From the Stacks: The Art of Fasting

from the stacks

from the stacks | the food poet

Close your eyes. Squeeze them tight. If I implored you to think of just one thing that sets your heart alight, what would be the first image to shimmer into view? This is an easy one for me to answer and a hard item to give up for 21 days. Bound in hardback or pliant soft cover, I could be the first customer if eau de livre could be bottled and sold from the glass case at a boutique perfume counter.

It might not be hard to imagine that we become the children we have been. We get taller, rounder or more svelte, but some things don’t change. Whether tucked into my reading cave or braiding my adolescent legs above the bed while my eyes settled into slits from reading “The Fountainhead” until the wee hours, that kind of rapt attention books have commanded from me is only deepening with age. As such, when our church recently put out a challenge to fast from something we love for 21 days, the curious idea presented itself behind closed eyes- I decided to shelve buying books.

We don’t live extravagantly. In San Francisco, you would be hard-pressed to find everyday extravagance outside of a small subset of the city’s population. And yet, I had found a disturbing trend happening last year that involved whimsy and a growing collection of books to inch into the already bulging bookshelves. Instead of waiting and saving up, I had begun to become a book bag lady. Cookbooks lined the back wall of a kitchen counter only to domino cascade into a heap on the floor one too many times. The poetry wall shudders under the weight of all the slender volumes that are doubled up and stacked high. It might not come as a surprise that I once worked at a book store and then for a stint as a librarian (before the staff realized my gift of gab rivaled my affection for books).

I would want to say that all of the books in my possession endured my pencil jotting marginal notes or had the pleasure of being opened and read. As is the case for voracious readers, sometimes it’s too hard to choose which one to read at any time. One book gets toted along on the morning commute. Another sidles into bed as lamp light casts its glow into the dark house. More requirements present themselves- books requiring notes must be read outside of bed lest a pencil pokes the sleeping spine next to me unwittingly. Some books because of their heft do not get packed into the carry-on bag whereas I can’t imagine leaving others behind when off on a Mister Toad adventure or writing excursion. I don’t consider it to be book hoarding, since they often find their way into other peoples’ hands as the occasion calls for, but we purged the stacks twice last year and still they jut forth with titles that play the part of suitors, whistling and doing a dance to get some notice.

During the Great Purge of 2013, some difficult decisions had to be made. Some books from my graduate school capstone on intercultural relationships made their way into a focused collection at school. Given how hard they had been to cull together, I couldn’t imagine them not finding an equally invested home. Well-meaning cookbooks worked their way into new homes through an online garage sale held with friends last fall to make sure they too, would not lose their way.

What is it about a book that makes it the perfect gift? What is it about a book that makes it hard to part with? I have toyed with only buying food or poetry books- both subjects in which writing in the white space along the outer edge of the pages is part of the reading experience. I finally came to understand the role of the e-reader in my very stubborn physical book loving life. On it, I can rip through fiction and dig deeply into memoir. With audio books, I can work out and listen to a fantastic tale that transports me from the gym room to whatever circumstance the narrator depicts.

Twenty-one days without new books may not be a revelation for you- perhaps the thing you would give up would be different. This exercise of patience and self-control is curbing a pattern of mindless book-buying. At some point, even as an avid reader, you have to have a heart-to-heart with yourself about what stays, what goes and what will span the test of years. A friend proudly owns 400 cookbooks, but most of them are in the garage in boxes, which is a bit like a guitar that has taken on the guise of living room decoration with a coat of dust on its wood paneling. This can’t be my path.

In this 21-day journey, I’m reaching for books I haven’t picked up in years and showing discipline in buckling down to finish remaining chapters before adopting something new to supplement the end of things. Some books remain untouched as their time has not fully come into being just yet. Others play the role of reference guide, there to shed light when needed but sometimes just as neglected. After the 2013 Purge, we installed a stainless steel Metro knock-off from Ikea so my type-A personality could group cookbooks by category, deriving pleasure from their organized readiness for a cooking adventure. When the fasting comes to a close, I already know which new books will join the ranks. But this exercise has accomplished its aim. Do you ever give up something you love for a time period to really ruminate on a habit or pattern in your life?


    1. Thanks Claudia. The fast is going well and I am drinking in the nuggets of insight from neglected books. Let me know what you end up fasting from and I can root you on!

  1. Fasting does create a sort of elbow room in life, doesn’t it? And your kind in such a literal way! Fasting from food is revolutionary. A humbling, reorienting experience. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. What a delightful idea. I own hundreds of books, and I purge all the time. The acquisition part brings such pleasure, the purge part such pain. Please let us know if your fast has changed your book acquisition habit. I just added 5 books this week…..any help would be appreciated.

    1. Ah, the fasting of books. Yes, it definitely did change my habits. I have now come to believe that there is a methodology to only owning cookbooks and poetry books (and being perfectly fine with acquiring more of them as the opportunity warrants) and consuming fiction and non-fiction on an e-reader. It has helped whittle down the stacks quite a bit. The other part of it too, Sheri is that there are books you might read once and books you will refer to over time. I also tend to write in the columns of my poetry and cookbooks so those notes– and the white space afforded in wide columns lets me inform my future self of what I had discovered earlier. I appreciate that you are also considering your own library. Isn’t a personal library a gift?! And sometimes, one gives a gift that keeps on giving by handing books over to others who might also benefit from their brilliance. Thanks for stopping by and best of luck on the purge.

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