Saturday, September 12, 2009

Too Many Books?

On the platform, readingImage by moriza via Flickr

This post is very long, I'm sorry. I've been working on it for several days....

I am not a big shopper, you will not find me hanging out at the mall or collecting clothes and accessories. (Though I really love sweaters, nice, scratchy, yes, I said scratchy, wool ones. Whenever a sweater is scratchy it convinces me that it is keeping me warmer. I know that it’s weird.) But, I do have a huge weakness for books. (I also have a weakness for candy, particularly what one of my friends calls “crap candy”. But that issue is pretty controllable. Too much crap candy makes you sick.)

As I have mentioned in a previous post, I love books and everything associated with books. I love libraries and book stores and the book section at conferences. If I visit someone’s home or office I am immediately perusing their book shelves. Even when I am watching a movie I will look past the characters and the dialogue to see what books might be on the shelf in the background. I love the feel of the book in my hand, the smoothness of the page. I especially love the smell of old books, a characteristic that my 11 year old daughter shares with me. When we are at the library together we will pull a book off the shelf circa 1950, open it up, inhale and both whisper ahhhhhh. It’s a true bonding moment. I have purchased old books at the church book sale just for the comforting smell of old pages.

I am not one of those people who hang onto every book that they ever buy. Unless I really, REALLY love the book I give it away or trade it in at the used book store. My husband, on the other hand, wants to keep every book that he ever buys, even if he hates it or never even read it! It makes a non-pack rat like me crazy. The good news is that he hardly ever buys a book. But, even though I don’t usually keep all of my books, I have a lot of books and I have a fair amount of books that I’ve never read, books that I just can’t seem to get to.

We have all heard the phrase “so many books, so little time” and at an earlier stage in my life it felt that I would eventually get to all of those books that I have missed. The classics, the histories, the Pulitzer prize winners, the bestsellers, the art books, philosophers, the 1000 books you must read before the die. Then there are all of the new books, those delicious stacks at Costco, the fabulous possibilities on Amazon, those gorgeous displays at the entrance of Barnes and Noble. My heart is racing just thinking about all of it. But as I’ve gotten older and my life seems to get fuller and fuller, I’m beginning to think that I might not get to all of it. And I’m also beginning to think that I don’t want to.

Several years ago now, I read Rachel Naomi Remen’s book, My Grandfather’s Blessings. I will never forget a story that she tells about a little boy that she befriended. The boy’s family didn’t have a lot of money so he didn’t have a lot of toys. But he did have a few Hot wheels cars that he would play with and then lovingly line up on the windowsill. Rachel wanted this little boy to be happy, so she organized a group of people at her work who all collected Hot wheels cars until they had a complete set. She presented the cars to him excitedly, expecting a joyous response to being the owner of such a wide array of cars. But instead of looking happy, he just looked overwhelmed. She asked him, “Don’t you like the cars?” He appeared slightly sad and responded, “I can’t love this many cars.” I have come back to this phrase many times in my life, but instead of cars I say, “I can’t love this many sweaters” or “I can’t love this many earrings” and am then able to leave them on the store rack.

I have had the sense many, many times that I cannot love “this many books”. This feeling has been compounded by the sheer amount of reading material and information that finds its way into my life every day. We subscribe to the New Yorker, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated (not that I have any idea what is in there) and Mother Earth News. I frequently pick up issues of The Sun and Shambala Sun. (I want to subscribe to those two but have restrained myself thus far.) I follow multiple blogs by friends and acquaintances and check in at Huffington Post regularly to get political information. I listen to Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, Fresh Aire, and All Things Considered on most days. I listen to podcasts of Rachel Maddow, dharma talks from Gil Fronsdahl, and daily bible readings from Irish Jesuits. Granted, I don’t read or listen to all of these things every day, but these are the things that are already at my disposal even before I walk into a book store or the library or open up Amazon on my computer. My head is spinning a little bit as I type this. Even with all of this abundance of information, I still feel like there is so much more out there that I need to read or need to listen to.

As I check in with how all of this feels in my body and my spirit, I realize that the desire that goes with “more” books, more words and more information has a compulsive and acquisitive quality. It doesn’t feel good. I’m not sure that it even feels like something that I want to do, but something that I have to do, a compulsion.

It is interesting to me that acquiring books is an acceptable form of over consumption. After all, books aren’t fattening, they don’t take up a lot of space, they’ll never go bad, and they are good for your mind. They can even be really inexpensive at places like the church book sale, garage sales and thrift stores.

For many centuries owning books was an indication of your status, wealth and knowledge.Books were rare and expensive and reserved for the highest classes, professors and students, and the church. The vast majority of people didn’t even own a single book and if they did it was the Bible or other sacred scripture. Indeed, in many countries around the world, this is still true. Many of us read the Little House on the Prairie series growing up. Do you remember which books the Ingalls family owned? They owned the Bible and two or three slim textbooks that Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace would all carry to school with them. And that was it. And they cherished those books.

I am not sure that I really know what I mean any more when I say that I love a book or a story. Does it mean that it taught me something? Or that it made me feel something? That it changed me in some way? Does it mean that I love the language or the art and craft of the writing? Does it need to mean all of the above for me to love a book?

At this point in my life as a reader and as a lover of books, I feel like a buzzing bee that stops and takes a sweet sip from this flower or that flower, always with an eye on the horizon and the next tempting taste. But what I really want to do is to sink deep down into the middle of those fragrant petals and take a long, slow drink of the beauty and wonder of words. And I know that I cannot do that in the midst of a meadow bursting with blooms. I am envisioning a sunny pasture with a few brilliant blossoms dotting the green grass. A manageable number to which I can give my undivided and loving attention.

And so I am pondering, thinking about, praying over setting a discipline in my life in which I bring any new written material into my life. I will set a moratorium on more words. I get a slightly panicked feeling just thinking about it. I’m like a book junkie who knows that it’s time for a stay in rehab but want to just get my last few fixes before the door closes behind me. Will I be able to do this? Do I really want to? How long should I keep it in place? 3 months? 6 months? A year? (I know with absolute clarity that it should be a year, but the prospect is terrifying!)

Here’s my plan:

I will keep my current magazine subscriptions but not subscribe to any new ones. (Maybe I should subscribe to The Sun and Shambala Sun before I start because I really, really love them. Angst!)

I will not buy any new books except for my book club selections and I will attempt to get those from the library.

I will not check out books from the library.

I will accept books that are gifts.

Here’s some questions that I still have:

What about bookstores? Do I still get to go in there, grab a bunch of books and magazines, sip coffee and munch a cookie on a rainy afternoon or a cold winter day? (This is one of my favorite things in the world!) Or should I take my own books and stay out of the stacks. (But I can still have the cookies!)

Same question for the library.

Then there’s the internet. What sort of limit should I set as far as surfing and reading ?

Here’s something really funny that’s just happened. My son started a new school, Steller Secondary, which is 7th-12th, and I volunteered to staff the school library Friday afternoons for 3 hours. (It’s like someone who just gave up chocolate working at Godiva.) Should I spend some of that time perusing the books (after all I could be making recommendations to my kids) or should I spend the quiet time reading the books that I already have? I am in the library right now and The Smithsonian magazine and the Poisonwood Bible are being very distracting. Oh, and there’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I don’t know anything about Malcolm X. Oh, and Isaac Asimov, a bunch of people have been talking about Isaac Asimov. I’m missing something. I know that I’m missing something.

On the serious side though, I believe that I am being called to trust that Spirit will bring into my life whatever it is that I may need in this next year and that in all likelihood, whatever it is will not be found in a book. I think that I am being called to learn from experience and to trust that my own experience can carry as much wisdom as the words of the great spiritual writers that I revere. I am being called to see beauty all around me. I am being called to write. I am being called to fall in love, again, with the books that grace my abundant book shelf.

I need to set a date. What would be an auspicious day?

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Beth Knight said...

Rebecca - WRITE A BOOK ! you are becoming my favorite author ! I love reading YOUR WORDS... you have ALOT to say and it is rich, powerful, thought provoking and very contemporary. I am in awe of how your writing has gone to a next level. And this particular is one of the best yet ! bk

Anonymous said...

I feel faint! I cannot imagine giving up books! I guess in this situation I am a bad seed that is hanging out in the dark corner...Psst Rebecca over here....I just got the new best seller!!
love you and love this blog!!

Tess said...

Hi Rebecca, after your comment on my blog I thought I'd come over and check this post out. I love it! So much of what you say resonates. Yes I also look at what movie characters have on their shelves, and although the Kindle isn't yet available in Europe I'm not sure I'd want one because of the sensuality of books.

And looking through other posts in your blog, there you are, tempting me with books such as Ordinary Genius! How unfair that is!

Looking forward to adding your blog to my regular reading list (oh no, more reading!).

Rebecca Johnson said...

The only way that the Kindle tempts me is imagining carrying around all my literary pals in my handbag every day. (I think that you can get 1500 books on there now? Wow.) But otherwise, I'm with you. I want to turn the page and inhale the aroma, feel the weight in my hand.

I still haven't set the date for giving up buying/borrowing books, but my acquisitions have slowed to a trickle. It feels much better.