A Thousand Little Goodbyes: The Loss of a Personal Library

I’ve mentioned in the past that the home renovations have been a great motivator for applying some of Marie Kondo’s principles in my life. Some of you may be aware that she’s come in for some marked criticism for saying she only keeps 30 books on hand–which allows her the space to move older books out and make way for newer ones. Bibliophiles everywhere reacted strongly to this idea, but nowhere did Kondo say you should get rid of books that sparked joy for you. That’s the whole principle behind her philosophy. What sparks joy for you. Not anyone else.

Before the reno, I’d made a point of paring down our extensive book population. Shelf space was going to be at a premium after the remodel. We wanted to consolidate my husband’s library with mine (we’re extensive readers) and eliminate the books that no longer brought us as much joy–which for me usually means, “Will I read this again?” or “Is this a piece of my childhood I treasure?”

I was pretty pleased with how much I’d weeded out my own cache of books, ruthlessly donating ancient sci-fi anthologies and obscure British murder mysteries to Goodwill and the like. Since paying for storage was going to cost a fortune, I got rid of as much as I could and stacked the boxes of books in the garage, as they weighed the most.

I did more pruning while unpacking. The realization there were some books, despite the fact they held fond memories, I’d never read again, made me put more of them in the “donate” pile.

Then I began to wonder what that musty smell was.

Then I realized what I thought was simply dust was actually mold.

Then I recalled that the reno had taken months longer than promised–and those months held the wettest winter in my memory.

And I am violently allergic to mold.

Naturally, the most seriously affected books are the oldest–and the ones most precious to me. I suspect mold spores were present in low numbers on them all along, but given the extremely damp conditions, exploded into active growth. A closer examination showed it’s not just books–many of the pieces of furniture and collectibles are also dusted with mold. But those items can at least be cleaned. Ridding the books of mold is far more problematic.

I did some research and came up with several treatment options. The first involves putting books in ziplock bags with baking soda as a deodorizer/desiccant and freezing them a week or more. I’d have a buy a freezer to do this–or else empty out my small one and choose only the books most valuable to me. The second method is to microwave the books 5-10 seconds, which will kill mold and silverfish, but may also damage bindings and glue, not to mention the risk of microwaving anything with gilded edges or print. In fact, almost every post on microwaving says don’t do it. A third method suggests gently brushing the books with a dilute solution of bleach and placing them outside in the sun. Given we are still in the temperamental days of early spring, that means waiting for a day when it’s not likely to rain and bringing them in well before dark so they don’t collect dew or frost. Tricky when most days I go to work and come home while it’s still dark. 

And none of the methods actually remove the mold spores–they just inactivate them. The mold can reappear under the right circumstances again and can remain toxic no matter what treatment you perform. The other night, I was congested and reactive–it’s no coincidence it was the first night the book boxes had been opened.

Many of these books are childhood favorites now out of print. Some are delightful favorites I will re-read again. Even if they are available in digital format, I’m likely to find a better price on them in used bookstores than as ebooks. But it still means cutting my collection to the bone in order to replace the ones that are the most important to me.

I feel as though I’ve been a bad steward to my books. That I’ve been a bad friend to treasured friends that have gotten me through tough times. I can’t even in good conscience give them away. If I have to throw them out in the trash, I know I’ll cry.

My current plan is to photograph the favorites and upload images to social media, thus enlisting my friends in helping me locate replacements (or even soliciting replacements from friends looking to reduce their own book collection). At the moment, I have a dozen or so books packaged with baking soda in ziplock bags stacked in the freezer. I’ve selected one book (of which I have multiple copies and know is still in print) to lightly spray with Lysol and leave outside in the sun. I’m told for this to be effective at killing mold, it has to be Lysol containing bleach, and so far, I haven’t been able to locate that. As soon as we get a break in the April showers, I’ll make a dilute bleach solution and mist a few others to set in the sun. I suspect that will damage the covers and print a bit, but we’ll see. I’ll also select a sacrificial victim to microwave. Of all the methods, microwaving is the one that’s the most time effective, and the one I trust the least. I’ll let you know how it goes.

The freezer method with baking soda does seem to be working, but unless I buy a freezer for this purpose (and I’m not sure I trust the wiring in the garage to power a freezer–one potential disaster at a time…) this will simply take too long. Besides. I’m not sure how I’ll get the baking soda out of the books…

In the end, getting rid of the books and starting over may be the best solution after all.

Finding Joy in Loss

We’re nearing the end of the extensive renovations, but the work just keeps going on. It’s like one of those house flipping shows where they start in with a tight budget and big plans but discover rot in the walls, and one thing leads to another. Sometimes the unexpected expense is a delightful revelation—like when we discovered that hooking up to town water was an option—and now was the time to do it. After living with impossibly hard water for the ten years we’ve been in the house, along with the low water pressure, bad taste and odor of the well water, and the fact the water turned brown when it rained too hard, investing in the hookup to town water was a no-brainer. In addition to adding to the resale value of the property should we ever sell, I now enjoy showers with the water pressure of a luxury hotel. And like Goldilocks, this water is just right. Not so hard it limes up the coffee maker and not so soft it feels slimy—like you can never completely rinse clean. Just blissfully right.

One of the unhappy expected expenses was is the realization that the heavy construction has chewed up the yard around the house, creating huge ruts that weeks of rain have left with standing water. We have built a walkway out of plywood, plastic tarps, straw, and cardboard, but the sea of mud surrounding the house is steadily working its way inside. We hadn’t factored landscaping, or the need to rebuild the concrete patio, into our remodel plans.

As much as I’ve been looking forward to the desperately needed remodel (honestly, it’s a wonder the house passed inspection when we bought it, and a miracle it didn’t collapse or burn down around us), coming on top of everything else in the last year, it’s been stressful. Even good stress is tough to deal with at times.

I was already struggling a bit emotionally. One of the remodeling decisions we made was to take out a wall, and while it made for a lovely open space where the living room used to be dark, small, and cramped, it severely cut down on my space to hang pictures. I love pictures. Be they photographs I’ve taken myself, images of my various fandoms, or reminders of some place I’ve traveled, I tend to collect and post images that—to borrow Marie Kondo’s phrase—bring me joy. Only during the unpacking process, I’d found myself tearing off protective paper to stare down at a beloved image and have no earthly idea where it should go—or if it should even go back up again.

The remodeling process has definitely triggered my desire to go Marie Kondo on my life (I should point out this is not something new since the Netflix show but something I’ve been considering for some time now—ever since I first read her book and resisted its tenets). Both when packing things for storage and unpacking them now, I’ve been taking a hard look at everything and trying to decide if it still brings me joy or not.

So when I was unwrapping our photographs and prints, trying to decide which to put where, I was devastated to discover the glass on one of my oldest prints was cracked.

I was already in a fragile state of mind when I discovered the damage to my print. Worse, the print was something my mother had picked up at an antique store when I was a child and I’d been carting around from house to house ever since. It has literally been a part of my life as long as I can remember. See, I identified with that beaming little girl and her gentle giant of a dog. It could have been a portrait of me at the same age.

Behind the glass, you could see the ravages of time. One of the reasons I’d never reframed it was that the print was coming to pieces in places, and that removal from the frame would likely cause the whole thing to disintegrate. Now I had no choice. I couldn’t hang a picture with broken glass. So I held my damaged print in my hands and wept. One more thing to add to the things I’ve lost in the past year. And this time, it felt like I was losing me as well.

My husband, quick to respond to my distress, suggested taking it to a framing shop to see what they could do. I didn’t see the point at first—in my mind it was already a total loss as any attempt to remove it from the frame would result in the final destruction. But we went to the framing store anyway, and an incredibly empathetic woman there not only appreciated the degree to which the damage upset me, but she treated my print with the care one would bestow on a living thing. She managed to get it out of the frame without destroying it, a painstaking process that made both of us sweat just a little, as she had to remove the backing in pieces warped by age and neglect.

In doing so, for the first time, I was able to see the name of the artist, previously hidden by the frame.

In the meantime, my husband did a reverse image search on the print, just in case my fears were realized and the whole thing turned to dust like Ayeshea on stepping into the Spirit of Life the second time and reverting to her true age. Not only did he find out the print is still available, though replacing it would have cost a pretty penny, he did a little research on the artist as well. Arthur John Elsley was an English painter of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, famous for his depictions of children and dogs. He was very popular in his day, with his works appearing in magazines and calendars. His style was so distinctive, I suspect I’d recognize it if I came across another of his paintings. I checked the prices on his original paintings still available–some go for as high as $100,000!

The story has a happy ending, though. Not only was the framer able to remove the print largely intact, but she was able to clean and repair it for the most part. We made the decision to reuse the original frame (being of stout oak, of the likes it would be hard to replace without spending a lot of money) and use acrylic instead of glass to decrease the chance of future breakage. The end result is better than what I had before the glass broke.

Not only do I have an improved print to hang on my wall, but I also now know the name and history of the artist, which brings me a little extra fillip of pleasure when I look at the smiling little girl and her tolerant dog. I have something even more valuable as well—more affirmation that my guy has my back. I have no doubt that had the restoration proved terminal, he’d have seen to it I got another copy of that print.

And that, my dear Marie Kondo fans, brings me joy.