Books, Books, Books!

This post is part of the #Purge365 series about a midlife journey through a year of purging a house – and a life – of unnecessary things. Click here to see all previous posts.

One aspect of Project #Purge365 I didn’t quite foresee was how pleasantly it would organize itself into themes.

Last week’s theme, without any prior planning, was books.

It began when I rifled through the stack on my night stand, where I discovered reading material I had forgotten I had (while lamenting the lack of new reading material). This is another aspect I love about this project: it often results in a double bonus. I now have a tidy night stand and new books to read.

The next day, I finished Becoming by Michelle Obama. (If you haven’t read Becoming, you should. It’s that simple. Read my review of it on my other blog, Joburg Expat.)

Since I now needed a place for Michelle in my “biography” section, that day’s purge again turned to books. Because dang it if I could fit it in, the shelf was too full already. So I rifled through the other works to see which one I might ban somewhere else. I came across Pat Buchanan’s Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, a hand-signed copy no less. Sounds interesting enough, until you remember who Pat Buchanan is. The man is a Nixon apologist, he has stirred racial and homophobic resentment of the worst kind for decades, he has spoken out many times in favor of “white dominance,” he once made excuses for the man who murdered 77 people in Norway in one of the worst hate crimes of modern history, and he has even dabbled in Holocaust denial.

There was no way I would put him (and, incidentally, a historically questionable piece of work) next to one of the most inspirational women on Earth.

Why, you’ll ask, did I have this book in the first place?

It harkens back to the days when Noisette and I were firmly in the grip of the corporate world. His company held annual retreats where top-performing salesmen (and their spouses, thank you very much), were flown to exotic locations and showered with lavish gifts. And treated to roundtable discussions featuring important people in business, politics and entertainment.

It wasn’t always serious, mind you. My all-time favorite was the time John Cleese delivered a biting monologue about his then-recent divorce. It wasn’t even that funny, but as a huge fan of A Fish Called Wanda, I loved seeing and hearing him perform.

But to get John Cleese, we also had to take Pat Buchanan. It’s like buying a Cable TV bundle. To get ESPN and Showtime, you also have to take the Home Shopping Network and The Hallmark Channel. (Incidentally, also present with Pat Buchanan was George Bush the Elder, whose hand-signed book All the Best, George Bush has a home next to Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope on my bookshelf. If you haven’t read these letters George Bush wrote over the course of his life, you should give the book a try. Even if you are not a fan, even if you count all his missteps, you will realize that he was a decent man who treated people with respect.)

Clearly, Mr. Buchanan needed to go from my bookshelf. But do you know what? I couldn’t bring myself to remove him from my house entirely. I blame this reluctance on my almost visceral dislike of censorship. Perhaps it grew out of a childhood spent reading Mickey Mouse comics late at night under the covers by flashlight. I always made sure to turn it off when I heard footsteps coming from the living room on the way to the toilet down the hall, halting my breath until they were gone again and I could safely return to my illicit booty (which I had borrowed from my best friend who suffered no such censorship at home).

Why the cloak-and-dagger routine? I was simply terrified of my mother. She wasn’t a helicopter mom in any sense of today’s meaning of the word, but she had three iron-clad principles: No drugs, no what she called “Hottentot music”*, and no comic strips. When it came to the dangers facing her children, intellectual contamination by poor reading choices was on par, in her opinion, with eventual death from an overdose.

Do you remember The Name of the Rose by Umberto Ecco? It was such a great book back in the day, which was later made into a movie with Sean Connery. It’s a work of historical fiction set in a medieval monastery, the plot centered around the idea of censorship and the power of people’s thirst for knowledge. Curiosity always wins over censorship and only increases the urge to go into forbidden territory. It’s a powerful principle that has always stayed with me.

If I had to define my own parenting principle I have never budged from, I would say that it is trust. From when my kids were very little, I have never once declared any book “forbidden” to them. It’s simply against my nature. I have, on rare occasions, refused to read certain works to them. Captain Underpants was one of those. But I encouraged them to read it on their own, figuring that any kind of reading that might foster the habit is good reading, even a terrible comic strip about, well, a character named after an undergarment.

My inability to purge books extends to magazines as well. We have a National Geographics collection spanning five or more years, occupying an inordinate amount of shelf space. At one point, I had the glorious idea of making my kids pick an issue, find a story of interest on any topic, and make a report back to the family the following Sunday night. Needless to say, a slow-rising rebellion quickly grew into full-fledged mutiny, and this grand idea of my kids’ intellectual enlightenment fizzled out. I take solace in Mom-in-Chief role model Michelle Obama. Even she had to give up a similar quest when taking her girls to DC museums and landmarks one summer break.

“For a while, I required the girls to write up a little report after each visit, summarizing what they had learned, though eventually they started protesting and I let the idea go,” she says on page 331 of Becoming.

If Michelle Obama can’t get a family educational initiative off the ground, who am I to even try? I feel a lot better about this.

In any case, here is where I have reached my limits with #Purge365. At the end of this year, I will still have five large bookshelves – not counting the kids’ rooms – filled to the brim with books we have collected over the years, and I will not have purged a single one of them.

Maybe one day I will need to whittle down my personal library by necessity. But until then, my books are here to stay, Pat Buchanan included. Perhaps his signature will fetch a lot of money in some post-Apocalyptic world where his ilk reigns, a world in which my kind is forced to wear red robes and white bonnets and is no longer allowed to possess any books at all.

*  I can honestly say that this was not fueled by any racial prejudice; she simply could never remember how to say “Rock ‘n Roll.”

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