Rebuilding a library when you've left behind old books from an earlier life

I couldn’t afford to ship books all the way to Montreal: we were a family travelling with a baby on the way, and two rescue cats

B5H0YC Turkey Istanbul Beyazit the Sahaflar book market
Powered by automated translation

While I was a foreign correspondent living in Istanbul, I amassed a library of about 500 books. Then I became an immigrant and left the Middle East to resettle in Canada. I arrived with just six paperbacks that I split between our suitcases and backpack. I still mourn all the ones I had to give up.

I always tried to make sure that books were near at hand wherever I lived. I learned to read for pleasure at an early age by watching my father as well as my grandfather, who was an author. I amassed an eclectic mix of tomes over the years. There were the Stephen King novels I picked out for my birthdays (I would ask whoever was getting me a gift what their budget was and then would take them book shopping for the amount). There was sci-fi by Arthur C Clarke, Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Watchmen. Countless books unravelling the modern Middle East's conflicts and investigating the provenance of extremism.

Part of me is worried I'll have to give up all my books again. Another is self-conscious, thinking through which ones I want my son to have as he grows up

Works of popular success by Elif Shafak and Margaret Atwood mingled easily with the classics, JRR Tolkien, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the poetry of Abu Nuwas. Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking sat next to treatises on theology and the latest self-improvement fad books that were bought in the new year haze. A new year, a new you. But the new you was always overrated. I’d rather have clung to the vestiges of my past selves.

I hadn't read about half of the books in my library. Books transcended their usefulness in my mind as material objects that had, excuse the pun, a shelf life. Like a well-kept journal, they reminded me of who I was, of what I had gone through and that I had always come out on the other side. Certain books became associated in my mind with major events in my life. I remember the Jon Ronson book I was reading when my brother called to tell me that my father had died, and the first time I tried my hand at writing after reading King's memoir, On Writing.

I never understood why anybody would give up books after reading them. Even when I was done with them, their presence and scent comforted me in a somewhat mundane sense, like a candle burning in the dark or a simmering stew whose aroma wafts across the house.

When the time came to leave for Canada, I did not have an immediate job in mind. Suddenly, I had to contemplate what to do with my books. We were a family travelling together with a baby on the way and two rescue cats who had been with me for years. I couldn't afford to ship a dozen boxes full of books all the way to Montreal.

So we put them up for sale. Strangers and friends came, feeling their way along the spines of the hardcovers on my bookshelves, picking out those that struck their fancy. I helped them choose ones out of my favourites that I knew they would love. If they were bookworms, they got some for free. My heart broke with each book that left. Selling them almost felt profane, so I ended up giving away a few dozen towards the end.

I left with half a dozen books to read. Among them were Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, and Storm of Steel, a book by Ernst Junger, a German officer stationed on the Western Front during World War I, The Return by Hisham Matar, and a couple of Arabic books that were gifted to me by friends.

I haven’t read any of the ones I saved. It feels too much like turning the page on a life I still cling to. When you leave home, whatever home is, you are primed for the big changes and sacrifices – the neighbourhood, the old job, the friends and family.

But it is often the little things you give up that leave you wallowing in nostalgia, questioning your decision to uproot an earlier life. The smell of the old coffee place. The way the light shines through your old window. The keepsake that broke or somehow lost its way as you were packing up your life. The dog-eared copies of your old books.

I am rebuilding my library now, but it feels a little less frivolous in its range. Part of me is worried I’ll have to give up all my books again. Another is self-conscious, thinking through which ones I want my son to have as he grows up. If he ends up liking reading, I hope he never has to give up his favourite books. Or perhaps I hope he’s less attached to ephemera. It makes it easier when you move around to not be dragged down by so much baggage.

Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent based in Canada