Monday, March 2, 2015

Expansion, Contraction, Expansion; Or, Keep Breathing; Or, Learn to Say No

Last Saturday, after doing some mind work (Machine Learning is hard, yo), I decided to go through all my physical books and make note of which ones survived the big move from San Angelo to Austin. 

My book collection had already been significantly reduced before this move to Austin. The 2011 move from Chicago to San Angelo included me selling books to used book stores, giving books to friends, and then finally donating a dozen or more shopping bags full of books to a literacy non-profit. More recently, while I was taking the course at MakerSquare, I brought several shopping bags full of books to Austin to sell at Half-Price Books, where I received something closer to one-twentieth their price.

(Also, do you notice that my preferred unit of book measuring is the shopping bag? I'd like to say it's a metaphor for books-as-food, necessary and nutritious, but it's just a lot easier to get shopping bags than boxes.)

And most recently, I cleared out all my books from San Angelo; true to form, this move included dropping off at least six shopping bags full of books to the library. This latest batch of giveaways included a lot of my critical theory--adieu, Adorno! Hasta luego, Lukacs!--and a lot of books I've collected that I wasn't sure I was going to read any time soon.

(This stack of books going back to the library for their book sale included--naturally--several books I picked up at the library book sale years ago.)

While I was in San Angelo, I started using LibraryThing to help catalogue my books, mostly to prevent me from accidentally buying something I already owned. Unfortunately, LibraryThing has doubled and tripled some of my entries, making my count less than precise; but I can now say, roughly speaking, that out of 460 physical books that I had in San Angelo, half survived this most recent contraction.

Naturally, I have thoughts about this. My first thought, while cataloguing my current books:

I probably could have gotten rid of more.

Which is probably shocking to hear for many people who know what I bibliophile--or bibliomaniac--I am. I've always had walls of shelves of books, from my childhood room to my dorm room to my apartments. I used to have Erasmus's quote up, the one about buying books when he had money, and then buying food if he had any left over. All my childhood allowance went towards books of one sort of another.

Yet, I don't feel terrible about getting rid of these books. I wish I could've had the time to read some of them and to find them interesting homes--or at least found them hands to reside in temporarily. (Maybe books, like money, are only really useful when they circulate.)

Saying that I don't feel terrible about getting rid of those books is a long way from saying it was easy to let go of them. A lot of it was hard in the way that self-reflection can be hard--in the way that self-acceptance can be hard. 

Giving away all of my critical theory books was perhaps the most concrete way I could admit to myself that I'm not going back to grad school to finish my degree. Letting go of all 19th-century literature books, with all my careful notes, was a way of letting go part of that old dream of teaching. (Did I ever show you the page at the back of Henry James's The Bostonians where I catalogued every use of the word "press" and words that included it? Since it's a book about impression, repression, oppression, and expression, it's a pretty long catalog.)

But like going to the gym, getting rid of half my library was both hard in the moment and still felt like the right thing to do after.

Or put another way: Letting go of those books that I might have read at some point gives me the mental space to focus on the books in front of me. The "books" in that sentence might be a metaphor. 

Because I've always been interested in a lot of things; I've always had trouble saying "no" to new things; and I've never been all that good about cutting ties and saying goodbye to things that I'm not really interested/involved in any more. So it's not surprising that I would end up with so many books that I needed a system to avoid re-buying the same books. And it's not surprising that I would end up with an Osprey book on British uniforms in World War I, alongside a book on Norwegian folk tales, next to my copy of Barthes S/Z, near...

Wait a minute, am I confessing or bragging? A little bit of both. I mean, it's nice to have lots of interests and be well-rounded, blah blah blah. But it's also good--at least, it feels good for me right now--to be able to let go of some things and be able to focus on the other things.

Let's be clear: I'm not saying y'all should throw out your books and not buy any new ones. (I am saying support your local library, though.) And I'm not saying that I'm not buying any new books now. Maybe some day I will have built-in shelves and I will dedicate myself to rebuilding all my library. After all, this contraction may be just a phase...

But I can't help seeing it like a form of breath exercise. Maybe books and money, are both like air: useful when circulating, useful when taken in, useful when pushed out. Which reminds me of a text conversation I had with a friend once:

Right: in, out, repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

1 comment:

  1. This is a beautiful reflection about letting go (and taking in). I love the books metaphor, and the breathing... Letting go is never easy and your words touch a cord...