Laura Lippman’s bookshelves were out of control. The genius way she cleaned them out would change how she saw her shelves—and herself.

By Laura Lippman
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When I was a young intern at the Atlanta Constitution many years ago, the television critic returned from a California junket where reporters had been invited to tour the Malibu home of Larry Hagman, then at the height of his Dallas fame. (I said it was many years ago.) The critic laughed at how the writers had formed a line at Hagman’s bookshelves and begun jotting down
the titles, keen to find any detail that would make their stories distinctive. 

But I absorbed a different message: Your bookshelves define you. People walk into your home and create a narrative of who you are based on the books on display. 

And for more than 30 years, across eight moves and four states, I was in thrall to that idea. My bookshelves, c’est moi. Look how erudite I am, how eclectic! That one course in 18th- and early 19th-century Russian lit helped a lot there. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are commonplace, but what about Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time

I left college with at least six cartons of books, moving to Texas to work at newspapers where I initially made very little money. But that didn’t stop me from acquiring more books. In Waco, I bought them from secondhand stores and the remaindered table at B. Dalton at the mall. In San Antonio, I patronized Rosengren’s; when Rosengren’s went out of business, I bought some of their shelves to hold my burgeoning collection. I bought books in my hometown of Baltimore, along so-called Book Row, then all over New York City and New Orleans in the years that followed. I had so little self-control when it came to books that I inadvertently ended up with some valuable modern first editions, including Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees. Well, they would be valuable, except I like to read in the bathtub, which makes it difficult to keep hardcovers in the condition desired by collectors. 

I married, I divorced, I married again. My collection grew, was halved, then doubled like a punched-down loaf of dough. A librarian’s daughter, I kept my volumes in impeccable order, displaying the ones with the most serious literary cred in the living room. It’s not that reporters ever came to my house, but I still wanted to be able to pass that test. (A few years ago, a reporter did come to the house and wrote that I had a collection of books about bluegrass, which wasn’t even true, but it sounded cool at least.)

Not only did I never give away a book, but I replaced those that got away from me: James Crumley’s Dancing Bear, destroyed by a poolside splash; David Thomson’s Suspects, lost in the divorce. I prowled yard sales and library sales and eBay, stalking copies of my childhood favorites.

In 1997, I became a novelist, which opened a new pipeline of books—my own and those by other writers. Soon I had to get a storage unit for my novels, a downside of being a prolific writer contractually entitled to receive multiple copies of every edition. In 2015, I agreed to judge the National Book Award for Fiction, taking delivery of almost 500 books. Luckily, my real estate had expanded, and I had an office around the corner from my home, complete with a small anteroom where I could stash even more books. 

Now, when Marie Kondo took the world by storm in 2014, I, of course, bought her book. While I found it easy to donate clothes and other possessions, I laughed at the notion that one would ever give away books. Don’t all books spark joy? Jettisoning my books felt like clipping off pieces of my soul.

Until it didn’t.

I’m not sure what changed in early 2017. I wish I had a blinding epiphany or even an interesting accident to report—say, being trapped for days under a pile of books. But I found myself looking at my shelves and realizing they were not, in fact, a mirror. If anything, they were a carefully curated and alphabetized lie. I owned dozens, if not hundreds, of books I had yet to read. True, I had chosen them—I planned/hoped to read them—but was I really that different from someone who purchased books in bulk in order to arrange them for maximum decorative impact? 

Who cared what my books had to say about me? What did I have to say about my books?

Studying my shelves, I realized there were four categories: books I had read and may one day reread, those I had not read but hoped to, those I had read but was never going to reread, and those I was never going to read. The next thing I knew, I had gone into a culling frenzy, pulling almost 100 books in the latter two ­categories. 

What to do with them? As a resident of Baltimore, I had a terrific option called the Book Thing, a huge warehouse that accepts used books and then gives them away to anyone who wants them. But I knew myself. If I walked into the Book Thing, I’d walk out with more books. 

So I created the Mystery Box, a very random collection of 12 books that I give away monthly. A photo of the box, which has a shocking amount of personality for a brown-­paper package tied up with string, is posted on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter; everyone who shares the post is entered into a lottery to win the box. Since I began, in April 2017, Mystery Boxes have been shipped to destinations as close as my own hometown and as far away as Indonesia. To date, I have sent out almost 200 books for “adoption.” 

And while I thought the early boxes would be the best, I realized that the deeper I go into my shelves, the more likely I am to select books I sincerely love. 

Take the case of Author X, a British writer whose books I inhaled in the 1990s. She’s still publishing, but I’m not still reading, and not because she snubbed me at a festival last year. She wrote, and continues to write, a type of novel that I needed in my 30s but doesn’t speak to me now. Still, they’re delightful books. I wouldn’t include them in the Mystery Box if I didn’t feel I could endorse them.

Each recipient of the Mystery Box receives a letter saying the books are theirs to do with as they please but asking that the contents never be revealed on social media. In part, that’s because some writers might infer insult. But it’s also because I like to think that the Mystery Box should be, well, a mystery. To reveal the titles would be a kind of humblebrag. Oh, look at the caliber of what I’m giving away—can you imagine what I keep?

Plus, books keep coming and coming. You know how people talk about the books on their nightstands? My narrow Baltimore row house doesn’t have space for nightstands. Instead I have a custom-made console behind my bed, with a few volumes lined across the top. Then, in the corner, my husband and I have matching so-called floating bookshelves, vertical stands that can hold almost 60 books each. My TBR (to-be-read) pile almost reaches my hairline—and I’m five-foot-nine. You see, I give away books every month, but I also continue to buy books—five for me on my last trip to a bookstore, seven for my daughter, so that month was a push.

In one of my favorite childhood novels, The Long Secret, the sequel to the divine Harriet the Spy, a pious girl is scandalized when her mother uses a Bible to fan herself on a sultry day. She protests that the book is sacred. Her mother laughs: “Ain’t the book what’s sacred,” she says. “It’s what’s in the book that’s sacred.” 

It wasn’t my books that defined me, that shaped the writer I’ve become. It was what was in them—and what is now in me. My memory is a poor one, but I retain from books what I need to retain, usually one perfect image or a dazzling passage. Books deserve to be read, not preserved on shelves where they won’t be cracked open again in one’s lifetime. It’s a mitzvah to pass along titles that I love, a way of playing matchmaker between great writers and avid readers.

And so far the only judgment anyone has made about me based on my bookshelves is that I am hell on the jackets and spines, which is undeniably true. Yes, I still read in the bathtub. So if you should win the Mystery Box and receive a book that looks a little, well, wavy, please forgive me.

Crime writer Laura Lippman is the author of the Tess Monaghan series, a short-story collection, and 10 stand-alone novels, including her most recent, Sunburn ($12, amazon.com). She lives in Baltimore.