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If You Could Only Keep Five Books…

Imagine this: In two weeks you’ll embark on an epic journey across the US. While you’ll be living in a small travel trailer, you’ll have the freedom to explore National Parks, wake up to the sound of the ocean outside your open window, and have complete access to the stars. The only catch is that you must take everything you own with you. You aren’t allowed excess storage. In terms of books, you may bring only five. Would you do it? Could you? More on this in a moment.

I’ve always been a minimalist. When I was in college my New Year’s Resolution was to give one item away for each day of the year. I called it “The Year of Simple Living.” It went well. So well, in fact, that I finished the entire year’s challenge before January was even over. And then I kept going. This was around the time Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was popular. The takeaway was clear: if it doesn’t spark joy, thank it, and let it go.

I had simplified my life so thoroughly that in 2015 when I lost my job and my roommate in the same day and could no longer afford to pay rent, I easily packed everything into two small boxes before buying a one-way ticket to Newfoundland and embarking on a series of solo travels across Canada and Europe for one year.

Then, when I began my MFA program in 2017, I once again amassed an incredible number of books. My bookshelf was one of my favorite sights in our cozy East Harlem apartment. It gave me joy to look at: how I could recall a favorite scene or chapter in each book with a quick glimpse of the spine; the way each book narrated the trajectory of my life, my interests, and literary preferences; the way they allowed me an escape from the bustle and noise of the city outside.

In 2019, one week after I graduated with my MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing, my husband and I left New York City to travel fulltime in an Airstream for one year. Neither of us were big fans of storage, so we simplified, sold, or donated everything we owned until our entire lives fit neatly into our 27” travel trailer of 200 square feet. Thankfully, there was a thrift store on the corner.

We agreed to use our Kindles as our primary reading devices, and we decided to keep only five books each.

The titles I chose to keep were:

1. The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

2. Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays by Eula Biss

3. The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

4. For the Time Being by Annie Dillard

5. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

If forced to choose five books at this point in my life, my list would look a bit different, but these five will always be special to me. I read and reread them during my MFA program. They shaped my worldview, informed my knowledge of craft writing, and moved me in profound ways.

Now that we’ve settled down and brought two kids into the world, simplifying is a bit more complicated. Sometimes it feels that our house contains 95% kid stuff. In terms of books, we’ve maintained our minimal collection, primarily relying on the library’s extensive collection, and only buying the titles that impact us in profound ways. I do dream of one day having a massive built-in bookshelf filled with a meaningful and diverse collection. For now, we keep only our favorites, using the library as our main source of discovery.

What’s your preference? Do you prefer to buy your books or check them out from the library? Could you simplify your entire collection down to just five books? If so, which ones would you keep, and why? Let us know in the comments!

Lastly, if you do decide to “Mari Kondo” your book collection, the library will gladly accept your donations. And, if you’re not interested in simplifying your bookshelves, you can drop into the Friends of the Library Bag Book Sale from November 13-18th during business hours and add a few more to your collection. Happy reading, friends!

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