Beloved Books I’ve Given Away

an exercise in letting go
an exercise in letting go

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From my strait-laced childhood in the U.S.S.R., to my sa­vage adolescence in Israel, to my clandestine coming of age in Canada and Japan, I’ve always collected things obses­sively. Chief among these obsessions was the desire to possess, compare, categorize, and clas­sify—as a way of both understanding and escaping the maddeningly cruel world that surrounded me.

In 2022, I began to radically re­frame my value system and arrived at the inevitable con­clusion that I no longer wished to collect most things—let alone sequester them in my home, away from pleasure or use. I thus began to dis­pose of my many collections, most often by means of donation. But not all things can be given away.

On Christmas day that year, I incinerated the lion's share of my life's historical artifacts that had previously bound me to a noxious past. Having long known that everything is rheto­ric and fiction, I no longer needed physical artifacts to prove to others—let alone to myself—that everything that has happened to me had been real (as if objects ever could). Manuscripts, it turned out, could burn, beautifully. History, it turned out, was a nightmare from which one could awake.

It was then that I embarked upon a project that might seem unimaginable to a Soviet émigré: I began to give away the books from my library, including those that I have had with me since Russia, since Israel, since Japan—since for­ever. At first, the task seemed impossible, but soon I became pleasantly inured to the act of almost effortlessly passing on the mortal frame of a text to another. I was forced to admit that—for the texts I remembered most vividly and adored most ardent­ly—I had retained only a sort of colourised mental fac­simile, compared to which subse­quent perusals faded without fail.

The vaunted Russian tradition of repeated rereadings of a text, too, revealed to me to be nothing more than another domes­ticating pro­cess that muted meaning-making and stifled cri­tical exe­gesis by encouraging the revisiting the same fea­tures of the same text. I was forced to admit that, while in the worst-case scenario there were books so unremarkable that I had reread them with zero net gain, in the best-case scenario there were books that I came to love so much that . . . I wished to never read them again.

The classist obligation to read (and enjoy—the inability to do so always marked one a confirmed plebeian) an in­ter­minably dull list of classics has offended my sensibilities since the time I learned to make out the written word, when well-meaning members of the intelligentsia would bend down to me to ask, “What are you reading right now?” Harried, my an­swers were as performative and in­sincere as they were at my doc­toral candidacy exams, many decades later.

Today—whether I choose the agony of an in­subor­dinate line of a poem; or wish to care for a fig tree whose slender figure could make me weep; or fret over viands and potions, or the sun-gold dress I might wear for a languorous queer soirée—I have no debts left for dead wood. I might gladly answer, “Nothing, at the moment.”

This class of texts—that satisfies the mean-case sce­nario, in which those books that, as behooves a proper graduate school faker-fakir, I would not only never have any interest in reading in earnest but also would, in a thousand ways be able to imagine much better than ever could be writ—must be banished from my polis.

This ongoing project has not only given me the impetus to re­ëngage with works that I have (quite literally) not touched in decades—wheth­er by rereading a text before giving it away or by deciding to place a particular text into the long draw­er to improve its vintage—but also the opportunity to match the character of each beloved book that I give away with that of its recipient—all this with the steadfast know­ledge that any book I might truly wish to reëncounter would, should it wish it, without the penumbra of doubt, find its way back to me. 📚

I consider the following books to be very close to my heart. How­ever, some editions are out of print. If one of these books speaks to you as well, click its co­ver to see whether it is avail­able for purchase online.