Holiday Shopping From Your Shelves

A few months ago, I faced a confounding problem. My bookshelves were packed so tightly that I couldn't even shove in a copy of Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader, which is a very skinny novella. I knew that I had too many books, but the idea of getting rid of any filled me with sadness.

My "library" falls into three categories: 1) Books I've read and loved; 2) Books I plan to read someday, probably, maybe; and, 3) Books I've read and disliked. In the past, faced with the predicament of over-burdened shelves, I had, on occasion, forced myself to cull from Category #3 (Anyone interested in a copy of Little Bee?). But Categories #1 and #2 were sacred.

"Take some to Goodwill," said my husband, who hates that we have so much stuff.

Normally, I would reject out of hand the idea of giving away such a direct expression of my personality. But, that day, my husband's commonsensical request inspired me.

"I'll give some away," I told him. It seemed that passing beloved books along to family and friends might somehow mitigate the loss I'd feel from no longer having them myself.

So began a project that, though occasionally confounding, was also surprisingly satisfying. I outline the process here, during the gift-giving season, because you may want try it with your own collection. For me, the act of giving away books not only loosened up the space on my shelves, but it also offered gratifications that gift cards from iTunes could never provide.

First, select ten or, if you can bear it, twenty books you love (Yes, we're talking about Category #1 here). This may be painful, but, remember, even if it is your favorite novel, you don't need a hardcover and a paperback of Bel Canto.

Second, decide on a recipient for each book. This is the tricky part. Shopping from your shelves is a backwards-shopping experience. Focus on the book and ask yourself, "Who would love this?" Do not, therefore, stare at your pile and wonder, "Which one of these would work for Aunt Kitty?" You may find, as I did, that you don't end up sending a single thing to Aunt Kitty but that an old friend from graduate school, with whom you may not have spoken in ages, receives your dog-eared copy of Lonesome Dove simply because you know he'll love it. If this process strikes you as inefficient, remind yourself that the best gifts are inspired by the urges of the heart and, in any case, Aunt Kitty needs a new purse.

Third, send a group email to the people to whom you've designated books. Explain your project and inform them that, at some point in the near future, a package will arrive for them. Do not, however, divulge any of your human-literary cross-species love matches. This tantalizing email will plant the seeds of anticipation in the minds of your lucky recipients and, perhaps more importantly, prohibit you from changing your mind. You've made a promise to them, and they'll be waiting.

All that's left is wrapping up, addressing, and mailing your ten or twenty packages (note: since you already sent your explanatory email, you don't have to include a card, which means that, fittingly, you can send your packages at the discounted book rate!)

Some of my pairings, though unexpected, did make obvious sense. A photography book about Hurricane Katrina went to a friend who had recently moved to New Orleans. Other choices were more idiosyncratic. I sent Michael Faber's brilliant novel The Crimson Petal and the White to my friend Carolyn, not because I thought she would love the Dickensian world that Faber created (though she would) but because the book goes on for 800 pages, and I knew that Carolyn, who wakes up to read for two hours every morning at dawn, was insatiable enough to try it. I think that part of the fun for my friends was not so much the book itself (who doesn't already have a copy of Anna Karenina?) so much as figuring out, Why did Dana send this book to me?

And, Reader, it moved them. I got so many thank you notes that one might have thought I'd sent out signed first editions of Freedom, not tattered copies of Lee Smith and George Eliot. Though I began the project as an effort at clearance, my recipients seemed to like that I'd chosen books especially for them and sent them out of the blue. Carolyn, for example, responded to my email with a description of the unread books on her nightstand, then added, as any voracious reader would, "I CAN'T WAIT FOR YOURS!!!!!"