Books that have tortured me.

I am tortured by my books. This is not an uncommon feeling to have. Many people buy books they wish they were reading and then do not read them. Other people are tortured by the obsessive need to repurpose books. Like David Bouley turning books into bricks.

I do not have those particular forms of book torture. I have others.

My first book torture was that I was a latchkey kid in the extreme sense. Like, my parents came home at 8pm and my brother and I used taxi cabs and store credit largely unsupervised. It was hard to get their attention for anything that did not involve physical or mental abuse, but one thing they were always up for was a book recommendation. So I read what they told me to read.

My mom recommended So Big, by Edna Ferber. It’s about how money doesn’t matter because only love matters. Which was incomprehensible to a young girl whose parents gave only money.

My dad recommended Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. There is a lot of sex in that book. That’s all I remember. Of course, because my dad was sexually abusing me.

My torture just went on like that until I got to be old enough to choose my own books.

It was torture living in a family of book collectors and feeling a need to own every book I read. So I stole them. I stole books from our family bookstore. Maybe 500 in all. My grandma owned the store, and all the employees knew but no one told my grandma, probably because she wouldn’t believe them.

Then I moved to Los Angeles to play professional beach volleyball. I had no money. I slept on the floor of a studio apartment with no kitchen. I had no clothes except for those that I wore to the beach. I used the last dollars I had to ship my books to my apartment. My parents visited, saw that I had no bed, no kitchen and no clothes, and then went home and sent me a package.

Of books. My dad had inherited my great grandfather’s book collection, and the part he sent to me was the pornography.

This was after he had apologized for sexually abusing me.

“Dad, you sent me the pornography collection.”

“I know,” he said, “I thought, of everyone in the family, you’re the one who would like it best. ”

I don’t need to tell you that that was torture. I sold the books. They were first editions. Check out Aphrodite and Venus in Furs. These are not cheap books.

And, while I was at it, I sold all the first editions I had from my collection of stolen books.

Book cleansing.

Still, I probably have about 1000 books in the house today. Which is not very many if you grow up in a family that thinks the size of their book collection reflects the size of their IQ.

But now I have this blog that’s great for selling books. So publishers send me books. So many books that I often open the package, look at it, and throw it in the trash.

But then I noticed some of my garbage pile was showing up on Matthew’s nightstand.

“Put that in the garbage,” I told him.

“I took it out. I want to read it.”

“No. It’s my book. And I want it in the garbage.”

“I’ll throw it out when I’m done.”

“Fine. How long until you’re done?”


“I don’t want book accumulation.”

We made a deal that he can take books out of the trash if he puts them back within a week.

But he started finding good books. For example, Matthew liked The Time Warrior, by Steve Chandler.

“Why are you reading that?” I said.

“Because he says just do one thing. That’s his mantra. I love that.”

I noticed that he was so pleased with his pile of exonerated books on his nightstand.

So I tried it. I put Senia Maymin’s book there: Profit from the Positive. She’s a friend, and she has taught me so much about learning to be happy. And she specializes is using positive psychology in business, so how could I not read that book?

The other book on my nightstand is Dan Schawbel’s Promote Yourself. I put it there because Dan is a friend and my favorite critic of the book industry. You know someone’s really passionate about hating the book industry when the only place you can read about him hating it is on my blog. His hatred is too lethal for his own audience.

Matthew said, “Is that Dan the guy you’re doing your salary negotiation webinar with?”

“Yeah. How do you know him?”

“Because I hear you apologizing every week that you are postponing the webinar another week. Can I see his book?”

So Matthew is learning how to promote the brand of Matthew.

And I am learning how to make piles of books. I have been more generous about what I keep. Noa Kagayama recommended that I read The Sports Gene. He says it will appeal to my obsession with excellence. The old me would have read the New York Times book review and called it a day. But I bought the book and put it in my new reading pile.

Matthew has noticed my piles of books around the house. And this is my last form of book torture, actually. Because I want to control what books he has in the house, because his books are clutter. But I like my own piles of books. The inequities of marriage are torture, and trying to justify them to ourselves is even worse.

“Are you upset about my piles of books?” I ask him. “I know it’s not fair.”

He says, “They remind me of those piles of stones Koreans make so that they get good luck. Cairns. I think that’s the name. It’s a statement of hope. I’m happy for you.”


51 replies
  1. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    You’re really the control type!

    I think my husband would be happier if he reads your blog, because then he knows he’s not alone – he has Matthew.

    • Lisa Gulli Popkins
      Lisa Gulli Popkins says:

      I am so happy you made the decision to survive, Penelope! The entire planet is so much richer for the decision that young girl made to move through all that toxic waste and bloom, Thank you.

  2. Reid Yamamoto
    Reid Yamamoto says:

    I knew you were a huge reader because it’s evident in your writing. Nobody could write the way you do without having done some serious reading. I too, am fond of books, and I was a former “book hoarder.” My solution was to move all the non-essential books to the garage and keep only the 20 top essential tomes in my room. The books in the garage get donated to charity if I haven’t referred back to them in a year.

  3. Sheena
    Sheena says:

    Urgh. So many books…so little time. I’m an addict and I indulge in every book format. Last week, I ordered a bell hooks title from ThriftBooks. The week before, I downloaded Lean Startup from Audible. This week, because I’m signed up for the Discount Books Daily email newsletter, I found out The Power of Why, by C. Richard Weylman was on sale for 1.99 (ebook) — couldn’t pass that up. Maybe I should give myself a “one week to read” rule. It’s getting out of hand.

  4. linda
    linda says:

    this is the best part:

    Matthew has noticed my piles of books around the house. And this is my last form of book torture, actually. Because I want to control what books he has in the house, because his books are clutter. But I like my own piles of books. The inequities of marriage are torture, and trying to justify them to ourselves is even worse.

    “Are you upset about my piles of books?” I ask him. “I know it’s not fair.”

    He says, “They remind me of those piles of stones Koreans make so that they get good luck. Cairns. I think that’s the name. It’s a statement of hope. I’m happy for you.”

    we need to be happy for people who don’t do everything the same way we do. i’ll work on it–and my piles.

  5. John
    John says:

    What a beautiful post. Matthew sounds like an amazing man.

    BTW, he’s right about The Time Warrior. I downloaded it on his recommendation an hour ago and I already love it (and have filled it with highlighting.)

  6. Laura Hamilton
    Laura Hamilton says:

    It’s kind of funny that you have piles of books, but you don’t let Matthew have piles of books. But at least you are self-aware and transparent about your double standard :-)

  7. Alexis
    Alexis says:

    I love shopping for books. It had crept up on me and now is easily my #3 hobby. And because I like to live like it’s 1984, I like all books in paper copy. So I have stack issues too. I’ve solved(ish) this issue by putting them in bins. Periodically I go through the bins and I find that books I “loved so hard” 2 years ago don’t really speak to me and they get swooped into the library donation pile. Thus making room for new books.

    Which is key because, as we all know, shopping for books is AWESOME :)

  8. Coach Oz
    Coach Oz says:

    Great post Penelope. All the reading you do shows in your beautiful ability to write. I really enjoy your blog. Thanks for mentioning Dan Schawbel’s book, he also has a great blog which I enjoy reading. I’m gonna try and give his book a read.

  9. Derek Scruggs
    Derek Scruggs says:

    I got rid of a ton of my books a few years ago by donating them to the library. I also converted all my CDs to digital and donated them as well. I still have books, but I only keep those I think I’m likely to read more than once. So nice to have less clutter in the house.

  10. rachel
    rachel says:

    Book torture is such a great way to describe it. I have about 20+ books around the house which are keepers, and my kindle now has about 111 since I just bought Schawbel’s and Maymin’s that I need to read. I used to repurpose books too.

    Growing up I remember a lot of books around my parents’ house, but my parents just stopped buying books after a while. Reading your post just made some things click as to why that I hadn’t thought of before.

    Reading is such a gift. I’ll never take it for granted. I can’t imagine not reading something every day and I’ll appreciate it as long as I possibly can.

  11. JFBB
    JFBB says:

    I am dying to hear more about Dan Schawbel’s hatred of the industry and what he, and you, have to say about it. I love your post where you describe basically single-handedly demolishing the plan for your book that the PR/marketing dept of a publisher came up with. I want to know every horrible thing about it, everything that is backwards and wrong because then I’ll be able to figure out where the future in publishing lies.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Slamming the book industry is very similar to slamming higher education. The very peoplple who love books and learning and have benefitted the most are the most effective critics of the institutionalized delusions and dishonesty. I think this is why I love reading rants about both topics.


  12. Gary Sarratt
    Gary Sarratt says:

    Hello. My name is Gary, and I’m a bookaholic. My ratio of acquired to read is maybe 7:1. I can’t stop, and my schoolwork is pretty unforgiving. I’ve recently also begun collecting unread Kindle books. Someday, I keep telling myself, someday…

    • Gary Sarratt
      Gary Sarratt says:

      Btw, I wish to recommend Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It has improved my reading immensely, as well as my creative writing ability–which drives my professors nuts when I turn in MLA style papers. While I’m here, can any of you fine folks tell me how to rotate my photo, gah!

      • Diana
        Diana says:

        I read mostly nonfiction, and I agree that King’s On Writing is amazing. Too bad so many are put off by his main genre and will skip over this little gem. I have a well worn copy and have given many as gifts.

        • Gary
          Gary says:

          He has made me very conscious of adverbs. When I write one, I feel the heat of his glare, and I will try my best to get by without it!

  13. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    I always feel so bad for you when you write about your childhood. I’m amazed you survived with the desire to be a good mother and provide a good home for your boys. I love that. I love what Mathew said about your books too, wonderful.

    I’m a lover of books. My man built a whole wall of bookshelves last week, and we filled them up with the books we both had in boxes, in storage. I keep finding more in closets, stacked near my bed, under my bed, everywhere. I love having a place for them all now. I think it’s the most beautiful place in the house, and cannot wait to read them all. It’s my new goal, to make my way through the shelves…… Books…..bring’em on!

  14. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    There is only one thing that I don’t love about this post–the throwing away. Why not wait until you have a tub-full – shouldn’t be too long- and then donate them to your local library?

    I know, it’s nit-picky. I can’t help it. I see so many kids and families who don’t have *any* books, and aren’t even taken to the library. Surely yours could benefit someone?

    PS-Matthew is good for you.
    Sarah M

    • Pete
      Pete says:

      I try to drop my no-longer-wanted books at the nearby Goodwill. Thankfully, it’s only a short hop down the road.

      I try to buy eBooks wherever it’s cost-effective and useful to do so– I got over the book collection vanity after the last move, finally. I don’t think I will ever have space or time to make use of/manage a huge collection again. Better just to “rightsize” that to where it’s appropriate for me.

  15. Jo
    Jo says:

    Your survival skills are amazing.

    You don’t really put the books you are finished with in the garbage though, do you? If that is for real, can you donate them maybe, instead? Just two cents from a librarian’s daughter who was taught to treat all books with great respect.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks, Larry. Sometimes I think that the topic of my blog is resilience, and careers is just my favorite tool I use for developing my own resilience.


  16. Biron C
    Biron C says:

    Great article! It wasn’t what I was expecting based on the title but I enjoyed it a lot.

    I love the term “book cleansing”! I can definitely relate

  17. Karen Burgess
    Karen Burgess says:

    Hi, Penelope! I subscribe to your blog. Loved this post – I’m a big reader. My parents are, too, which is a good thing because to them, books are not about how smart you are… they are about how open you are to new experiences. Still, you don’t have to be a book-hoarder to enjoy books. Between the used book store, the library and book-loving friends, you don’t have to buy and keep every book you want to read.

    I also thought you might be interested to know that I bought your friend Dan’s book and recommended The Sports Gene to my husband. The way you spoke about those books made me think they’d be worth the time! Thanks.

  18. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I try to allot at least an hour before I walk into a book store. I usually have a particular book or subject in mind before going there. However, I treat the store as my own personal library. First, I look over and “research” the book(s)/subject that drove me there to begin with. Then, I do quick scans of some books that catch my interest as I case the rest of the store. Then, I go back to pick up my book(s) to buy if I found them. That’s pretty much my routine.
    Your photo on this blog at the top right of the page has what appear to be wine bottles in the background. A lot of people like to be photographed at their desk with rows of books behind them. Maybe to send the message they are accomplished and well read. Maybe that’s why I read this blog. :)

  19. Paul Hassing
    Paul Hassing says:

    Hi, P. I sold half my books in a decluttering frenzy some years ago. I asked my wife if she wished to array her shoes on the empty shelves. She did. Now they’re off our floor. And she can find the right pair each morning. And we get on very well indeed! Kind regards, P. :)

  20. karelys
    karelys says:

    To this day I remember your post about putting lipstick on when you go on a date. It’s a statement of trying for the marriage.

    I stopped going to church. I am not sure what I think of the spiritual stuff for right now.

    But when things are hard and I am too overwhelmed to think of a creative solution I pray. And it’s hard to pray because I am not sure I believe it and I don’t know what I am praying to.

    Right now, I see clearly that praying is that pile of rocks, a statement of hope.

  21. Rainer
    Rainer says:

    I have a stack of books in my room, on the floor, that I stare at at least once or twice a day, and they also torture me. mostly because it’s like looking at a bunch of different people with so many opinions that are so different and varied from my own. And to tell you the truth it just stresses me out. At one point in my life I used to relish over intellectual diversity, but now I’m finding it chaotic and overly complex.

    I’m also one of those people that have enjoyed the benefits of higher education and books – but am now a huge critic of each.

    I’m just a sucker for keeping things simple. So I understand why you’d want to keep books in your house to a minimum.

    I can’t believe what you’ve gone through and come out of, you’re a modern day hero!

  22. al
    al says:

    Hey, P! How about getting Matthew & the boys to build/stock a “Little Free Library” — the idea is to take a book, & leave a book.

    The idea was the brainchild of a fellow Wisconsinite(!) & it’s caught on all over the country.

    Granted, you live out in the boondocks, but still: With all those crazy books you have, I bet you’d have a uniquely fab library!

    Check it out:

  23. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I’m thinking a good blog post would be – “Links that have tortured me”. Because that’s what they do to me. Like where did I see that link, when did I see that link, and how did I happen to come across that link. And then there’s the administration of links for easy retrieval later. There are so many ways, devices, and applications available that it can be mind boggling to settle on just one. As if that were not enough, then there is the issue of broken links. The saving grace of links is they don’t occupy physical space. Well, no physical space other than electronic device and cerebral space.

  24. Monica
    Monica says:

    Oh I love books, I don’t know how you could throw them away. Couldn’t they be donated or given to the library, surely they’re not that bad?

  25. Thomas E. Stone
    Thomas E. Stone says:

    Been following your blog for a long time and while I am really not your demographic I love your writing and wisdom and have always loved your bookish past and obvious bibliomania. Perhaps a more basic disorder of mind than anyone realizes.

    As I am restarting my dreams of surviving and thriving in the word of book collecting and private library consulting and development I was thrilled to be able to link to you with my first posting back in the game. Really a thanks for leading the way for so many…..

  26. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    I had a similar need for books but thru the library. My fav fiction is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I still read it every Christmas. In the book, Francie Nolan’s goal was to read every book in the library, “not skipping the dry ones” I had the same goal. I made it to the G’s, then I became a teenager….but the need to “drink it all in” was necessary and comforting….I found out my father had the same need when he was put in a home for boys for 9 years…books and sports were his savior…it brought us closer….

  27. Jack
    Jack says:

    Highly educated family, great lovers of books, but no hoarders, at least not that I’m aware of…

    At one point, I thought it would be interesting to collect first editions, but I believe a book is meant to be read, and great ones are meant to be shared.

    We keep 3 book cases in our home. All our books have to fit on the book cases. If new books come in, old books go away.

    It keeps us honest.

    At least until the bookcases magically start growing larger…

    • mh
      mh says:

      We had three bookcases. We were young and we moved around a lot and we were good about keeping our books fitting into three bookcases. Whoops, when we started traveling for work we ended up with a LOT more books. And we have arcane hobbies that require older, maybe even out of print books. Which must be bought, read, stored, referred to, and re-read.

      And the children, the children.

      20 years later, we have 15 bookcases. I make no excuses about this. I am considering starting a co-op library with other passionate readers (but I *might just need* some more bookcases if I were to begin that project). And I have a pile of five books… FIVE!… that I am currently reading. As in, I read some in each book today; finished two.

      It is entirely possible to have a nice life with only three bookcases. I have vague but happy memories of those days.

  28. Dan White
    Dan White says:

    Although I have enjoyed Penelope’s blog from time to time, I have to say that her continual self-flagellation gets a bit formulaic and tedious. Lots of morbid (and unfounded) self-diagnosis, improbable confession and, well, vacuous junk. I sat in on one of her webinars recently, and noticed she isn’t shy of telling people who have paid $150 for her courses to “Fuck Off” or to “Go and Fuck Yourself” when they asked a question (something I have noticed from past blog posts she is not above telling her kid to do). Money well spent (?). I guess as long as she is writing about sex with her partner, her silly self-absorbed diagnosis and feigned controversy. The good thing about the web is that it gives us a choice, and I for one won’t be back: tedious, sad and boring site this has become. I feel sorry now for Penelope, who in the long term is likely to be forgotten, as she is unlikely to thrive unless she is the centre of attention. Moreso, I feel sorry for her husband, whose sexual activities, comments and attitudes will constantly be interpreted for the world through Penelopes bloodshot eyes. Her son though… God help him. So. Bye, I won’t be back, the Blog was good once, but the formulas the same, and its now just dull, and I have no doubt this monotony, self obsession and silliness extends to Quistic, which I couldn’t possibly recommend to anyone.

  29. Linda Leyble
    Linda Leyble says:

    Hi Penelope. Great post – but I am feeling so bad for the younger you that had to endure your parents/family. Mostly, the sexual abuse. How the heck did you recover from that? It’s too bad your dad gave you Sister Carrie to read when you were going through what you were going through. It is a really good book. The underlying theme of the book is that man is not fully responsible for his actions…man is still in process of evolving (still half animal with animal instincts). Maybe that’s one reason he may have given you the book. Dreiser’s sisters were prostitutes – and he probably needed a way to forgive them and others their sins. He believed in the Spenserian theory of evolution. (Sorry – my English major-ness is showing!).

    Anyway – glad to know you. I am in the class you are co-teaching with Maria Killiam. Very excited to attend the webinar.

    Thanks for you post…


  30. Evy
    Evy says:

    I can completely understand you throwing the books away. Of course they should be donated – but sometimes the “just donate” is like a mountain that needs to be climbed. I too collect books. And I have a small house. And a husband who doesn’t really see the point of having lots of books around that’s already been read.
    So I try to go through the stack of books and put some in boxes. I tell myself to throw out one book a week. And then the pile is there, ready to get donated.
    But taking the time out to actually take the books there seem to be another huge task that needs to be done. Amongst all the other tasks that should have been done weeks and months ago.
    So they stay on the deck for weeks, stressing me out, and the only way of getting the task of removing the books from our house done is to throw them in the rubbish bin. Even if it makes me feel sick.

  31. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    I am so sorry that you were hurt by both parents in different ways. You are as good as you can be and they were not. It’s unfair and unkind.

  32. Kyle Jones
    Kyle Jones says:

    This was a great read; however, my comment focuses more on the title. Kudos! The title immediately caught my attention and prompted me to read it first before others that I had not had the time to read yet.

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