Spring cleaning


I made two New Year’s resolutions. Well, I made five, but I only plan on mentioning two here. 1. Do not buy any books, comics, magazines, CDs, or DVDs until Memorial Day. This includes used books, eBay purchases, and delectables found in the cheapo bins of Bebop Record Shop. 2. Reduce the number of books I own to 200, from the roughly 500 books that strained my shelves, coffee table, empty chairs, and available counter space. This includes chapbooks and tiny gift books, but I excluded comics because I knew I would end up agonized and weeping.

Like any avid (but slow) reader, a third of my shelves consists of books I’m meaning to read, or that are half-read, or that I read and loved years ago but haven’t had the courage or time to return to just yet. Maybe it’s more than a third. In any case, I don’t need any more space taken up in my apartment by impulse (or considered) cultural purchases of any sort, when I’ve got all this material sitting here, waiting to be read. Also, there’s the financial factor. For the last three/four years, I’ve bought on average a book a month. At $25 a book, that’s about $300 a year on books. I bought a CD or so a month—that’s another $200 a year. Thanks to Netflix, I don’t buy many new DVDs, but the savings from avoiding such purchases are occasionally eaten up by obscure finds on eBay.

So, that explains the need for #1. Consider it an aesthete’s extended Lent. #2 will take a little longer to explain.

Over the last year, I’ve become disenchanted with apartment living. Oh, there are things I still love—rent is cheap; utilities are cheap; maintenance is free and prompt; and I live ten minutes from my job, my grocery store, my favorite restaurants, and the World’s Greatest Bookstore. But I won’t miss the thin walls, or the bright green carpet, or the people shouting from their balconies down to people in the parking lot at all hours of the night, or the thump-thump-thump of the people walking above me (and, as I pace when I think, I’m sure my downstairs neighbors won’t miss me, either), or the shrieking kids, or the young men who occasionally “hang out” in the parking lot, drinking their dinners from paper sacks.

More than all of that, I won’t miss the strictures against defining my home for my own damn self. It’s not allowed for me to drill holes into the walls, in order to hang art. Mounted tape is A-okay, apparently, but not nails. I’ve broken this stricture, several times, as my art collection has grown. So, I’m sure I won’t be getting back my deposit. No matter. I wish I could just contract a new carpet to be laid down, or paint the walls a new number, without interference. In a house of my own, I could do this. In an apartment that’s not rent-controlled or owned by me, it’s obviously a different story.

To consider buying a house, though, I need money. My savings are a joke, but I can fix that. Mostly, though, I need willpower—the willpower to go to open houses, to inquire at my bank about homeowner’s loans, to do the homework. I have trouble starting on something that daunting, so I figured I should start with an issue that keeps from me from thinking about a house: moving.

I hate moving, all of it. I hate packing stuff into boxes. I hate having to cajole friends into helping me move. I hate heavy lifting. I hate breaking much-loved dishes on accident. I hate it all so much that I’ve stayed in the same apartment for seven years. I have friends who move every year or so, and I don’t understand what’s wrong with them.

The thought of packing up and moving 500 books, 400+ CDs, and everything else makes me fearful. The thought of moving 200 books, 200 CDs, and whatever else I can’t get rid of, however, is less frightening. So, #2. Along with clearing out space and thus having less to move, I would—by selling books and music—be raising at least a small amount of money to put towards a down payment and utility deposits.

The first thing I learned was how easy it is to stop buying stuff. Yes, I’ve been tempted, but there’s lots in the library—how could I have forgotten this? Well, now I’m back. I’ve turned the corner and entered the 21st century, by finding manga scanlation sites online. I was turned on to leftist intellectual George Scialabba by a review in N+1, but never bothered to wonder if he had anything available on the net. It turns out that his entire oeuvre is there for the taking, along with his magnificent chapbook, Divided Mind, which, among other things, continues his eloquent, tearjerking exploration of his battles with depression. I already own two of the best books of film criticism that have ever or will ever exist—Pauline Kael’s For Keeps and Manny Farber’s Negative Space—so I feel comfortable supplementing it with film-blog reading, online reviews, and more deep-think sites such as Rouge and Senses of Cinema. All of which is free.

As for music, yeah, I’ve been aching to hear the new Arcade Fire, Ornette Coleman’s Sound Grammar, and the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Sky Blue. But there are compensations. Loronix, a site devoted to posting Brazilian music from the 1960s to the present online, is a godsend; even with dial-up access, I download an album a week, both getting my fix of new music and educating myself about Brazil’s glorious past. I’ve never been a big DVD buyer, so that’s been no big loss.

The comics embargo has been the hardest for me. I’ve already got a list of 15 items I’m ordering from Fantagraphics Books and Drawn & Quarterly on Memorial Day. The Jackson library isn’t progressive enough to start stocking long-form comics, and the stores in town don’t really cater to my tastes. (Honestly, I do better at the local Borders than at Action Island.) I’m sorta shaking from missing my Love & Rockets fix, but I’ll survive. Besides, I’ve found overlooked gems of all sorts on my own shelves.

Whereas #1 has been surprisingly easy to adhere to, #2 has been surprisingly difficult.

If you have 464 books cluttering your apartment (and, yes, I counted), you’d think it would be easy to excise 264 from your collection. That, anyway, is what I thought. I was wrong.

The first problem is getting rid of the stuff I know I don’t want. Why, for instance, do I own not one but two issues of Mississippi Quarterly, one of which is a special issue devoted to “Postcolonial Theory, the U.S. South, and New World Studies, Part I?” Guess what—no one else wants them, either. The local library doesn’t need them, and I didn’t even bother trying to sell ’em on eBay.

The second, and more significant, problem is deciding what I don’t want. I’ve got 50 books that I swear I’ll read one of these days, by writers that I like: Flann O’Brien’s At-Swim Two Birds, Angela Carter’s Burning Your Boats: The Complete Short Stories, Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City, and Stephen Dixon’s Fall & Rise are among them.

Dixon presents a special sub-problem. I’ve spent four years digging out and reading him, ever since I read I. in 2002. I’ve read 15 books by him and—since his stuff goes out of print quickly and is rarely stocked in the library—I’ve had to buy all those books, too. (I own three that I haven’t gotten to yet.) There’s no way in hell I’m separating my Dixon collection, which means that a large chunk of my allotted 200 is taken up by one author. Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series is six books, yes, but it’s also satisfying to read it as one big novel, with six long chapters. At least, that’s what I tell myself so that I won’t have to break it up.

With other writers, it’s easier to cherrypick. I don’t need the collected works of Tom Robbins and, in fact, rereading them this year has heightened my contention that it would be embarrassing to keep anything before Jitterbug Perfume. I’ve already sold my autographed copy of Jim Harrison’s True North, preferring to instead keep his collections of novellas and poetry. Of Pico Iyer, I only need Video Night in Kathmandu and maybe Tropical Classical—I can live without the rest. Grace Paley, thank god, collected her three short-story collections into a single work; M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating serves the same function, allowing me to sell her works that I’d bought in other volumes.

Still, it’s been hard; this will be a process that takes a year.

As with #1, comics have been the hardest to dismiss. The Jackson-Hinds Library System doesn’t stock graphic novels, and it’s taken me years to find some of the comics (Uncle Scrooge: His Life and Times, I’m looking at you!) I own. More than even books or movies, I’ve got sentimental attachments to certain comics that—even if I now know they’re lackluster—make them valuable. And they are almost always beautifully designed productions, just like the art and photography books that I’m having a hard time putting in the to-be-sold box.

So, yes, this is hard. But it’s necessary. I’m learning to weed out what’s dross from what’s essential in my cultural life. It’s spring cleaning, as much of the mind as of physical space. I hope the process, as slow and minor as it is, brings me to a point whereby I have more space to hang my art, shelve my books, and put order to my life. Or, at the very least, I’ll have a bigger space in which to collect my chaos.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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3 Responses to Spring cleaning

  1. I’ll help you with some of those books: bookmooch.com –

  2. louisa says:

    a) first, let me assuage in small part one of your primary fears. i will help you move, i will enjoy it, and all i will ask at most is a cheap meal at some tasty ethnic place. you can thank my mom and surrounding adults of my childhood who engrained in me that you help people move, that’s just what people do. i once single-handedly moved a friend of a friend from a shared carriage house to a room on the fourth (20 foot floor or so) of an old-fashioned aesthete bachelor’s building. for some there comes a time, where you just bite the bullet and pay for movers and stop hassling friends. the no pick-up from the airports, no moving, no painting, and no come see your shows rule. minus the last, you will never have to worry about reaching that point with me ever. maybe it’s a southern thing.
    b) the no new books till memorial day. i instituted this rule almost 10 years ago, when i looked around my room at the beginning of my senior year of high school and saw two chocked full, double-rowed bookcases and 7 40″+ stacks of books. my english teacher, who had 7 or so rooms full of books in her house also moved that year, and the movers gave her a good telling to about moving books. my resolution was this: no new books, this is what libraries are for. i also have tastes that run the gamut from kids lit to the ridiculously obscure, this is what ill is for. charlie b. at welty welcomes your custom. in the last few weeks he’s gotten me marxist lit crit/map theory, an early 20th century french book, and heyday even though it just came out. when i graduated from college, my library record showed over 1000 loans (so more than 250 books, movies, and cds a year of course including research and reserved reading, and that’s no including all the music in my college radio station’s 40 year old library). i’ve broken my no book rule occasionally in the ensuing 10 years, but much less than you would think (using a heady mix of 3-4 libraries in my previous locale, and old books i haven’t read, jhl, gutenberg, and ill here). the exceptions are books 1) i read on loan that i absolutely must own, invisible cities comes to mind. and i sit on these for a while to make sure then buy, usually with the biannual amazon certificates. gormenghast, the little nemo reissue, an obscure art book, story of the stone, and a couple more over the 10 years. 2) books for class (a small bookcase worth, again trying to borrow as many as possible), and 3) gift books. it’s a system that’s left me very satisfied, and my first word was ‘book.’
    c) no new music. started this in fall 2003, when i decided the grand circle jerk of music acquistion disgusted me, and i had no desire to continue participating (it should be noted i had an indie music radio show at the time, so you can see what sector it most applies to). exceptions are gifts, mixed cds, and occasional back catalog purchases (usually with certificates). i had a pile up and access to others supplies. but i don’t pirate, as i think that if i’m going to enjoy someone’s music in a permanent fashion they should get some money out of the arrangement. this is a little harder, actually. especially as i don’t have the friend mutual lending library i had in other places as well as much better music available at libraries.
    d) i think you’ve already found how to get by with the no dvd rule.
    please excuse the ramble, but i guess i’m trying to encourage you to keep up the good work. it’s satisfying and worth it. you can still read, watch, and listen widely.
    tastes are traps.

  3. I’ll take that extra MQ issue off your hands, if you want.
    My wife has me on a no books/cds this academic year (in Japan) promise, which I’m keeping to, but if you can wait till August, I can!

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