Pruning the Shelves

I looked over my bookshelves recently and removed some duds—a bad translation of The Master and Margarita, The Lightning Keeper, and My Old Man. The last is a particularly odd purchase: I read a review of it somewhere that convinced me to buy it. The review didn’t explicitly say it was chick lit, although I guess I should’ve inferred it. As so often happens, I made a note to myself to buy it and then blithely did so much later, after I’d forgotten the original context.

The book’s cover startled me: a pastel, old-fashioned print of an ancient man and a young girl. Twenty pages in, I was still wondering what the hell the cover person was thinking when he (she? Who knows.) picked that. Still, a bad cover shouldn’t sabotage a good book. The paperback, happily, has new artwork.

The problem is that My Old Man didn’t give me enough to take my attention from the cover. The beginning wasn’t too bad, and I actually made it to the end, which made me wish I hadn’t; the last quarter of the book is filled Big Pronouncements about Life. The dialog had me cringing, as did the contrived situations. The narrative had the subtlety of a piano falling off a building.

Despite all this, the book has been with me for almost two years, like the phone number of a friend I’m not likely to call again. At some point it’s time to get rid of the stuff that I could never again conceivably want to read or recommend to anyone—the stuff I could cart around until the end and still never use. For me, that threshold is a fairly high: I like most of what I read, and many of the ones I don’t necessarily like that much still have some redeeming quality. That copy of Beowulf and one of Elmore Leonard’s weaker efforts get to stay, but at some point a book is just no longer worth keeping.

I feel slightly bad about selling the books I don’t like, as though in doing so betrays the author. It’s the same reason I hesitate to slam books, even though at times I do—not all books are worth reading, and it’s necessary to distinguish the worthwhile ones. Granted, criteria for what is worthwhile varies, and I try to keep my scope broad—but broad doesn’t mean indiscriminate. Keeping My Old Man would be indiscriminate and gratuitous, as well as a waste of space. The pang caused by ditching the books fades quickly because of the knowledge that I’m not quite as encumbered, both literally and figuratively.

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