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Surround yourself with books

Posted: Sunday, May 09, 2010

I live in a bookcase-challenged house. There's never enough space on the bookshelves for all the books. Books lie in piles on bedside tables and line up in neat rows on bedroom floors.

If I read a book a week, and two on Sundays, I might get through them all in this lifetime. That's a funny thought - that I might never have time to read all the books in my own house. I'll think about that on my way to the library to check out a book to read.

But I can't bear to part with all these books I've never read. They're still old friends, holding their places on the bookshelves, tempting me with possibilities, and gathering dust.

Something about books - they attract dust faster than bare skin attracts mosquitoes. If you want to clean the rest of your house, just pile a few books in the middle of a room. The dust will flock to the books and leave the rest of the room spotless. That's assuming, of course, that you have a room that doesn't have any books in it already. Not in this house.

This brings up an important question. How is it that the books in the public library remain dust-free? Have you ever pulled a book off the library shelves and felt the need to dust it off before browsing through it? I wonder if they have a full-time employee whose job description reads, "Dust the books - no other duties will be assigned."

I've never seen anyone wandering the aisles with a feather duster, though. Or maybe the library has a special air circulating system that sucks up all the dust and recycles it into bookmarks or something. I wonder if I could get one of those for my house ...

So every now and then (more then than now, really) I take all the books off the shelves and dust each one individually. That's when I observe a peculiar characteristic of books. They take up more space on the floor than they do on the bookshelves. Have you ever noticed this phenomenon? Remember Parkinson's Law, that adage which states that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion? I'd like to propose Barnhill's Law: Books expand when removed from the bookcase.

For example, an average bookcase can hold approximately thirty books per shelf, more if they're paperbacks, and way more if they're children's books. (Yeah, I just went and counted. It's called "research.") If your bookcase has five shelves, that's one hundred and fifty books right there. Those one hundred and fifty books don't take up much space at all on the wall. But take them out and dust them, and they'll fill up your entire floor. It must be some kind of mob mentality or something

In the bookcase, the books are carefully controlled, kept in rigid order and taken out one at a time only. But let them all loose on the floor at once, and they go wild. They spread out to take over every available space, teetering in piles and waiting to trip you up. You think your entire life is filled with nothing but books. Then they slip into their places again, miraculously fitting back into that small space, and you've got your old friends back again.

Occasionally this dusting ritual does lead to culling a few books from the inventory. One time I resolved to decimate the bookshelves, getting rid of one book for every ten that I owned. What was I thinking? That plan soon morphed to getting rid of one book per shelf - still too hard. I settled for identifying ten books that I could part with. I still look for those books from time to time - not to read them necessarily, but to refer to them, to look at a picture or something. I miss them.

I know I'm not alone in my passion for books. My friend's recent e-mail says it all: "I did thin out my books recently as there were a few I knew I would never reread, so now I have room for new books."

She's got the right idea.

• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother and aspiring children's author who lives in Juneau. She likes to look at the bright side of life.



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