Giving It Away or Keeping It on the Shelves

There are two basic options for what to do with a book once it’s finished: place it back on the bookshelf or pass it on to someone else.

“Kill your darlings,” a phrase made famous by Faulkner and the college literary classes that followed, is meant as a nod to the emotional process of editing. But those of us who have given away a novel that so deeply touched us know it can apply to a book collection as well.

The worst, of course, is when someone sees you reading a book they’re interested in.

“Is that the new James Patterson? I’ve been dying to read it!” a colleague asks, and you sense a creeping subtext of, “Can I borrow that when you’re done?”

Oh, the horror. Owning a really good book can feel like discovering a real estate agent specializing in rent-controlled apartments in New York: you want to share, brag, scream to the rooftops that you’ve found it, but giving out the guy’s number itself kind of ruins the whole thing. It’s your contact after all, and sure, sure, it’s public info and we’re in a free country, but can’t they just go about locating it themselves?

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“Why not just let them borrow the book?” you may ask. Because “borrowing” a book is the same as “borrowing” $10 for lunch, meaning, it is not borrowing. You’re essentially gambling. Take, for example, my copy of The Sun Also Rises. Experts are still debating, but we’re pretty sure it’s floating around the Dublin hostel my friend slept at in 2008.

Certainly, the debate changes when we factor in the whole Kindle/Nook development. A lot of my friends donated their books or gave them away when made the switch, and their relationship with the physical book itself hardly matters anymore. (Of course, my hesitation in giving books away doesn’t mean I don’t relish in the inverse, and I snatch up any and all free pieces of literature that come my way.)

But my feeling is that the books I’ve read that remain on my bookshelf serve as sacred artifacts and trophies. They paint a picture of who I am, they remind me of the journeys I’ve taken, and they’re a good conversation piece when I’m out of things to say on a horrible date.

At the same time, I have to concede. There are few greater joys I’ve felt than giving away a book I’ve loved so much to a person I believe is about to embark on the same adventure, turning the very same pages I held, keeping the memory alive through the lasting power of its words and not the ink of its printing.

What about you? Do you pass on your books or keep them on the shelves? How do you decide?

About Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

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