In 2018 Wanda and I decide to install cherry-wood laminate flooring throughout the first floor of our house. That means ripping up hardwood in the kitchen along with carpet in the dining and living room, pantry, both bedrooms and every closet.  Once we schedule a firm date with Home Depot’s contractor, all we have to do is empty the space for the installers.

Eight decades of experience have taught me that the words ‘all you have to do’ inevitably mean, before the task is done, an unexpected curve ball is headed my way.

All we have to do’ is pick up all the things we live with and haul them to the garage.  Cans, bottles, and bags from the pantry.  Clothes, shoes, and shelving units from the closets.  Beds, lamps, tables, plants, chairs, pedestals, and every decorative object.

The real ass-kicker? My office—my man cave—must be stripped to the bare walls: move my desk, an ottoman, two chairs, two four-drawer file cabinets, and five floor-to-ceiling bookcases after stripping their shelves and packing a couple thousand books into twenty boxes.

Then ‘all we have to do’ is maneuver all of it through the doorway, around a corner into the hallway, a left turn through the living room, another left into the laundry room, and finally down two wooden steps into the garage.

Halfway along the hallway, hugging to my chest the fourteenth bulky box, that unexpected curve ball zips by with this thundering question:

What the fuck, Bill? Why keep so many books?

Didn’t I learn anything from walking the Camino across Spain in 2015 when I had to carry everything I needed on my back? Up and down mountains. Along trails. Through villages and cities. That pack was my daily burden. I thought I’d pared down to essentials, but after one week I shed more stuff: a Spanish phrase book, a shoulder bag, extra toilet paper, a fleece cap, pants with no side pockets and an extra notebook.  Left them on my bunk in an albergue at Los Arcos.

Now, grunting down the hallway with a carton of books, I confront the same shit again. It’s never over. Lessons keep coming.

A Santiago nunca se llega, solo se va.  (You never reach Santiago, you only set out for it.)

What do all these books represent to me? I tell myself they’re my ‘steady companions’ but, if I’m honest, they’re more like emblems of my intelligenceDust-jacket photos of authors posed before walls of books always impress me. Wow, they’re really smart!

When I peel my onion to its core, it reveals the shame I felt after flunking out of Northwestern in 1958 and then from Ohio Wesleyan the next year. Looking back sixty years I’m not sure what was going on with me at the time.  Maybe undiagnosed ADD.  Maybe I was bone lazy. Or just adolescent noodle-ism. 

I returned home in the summer of 1959 feeling stupid and feckless. And, to the quiet despair of my parents, hid from the world in my upstairs bedroom, my nose stuck into Tolstoy, Dickens, and Trollope – losing myself in fictional worlds, hiding from the demanding, confusing and frightening one beyond my dormer window.

To this day the presence of colorful spines arrayed on shelves comforts me somehow. A river of mute voices, bundles of inked marks on paper, signposts strung along the years that mark where my soul lit up.

Yeah, but why hold on to so many? Why lug them from house to house? What if I sold them or gave them all away? If my shelves were empty, would I still be me?

After dealing with the contents of my father’s house, I looked at my tendency to hoard books. But instead of doing anything, I wrote this:

Don’t Laugh at My Library

When you sift through my office after I die

you’ll confront a wall of poetry books.

I hope you won’t snicker like I did

when I dismantled my boyhood home

and found forty pairs of black socks

in a dresser drawer. Why so many, Dad?

If you wonder that about my books,

just know I couldn’t part with steady companions

summoned round my heart to hold at bay the howling roar

of the bullshit train that clanged past my door.

The wall studs buzzed with honeyed hives

of language stored on these shelves.

Before they go to Goodwill, riffle their pages,

glance at my underlines.

There’s where my soul snagged, where

shards of reflected majesty

sang their fierce clarity

through lines of inert ink.

These shelves bulge with poems

that gave me the gumption to pull up my socks

and stride through the turning world.

So, for pity’s sake, don’t scoff too harshly.

With each passing year and each passionate purchase

this library was the brightest utterance

I had at my disposal. When I read them,

I was their audience. When I didn’t,

they became mine.

To hang on or let go of my passionate purchases? That is the question for an old man grunting his way down a hallway with a leaden box of books.

During a visit to the bookmobile stopped in Port Ludlow, a title jumped off the shelf at me: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. Margareta Magnusson— “aged between 80 and 100” (her own words)—urged me to clear out unnecessary belongings before my sons have to do it for me. She poses a question that’s become my mantra: Will anyone be happier if I save this?

On Margareta’s advice I did a book purge and sold two full shopping bags to William James Booksellers. And more to come.

Or I should say . . . to go.


  1. Hey Bro Bill…having had the privilege of meeting you at Fort Warden in 2007 and immediately saying “I know him”…and adding “Cairns Along The Way” to my ever expanding library…I read “A Hallway Epiphany” with that JOY that only happens when I read something that continually brings a full body smile to my BEing…I just went through my “T-Shirt” collection and 85 didn’t make the cut…:-) I am still “gazing” at my books…Thank you for sharing your Hallway Epiphany Namaste Stanley

  2. After cleaning out two family members homes, I came back and have been disposing of so much stuff, as George Carlin said it’s o.k. because it’s my stuff . . . I stalled a little because some of my books beckoned to me and it was more fun to read them over again than get rid of my stuff, remember it will give the family something to do after your gone in the far far future.

  3. Enjoyed this essay. Thanks. William James is a great resource for selling books or giving them away. I think the library takes good-quality books for their annual sale too. The way I handle my beloved books or any possession now is the question “Do I love it? Do I want to read/see/use it now in my simpler pared-down life?” In winter when too lazy to drive the few miles to the Brinnon Bookmobile stop, I do re-read old friends and it’s a real joy. I’m a different person so each becomes a brand-new illumination.

  4. I’ve whittled my collection down to about 100, not counting my audio books. I started the process of selling them through Amazon, but found I didn’t want that complication. I then discovered I could donated them to the library, but as I went through them, “not that one”, then “not that one”, I decided the effort would be limited.

    As for the flooring. I too am looking towards a 2024 floor replacement. This was a good look at the tasks ahead.

  5. Banging against my 88th birthday next month, I’m not getting new flooring but realizing I need to reduce my sons task of clearing out my house when my expiration date arrives.
    I have asked my 6 sons and 4 daugter-in-laws and 8 grand children to take what they desire from my music, movie and book collection.
    Seeing some of the books leave is sort of sad but then I envision the joy or enlightenment they gave me and hope that it will do the same to the new caretaker.
    Books are portable time machines and having them around is like have the transportation for your next adventure waiting on the bookshelf. It’s hard to loose that ability to leave at a moments notice.

  6. William James, I’m on my way! I need a copy of “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.”

    I am looking (slowly) for a university archive that would be interested in my music collection, including much ephemera, gathered over the years. My wife has indicated that she has no real interest in preserving this valuable record of my life and times. I don’t know what’s wrong with her.

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