03/31/2014 03:57 pm ET Updated May 31, 2014

The Art of Downsizing

Martine Roch via Getty Images

Books had been my parents' greatest treasures. When it came time to pare down, how could I help them let go?

When my parents moved into the house they built 20 years ago this spring, they slid 40 boxes of books down a set of two-by-six planks, through a window and into the basement. The books in those boxes had been their companions through nine moves, three children, two separations and two reconciliations. A few months ago, when they moved from that house -- the last one in which we had all lived together as a family -- and settled into a two-bedroom condo in the nearby adult community that we always joked they wouldn't "be caught dead in," the contents of those 40 boxes had to be condensed into four bookcases.

I encouraged them, as they pared down, to think of those literary companions as friends, some of whom you keep and others you let go of as you move through life. The process was exceedingly painful. As we discovered, discussing the purge, it was not just that there would be fewer books to read. It was that there would be fewer years in which to read them.

My parents' books formed the accidental décor of every house we lived in. They lined the unfinished pine bookshelves in the chintzy '80s living room of one house and cluttered every open space in another. Their titles were as familiar as dirty socks.

To my two siblings and me, they whispered clues about the weary adults whose arguing voices sometimes poured through the heating vents into our bedrooms late at night. Our parents' bookshelves were portals into their lives as teacher and journalist, into their married life and later, their lives as separated people.

For each of us, they were a departure of sorts from our middle-class routines and were more prized than the dog or the first new minivan parked in our driveway. And so, when it came time to part with our modest family jewels, the discussions became like a game of Family Feud in which we haggled over the value of every volume.

During "The Hemingway Negotiations," we decided that classics need not be saved - they could be repurchased anywhere, at any time. It was farewell to "A Farewell to Arms," then, followed by the Faulkner and Steinbeck titles. Textbooks, too, could surely go. No one would really go back to that Brit lit compendium. And those book sale titles that seemed like a good idea at the time? Chuck them. Oscar Wilde's sister's biography had sounded worthy, but there was valuable real estate at stake.
My parents would have to be ruthless in order to preserve what was really important. "Think of these four bookcases as your 'collection,'" I told them. "The books are a reflection of your interests and a record of your aspirations."

Stegner stayed for my father. Cather made the cut, along with Shakespeare, Hillerman and Alexie, a coterie of big names nestled next to the works of those less familiar but no less important: my mother's best friend, my father's colleagues.

I had a slightly more selfish agenda during those conversations. I saw their eventual selections as an archive of the things that mattered to our family: mountains, music and stories -- about people and places, the big, open world into which we had all spilled from our dusty western beginnings.

When I moved to New York from Denver in the mid-1990s, I packed a trunk full of shoes, one saucepan and my mother's entire Anaïs Nin collection. I don't think I knew at the time that Delta of Venus was that Delta of Venus. I just loved what it might say about me perched on a shelf in a New York City apartment. Of course, I know now that it said I was just a girl trying on a woman's life, but I can never pass by the worn black and white photo on the cover without thinking of my mother. I inherited her curiosity about things female, just like I will someday inherit her books.

My father has taken a comically morbid turn. During one recent conversation, he mentioned he had calculated how many books stood between him and the end of his life. This man, who throughout our youth had kept a handwritten list pinned to the kitchen bulletin board titled, "Books I Fully Intend to Read," had winnowed it down to less than 100. "I figure I've got 20 years to live and I normally can read five to 10 a year," he said. Did that mean he could finally give up on The Kingdom and the Power?

I am thinking about my 100. If only that many populated the time between now and the end of my life, would I want them to be the cherished titles I had read over and over? Would I find comfort in worn and faded spines or see them as outgrown relics? I have posed this same question to my parents about their second-phase library: Do you want to hold on to the ones you know or leave a shelf open for the unexpected and soon-to-be-released? There is never a right answer.