An illustration of a pair of hands setting a book free to fly away, like a bird, into the sky.

How I learned to say goodbye to my books

When moving from Canada to the UK, Stephen Carlick had to make some tough decisions with his book collection. But he soon discovered parting doesn’t have to be such sweet sorrow. 

I’m not very good at saying goodbye. Or, you might say, I'm too good at it; at the end of a social event, if you cannot find me, it’s never because I’ve done ‘a French exit’, slipping quietly away – more likely I’m in the midst of a too-long round of farewells, hugging each friend of mine on my way out the door. If you are leaving the country, I am driving you to the airport, doing a protracted final so long at the terminal; and if I’m leaving, I’m having a goodbye party, a final drink, the works.

And so, as I left my home city of Toronto last year to move to London indefinitely, that’s what I did. Part of that meant saying long, difficult goodbyes to friends, and part of that meant leaving my flat behind, doing a last wander around its emptiness, taking an ‘after’ photo of it to complement the ‘before’ photo I’d taken before removing its contents. And part of that – a more difficult bit than I’d anticipated, really – meant saying goodbye to my books.

There are things about books I hadn’t realised until I set about culling mine. Somewhere between companions and teachers, they can speak to you; they can entertain and soothe you; show you parts of the world you’ve never been; they can inform your life choices and ignite your emotions. And that’s just their contents – what about the books with extra-textual meaning, the books with meaningful inscriptions, the gifts from friends, family and great loves? And hell, what about your first editions and signed hardbacks? I could go on.

There are things about books I hadn’t realised until I set about culling mine; somewhere between companions and teachers, they can speak to you

I’d moved house before, sure, but moving country, across an ocean, was a different beast. I couldn’t bring furniture; I could bring a handful of tchotchkes, maximum; and besides a novel or two, I couldn’t bring my book collection. Books are heavy, and they weren’t going to fit in my luggage. So I began the agonising process of saying goodbye.

I started with the easiest part: picking the books that, if they couldn’t come with me, were going into storage; no-brainers. Among these were the collectibles and the mementos – a rare, beautifully bound copy of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, big hardback collections of early 20th-century newspaper comic strips, novels that I’d received from a good friend with whom I’d made an agreement: to celebrate every birthday by gifting each other a novel and inscribing it. (There were at least five of those.) I packed these gently into boxes, along with my other beloved mementos and hard-to-find books, to be sent home with my parents.

Those books are still in Toronto now, and I miss them all the time. I’m dying to reread Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and to show my London friends the beautiful Sunday comics pages of George Herriman – evidence that I made the right decision to keep them. If you wouldn’t miss a book, why hold onto it?

Those books are still in Toronto now, and I miss them all the time – evidence that I made the right decision to keep them

Then, I started from the other end: the easy-to-lose books. If you’re a book lover, you probably know the ones: the book that, despite lingering on the periphery of your ‘to be read’ pile, has been waiting so long it’s got sun damage on the spine despite the price sticker still on the back; the well-meant but slightly pass-agg self-help book your mom gifted you “to help you stop forgetting things!” or the badly misjudged sci-fi epic your dad bought you because “You love Star Wars!” despite that not being the case for bordering on two decades; the novel that made you feel smart and interesting in your early 20s but mocks your self-conception now, and if you really wanted to read it again you could pick it up at literally any second-hand shop for a quid or two. I sold a few, if they seemed worth anything. Most of them I felt good about donating.

But the hard part – going through the middle of the pack, the books that I enjoyed but might not find the time to read again, the ones I didn’t enjoy but felt I owed a second read, the ones that felt a shame to lose – was inevitable, and it was brutal. A friend once hypothesised that whether you loved a book or not was largely dictated by the moment in which it came into your life; that, say, being young, or being old, or a parent, or depressed, or freshly divorced, or whatever, was amongst the principal influences on whether or not you connected to a work of art. What if these books and I just passed each other by, ships in the night? What if the only reason a book wasn’t sparking joy in this moment was because I was simply too young, or self-involved, or not divorced enough to have enjoyed it the first time I read it? Getting rid of these books felt like sacrificing an opportunity.

I thought it would be difficult to see my loved ones scouring my shelves, parting my books and me – but it was joyful

Ultimately, what I did is this: after giving each of the remaining books another long think, the ones that were still impossible to make a definitive decision about remained on the shelf, and I invited my friends, over the next week or so, to come by my flat, peruse those shelves and see if any of the books caught their eye. If they wanted them, I figured, then my books, though no longer quite my books, were at least in happy homes. I could imagine, on some level, that if I ever wanted to read them again, I could always borrow it from the friend, down the line. I knew I’d see my friends again; the books would be there too. And if I was meant to read them, well, I could just ask. (Hot tip: friends have to lend you a book if you’ve given it to them).

I thought it would be difficult to see my loved ones scouring my shelves, parting my books and me, but “such sweet sorrow” turned out much sweeter than sorrowful. As each of my friends passed through, we sat for tea or a drink, chatted about our life plans for an hour or two, or for a whole evening, and at the end they left with an armful of books. It was great; joyful, even.  

A day or two before I departed for good, I was visiting my sister and her girlfriend when I recognised a few of my books in their flat. I thought to get up, to flip through them maybe, just one more ‘last time’. But I’d already done that at my place; we’d shaken hands, had a final embrace, a metaphorical pat on the back. Tonight, I would bid my sister farewell, but as for my books? Well, I might just slip out quietly.

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Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

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