Saturday, September 18, 2010

Book Burning, Revisited

As America slowly awakens to the fact that our influence in the world is becoming less, we will have to come to terms with the idea of "less" on a personal scale as well.  The fundamentals of our economy have been crumbling for decades, but fortunately, we could rely on plain consumer demand and easy credit to prop us up, putting off the inevitable fall and kicking the proverbial can down the road.

Perhaps this isn't all bad.  Do we really "need" all of this stuff?  Do we need these McMansions in the suburbs?  Hell, do we even want them?  More and more people are embracing the ideas of simplicity, frugality and minimalism as a personal response to what they see as consumerism gone viral.  What may have begun as a necessary response to a downsized income or career opportunities is gaining traction as a potentially more fulfilling way of life.  Owning less means spending less, and that goes for time as well as money.

As mentioned in my previous post on the "Great Book-Burning of 2010," I have been doing some scaling down of my own.  Part of my daily "to-do" list is to eliminate one thing.  I can donate it, sell it, or throw it away.  This is easier said than done, as I run into practical and sentimental excuses of why I should keep a particular possession.  For me, and for a lot of people, books are one thing that I find very hard to get rid of.  I like having lots of books around.  I like how they look and feel, but when I am being honest, I mostly like how they make me feel about myself.  Owning lots of books makes me feel intelligent, informed, educated, and other pleasant fictions.  I am realizing that I hang onto them like trophies, instead of viewing them as important for their true value, which is the information, insights and exposure to new ideas that their pages contain.  As such, I do not need to "own" these objects, I just need to own the words inside.  I can read them, think about them, write about them, and adopt them into part of my overall life philosophy.  And then, I should pass them along, to friends, family or the library, so that other people can do the same.

I am pretty much done with getting rid of books for now.  I went through a massive purge when I first started this experiment, and have been slowing eliminating more, in ones and twos, as they individually fail to meet my requirements to be kept.  I am keeping some, and this is how I have decided to go about it:

Will I read this book again, or want to refer to it often for quotes, statistics or individual passages?
If so, it makes the first cut.  Lots of good books do not make it through this first round.

Is this book easily accessible through the library?
This is where most of the classics, like "1984," "The Jungle," and "Brave New World" got the axe.  I will certainly want to read them again at some point, but books like this will be at any library, with a few dozen copies of each. 

Do I really, really need this book?
For everything that made it this far, I take it in my hands and really try to envision a situation in which I need to actually OWN the book.  Here were some more tough choices.  Even though I think most of what Tim Ferris, author of "The Four Hour Workweek" is selling is mostly bullshit, the first few chapters were very motivating and inspirational.  Because of that, his book made it to the final stage.  I eventually decided to get rid of it because most of what he talks about in this section is available on his and other blogs.  So no, I don't really, really need it.

What I am left with is a little over 20 books, a few backpacking and camping guides, some maps of trails that I will be exploring again, and some reference manuals on backcountry medicine and staying alive in the woods.  For the last category, I like taking along one of these in any longish camping trip in the know, just in case.

Apart from these two dozen or so that I have resolved to keep, I have another larger supply of books that I have not read yet, but still have an interest in doing so.  I have given myself six months to read them, marked the date on my calendar, and will get rid of anything unfinished at that time.



linda said...

This still makes me sad.
I like my books. I do try to get rid of the ones I know for sure I do not like at ALL. (Janet Evanovich)
but I like my books. the more extensive the library the more happy I am.

Claire Kiefer said...

Okay so I'm trying to purge today, but I just can't do it with books. Some were my grandfather's, some were from my time in college/grad school, some are my very favorites, others I have yet to read (ONE DAY, ha!). The feeling of a library-like environment in my living room is so comforting and wonderful to me . . . I am trying to remember your words as I clean and purge today, but I'm not so sure it's gonna work when it comes to my shelves. :(

JS said...

My mother is an English teacher that has a Master's in Literature, she is also my personal library. Anytime I go by their house I take a stack of books that i would like to read. Most of them are classics readily accessibly at the city library, but I can check them out for as long as I want.

So I guess I'm somewhat with you on this one. The only books I actually own are books that will get more than one read or are reference books that help with my lifestyle.

I salute you however because I would have a difficult time getting rid of any books. I own day want a huge office full of books.

Alison said...

So now you have chucked out a load of books you have room for an alpaca?

Barnes said...

Jesus...I just bought 4 books and I am genuinly trying to save money and reduce my overall consumption....I went to the Bookstore specifically for one book, ended up getting 4. They are all fairly good looking books, by that I mean they are informational and all of them address topics I find myself consistently more involved in intellectually and socially, so, I have good excuses. But excuses are just that, oh and another one, Libraries here are not much of an option unless I am planning to spend 4 months reading 100 pages of japanese.
Anyway....I am swamped...the more I read and study the more I need to read and study.

Excellent post by the way.

Keep your head down by the way (got your mail)charming city you are living in.

Venom said...

Just wondering, are you scaling back so sharply so that you can disappear for a year or so? Perhaps tackling the rainforests of Brazil with nothing more that what you can carry on your back (AND the massai spear, of course)?

I get books, I read books, then sort them into two categories: I'll read it again, or I'll never read it again (in which case I trade it at the local bookfair). The books that I reread, I reread countless times. I keep them in good condition and they rate a place of honour in the bookcase my dad made for me.

I read every single book, cover to cover, even when it's a struggle. I always hope they'll get better if I keep reading. This esepcially pisses me off if it is an author I generally enjoy suddenly caught out writing shit-schlock and capitalizing on his name (Dean Koontz).

janet | Solitary Panda said...

it is very very hard to get rid of books for me also. i still have about 4 boxes in my parents garage... but when i was traveling through temples, i reread one of my favorites: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the third time and then decided i should donate it to the temple's library. it fit there. and i felt glad to know that others could read it. sharing is more fulfilling anyway.. i think i'll have to eventually do something with those box of books. yes, they make me feel smarter too. half of the books i own i haven't even read.. i just like buying the classics because they make me feel smart.

and i am personally very very glad minimalism/frugality is picking up in the states. it's about time more people woke up!

Martin said...

Linda & Claire - I understand. Really, I do. I have always enjoyed having a large library. All I can say in response is that the practice of purging them has honestly been very freeing. Also, where I used to not be able to go to a bookstore without buying something, I am much less tempted to now. I still see stuff that I like, but I already have the emotional and financial commitment of the books that I have gotten rid of in the back of my head. After seeing how little I could resell books for, buying a new one just does not seem like a good deal anymore, even if its on sale.

JS - Yeah, sounds like you have a similar situation with your mother as the library. Whatever works.

Alison - yes. You are bringing me one, right? I would hate to have to insist that you find a hostel to stay at.

Barnes - If I didnt have a library around, and a good one at that, my mentality would probably be very different. Theres also other options, like and others, but I dont know if they have the equivalent in Tokyo.

I am definitely not advocating a stop on reading though, so if buying is what you got to do, I think its more important that you keep doing your research. I need a debate partner/sounding board/comrade during the apocalypse, after all.

Janet - One of these days, you and I are going to have to have a long discussion on "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." For all the great reviews of it, I could not stand it.

That being said, I loved "A Place of my Own," which is a very similar look, but with the practice being the small writing hut that the author decides to make.

Anonymous said...

As you know, I disagree with your approach here. First, I don't feel like it is a negative that owning books makes you feel good. There is nothing wrong with feeling good because of your possession of something. Do you feel like you must purge your music too?

Second, you already "own" your books so you aren't proving anything by throwing them out. Donating or giving to friends is one thing, but if you're doing anything else then it is just a waste. It seems like the more logical approach would be to apply your standards to any future book purchases, but retroactively it doesn't really make sense or live up to a "minimalist" existence since books aren't generally considered to be that materialistic or superficial of possessions.

Annabelle said...

One word: Kindle. ;)

No but in all seriousness, I am trying more and more to adopt a minimalistic lifestyle because it's pretty much my only option right now. I used to be embarassingly materialistic, but over the past few years I've come to the realization that my best/happiest moments had no relation to purchasing something. Anyway, research shows that once we get out of abject poverty, additional money stops making much of a difference... diminishing marginal utility or some crap.

Anonymous said...

how are you?

Can I link to this post please?

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