An Addiction To Books

Hello, I’m m741, and I used to be addicted to books. Well, to admit the truth… I still am. I have a problem. But I’m working on it.

I don’t own very much, but I do have a lot of books. Three years ago, I had 8 bookcases of books. 25 books/shelf * 6 shelves/case * 8 cases = 1200 books. Maybe 1250. And they’re fucking heavy! Jesus, moving was a pain.

Why do I love books so much? I had a lot of them, after all, so there must be some reason. I’ll tell you why: I loved books because they represented a better me. Books I’d read that changed me, or books I wanted to read that would make me more informed. A huge library of personal entertainment available right in front of me. But the hard truth is that I don’t do so much reading: roughly a book each week. At that rate, it would have taken me 24 years to read all the books I owned. What’s the point in that?

Two years ago, I eliminated a bookcase – down to 7. I’d gotten a crappy e-reader and threw out all the classics I owned but would probably never read. Pygmalion, Dante’s Inferno, The Good Earth — so long, goodbye. I could buy them for cheap of get them free.

But to me the real turning point was when I first downloaded a collection of books. In 20 minutes it’s trivial to download many times more books than I had accumulated in 20 years. Books have entered a post-scarcity world. We’re just flooded with the things. It’s not like I would enjoy reading any faster. I could have 100,000 digital books, and wouldn’t matter to me at all. It might even make me less happy since I could still only read 50 books per year.

This past year, I’ve eliminated another bookcase – down to 6. Each weekend I take a load of books – 10-15 books each week – to a book sale in a local church. I’d like to eliminate another case or two this year. Progress, right?

Here’s a few tips I’ve uncovered:

  • When choosing books to eliminate, ask why you are holding onto them. Some books I’ve read, and they’re meaningful to me: I get pleasure seeing them on my shelf. A close friend or relative ahs given me other books, and they’re a memento of that person. I see no reason to eliminate these books.. Some books, I have because I thought they’d be interesting, but they weren’t interesting enough to read for 4+ years! Some books, I got because I’d heard they were good, but I really have no interest in reading at all.
  • Libraries are great, but they don’t always work. I can’t go to the library on a weekday, because I work too late. And on a weekend, I don’t want to walk half an hour to the library and half an hour back. So I was constantly having overdue books, and that gets expensive quick. The booksale is much better – not as good a selection, but I’d rather buy a book for 50 cents (or free!) and be able to hold onto it for two months, and maybe even keep it if I really like it. I’ve probably spent about $15 on 20-30 books this past year, and returned 10-15 of them after reading (or deciding not to read them).
  • Read your books! The biggest reason I held onto books was because I thought they looked interesting and couldn’t bear to discard them unread. After I’ve read them, I have no such compunction donating them.
  • Record your readings. Another sticking point was that I wanted to remember everything I’d read by pointing to it on the shelf. But it’s actually a lot easier to point to it on a website. You can use something like GoodReads to record everything you read. Or just a spreadsheet or text file.
  • There’s little to no reason to hold onto any public domain books, or books which you can find cheap online. They take up no space on your hard drive… and one hard drive is physically smaller than a single book.

Travel Kitsch

For travel (and I suspect for many other things), it’s important to have some memento of what you’ve done. This is biological: I think it’s impossible to store all memories in an easy-to-retrieve way, but I think most people can remember some bit of everything. However, it’s difficult to retrieve things in a sequential fashion (ie, Two years ago, first I did this and this happened, and then I did this where I saw that). Furthermore, some memories are ‘lost,’ in the sense that the memory is there but there’s no way to retrieve it. At least, that’s the way it works for me.

So, looking at pictures from travel, I remember things that I’d be unable to retrieve on their own.

The desire to remember is really strong; who wants to ‘lose’ experiences? I think people’s memories also turn sunny in the long-term, so it’s nice to always be prompted “hey this was a pretty good time,” or alternately “listen to this miserable experience I once had!” That’s the only explanation I can think of for the popularity of souvenirs, which are useless kitsch that prompt memories. Or maybe people want a subtle way to show off how well-traveled they are.

It’s probably clear that I think souvenirs themselves are worthless.

I keep pictures. And I keep ticket stubs and brochures, which don’t take up much space and provide a detailed record of travel. But these usually just sit on the computer hard drive, or gather dust in an old box.

This seems sub-optimal. I don’t want to be weighed down, trapped, by a bunch of useless crap. But I think it’s cool that you can have something sitting in plain view, prompting you to re-live magical experiences.

I thought I’d come up with a solution: buy useful things when traveling. If a place is known for something, buy a good version of that there; if you can’t think of anything it’s known for, buy something generally useful. So, in Iceland I bought a wool sweater and wool gloves. In Köln I bought a plain T-Shirt. In Amsterdam, jeans; in München, a beer mug. The jeans were 15 euros, the t-shirt, 7 – they weren’t even a local brand. But because of where and when I bought them, they were extra-meaningful. I was satisfied with this solution: I thought it was clever.

Now so fast! It also means that I’ve infused everyday objects with meaning. It’s hard enough to get rid of crap you don’t need; it’s that much more difficult if it has sentimental value. For instance, if a relative gave you a book, it’s tough to discard it. You’re throwing out smoe piece of your relationship with that relative; if they’re deceased, it’s an irreplaceable part.

So it is with the jeans from Amsterdam. A pair of jeans is simply an object; even if it’s expensive, it can be replaced. I lost a button-down shirt on my trip, and although it was a nice shirt, I shrugged my shoulders. One dollar at a thrift store, so what? But when you associate a t-shirt with that crazy bike ride down the Rhine, through driving rain and howling wind, the object assumes new meaning.

And that’s the last thing I want, to get desperately attached to objects. If I outgrow the shirt, I’d have to throw away the physical embodiment of my memories, or hold onto a useless piece of crap. If I break the beer mug, I’ve destroyed a link to the past. I already own enough crap, without wanting an extra reason to hold onto something I own.

I don’t have a solution for this – some way to remember happy times without getting bogged down in useless crap. Maybe I can put pictures on the wall and collage ticket-entries across the refrigerator. But is that the same?

Books

I currently rent an apartment. Consequently, I move relatively frequently, every few years. I don’t own much – no car, no fancy furniture, not much in the way of clothes or dishes, but one thing I’ve always had a *lot* of is books. I would guess at the peak I owned enough books to completely fill 6-7 floor-to-ceiling bookcases. This was a huge pain to deal with.

I had a complicated relationship with these books. Remember, they’re simply physical posessions, a collection of sheets of paper. I just love books, and love being surrounded by them. Some books I owned because they meant something to me. Some books I owned because I had to buy them in order to read them, and I didn’t want to get rid of them. And finally, some books I owned simply because I bought them used, in anticipation of reading them someday.

Even worse, I was caught up in what the books said about me, and how they represented my memory – as though the books were physical manifestations of what was stored in my head. If I discarded the book, would those memories slowly recede and evaporate?

So far this year I’ve read 58 books. That sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t amount to much out of that huge library. Let’s just say that my relationship with books was complicated.

I don’t exactly feel comfortable posting a suggestion to buy something, but I’ll make an exception in this case.

A week ago I picked up the new Kindle, and I have to say it changes everything. I doubt there’s much distinction between the Kindle and the Nook, I just saw the Kindle was cheaper and I prefer to buy online from Amazon rather than B&N, so I went with it. Consider this an endorsement of this generation of e-readers, rather than a specific product.

First off, the Kindle is light. You don’t have to flip pages, you can switch between books at will, and carry a huge amount with you. It’s more comfortable to lay down with and read than a paperback (never mind a huge hardcover). It’s easy to operate, the battery lasts forever

There are downsides. Browsing books is painful/impossible, as is flipping through them. There’s none of that lovely “book smell,” and I miss the texture of a real book. I suspect the Kindle is not as resistant to water damage.

Still, the current generation of e-readers is simply better than a book.

So, I’ve started to get rid of all those books I was so attached to. There’s a huge chunk of books that I feel I can let go of, because they mean nothing to me or I was able to locate a digital copy. As for all those books I’d read and didn’t want to discard because I felt my memories were bound up in them? Well, I can keep a digital copy. And I can keep a record of what I’ve read on GoodReads. That’s enough to feel that they’re not lost to the sands of time.

I’ve discarded about a bookcase worth of stuff in the past week, donating it to the library. There’s still a lot more to go through. And I don’t intend to get rid of all my books. Some have sentimental value, others are books that I love and want a physical copy of. Comic books or photo-oriented books don’t work on the Kindle at all. But letting go of all those heavy books I didn’t care too much about feels like releasing an anchor that was tied to my leg.