Boggs’s memorial service, so we got to honor Grace by building beloved community, and sharing knowledge and ideas through the power of books and conversation.

Read, write, talk, and pass it on. Thank you, friends, for generously receiving my books!


Sharon said...

Thanks so much for sharing this experience. Beautifully written and much appreciated.

Darlene said...

Hey Gwi-Seok, this is a brilliant idea, thanks for sharing! I have a bday coming up in January, thinking of doing the same