Simple Living with Books

I’m an educator, a teacher, interested in learning. What do you think I lust after? The availability of books! … Clothes are not a problem. Books are. They have always been. I just love them! I want them. I want my own. I would like to build a separate building just for a library of beautiful books. But if I want to live in freedom, I have to discipline my love for books.

Here’s how I curb my appetite for books. I asked myself if I were on a desert island, what books couldn’t I get along without? I decided I need six books. I just have to have a good New Testament translation, a full bible, a wonderful concordance.… Those three books are fixed. I keep them permanently. Then I need three books to inspire me. Those might be a spiritual read, Rilke’s or Emily Dickinson’s poetry or something I find exceptional. These could rotate, but I keep them for a long time until I have absorbed them. I may even return to one after having exchanged it.

I need books for what I do for a living. I speak to groups about a lot of topics. I talk about simple living, Native American spirituality, prayer, spirituality, peace and justice, and women’s issues. So I need a small library that goes with my work world. Those books help me be more efficient so I don’t have to run to the library ever time I have to check a reference. If I work in various areas, how many books do I really need? I whittled it down to thirty-six.

So now I have six personal and thirty-six work books. If the work changes, so do the books. What if publishers send me a book to review? Or what if somebody gives me a great book and I’ve already got my thirty-six? My way of handling this is to give myself three days of grace. I either read it and give it away, or keep it and get rid of another book. I must confess, this rule is so important and I am so selfish that sometimes I stay up all night to finish a book before I have to give it away.

—Sr. José Hobday, OSF, Simple Living: The Path to Joy and Freedom

This may sound like crazy talk, but with ebooks supplementing what is already freely available at public and academic libraries, it is now possible to be abundantly supplied with books without buying a single one. So why own hundreds, or thousands, of books that we are not reading and can obtain elsewhere whenever we want them? We can only literally read one book at a time, and most of us have no more than a handful on the go at any one time. Certainly there are times when a book is not available online or at the library and the alternatives are not satisfactory, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule, at least for general nonfiction and fiction.

Lack of space has effectively tempered my own buying habits, as has a realization that a lot of nonfiction doesn’t “keep.” Perspectives change, knowledge expands, and my own questions shift over time, and so a book that was a revelation one year will be forgotten the next. These days I get my general nonfiction at the library, and it’s not often that they don’t have what I want. I now try to limit myself to buying only classics that I’m pretty sure I’ll want to reread or at least consult again, and reference books that will be useful for years to come. But if I think about it, those two classes of books are probably the easiest to find or substitute online or at the library. They are actually the least necessary books to have on hand!

So why do I feel that my home isn’t complete without the physical presence of history books and anthologies and dictionaries and surveys and encyclopaedias on every topic I’m interested in? Sometimes I think they represent parts of myself, and seeing them reassures me of my own existence and identity. Or perhaps it is only natural to want to own that which gives so much pleasure, so we can be reminded of that pleasure when we look at them and relive it at any time. I wonder if I would feel the same way if I had grown up with the internet? Do young people feel the need to accumulate books? They seem quite comfortable with downloading music and movies, while I still cling to my CDs and DVDs. Electronic media are notoriously ephemeral, but if most books are read only once and go out of print in just a few years, I don’t know if that is much of a problem. Perhaps we are coming into a new desert island situation, where the question is not which books we would take, but which books, out of the many we have access to, are so dear to us that we must keep them on our shelves? I don’t know if I could get that down to six, or thirty-six, but it’s probably a lot less than what I have now.

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8 comments on “Simple Living with Books

  1. Seesaw says:

    Yet another good post!
    I could sign when you write: “they represent parts of myself, and seeing them reassures me of my own existence and identity”…
    What I am often asking myself is how did we study Eng. lit. in Sarajevo, without Internet, and with only our small School of English library. But we did and it was more fun then all this Googling I am doing last few years.
    Book, printed book is like a human being, ebooks I can not get used to, but it is great to have them.
    For me, house without books is house without soul! So, stick to your books!

  2. Sylvia says:

    Thanks! Yes, books are like people, physical, tangible, with weight and personality and even their own unique smell! They're different from music and movies, which are inherently intangible and therefore more suited to digitization. That's interesting that doing research with a selection of books was more fun than Googling.

    There's not much danger of me giving up my books, but there are some I could release back into the book ecosystem to make room for something new.

  3. Seesaw says:

    I know when I am gone, my books will be like orphans (which means they were and are my children).
    As for studies: our reading list was called: From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, and it was fun to read, make notes, consult critics, and it was PAPER, something that you could feel in your hands. Those were the days, my friend, as that song goes…

  4. Stefanie says:

    I'm sure I could get rid of a large number of books and not miss them as something to read but I would miss their presence. The last time I moved both my husband and I were fine until we packed up the books. Without the books we turned into freaked out stress monsters. After we had moved into the house we unpacked the books before anything else. As soon as the books were visible again we relaxed and all was well and right with the world.

  5. Sylvia says:

    Zdenka, “From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf” is great! Who knows, perhaps as we read more and more from electronic sources, books will become even more coveted as physical objects.

    Stefanie, yes, books are a soothing presence, at least for us bibliophiles. Maybe we all need to collect the things we like around us, and books are just our thing. Perhaps humans are really evolved from packrats. 😉

  6. I can't help it. I still love a real book. I can carry it anywhere and read it wherever I am. Don't get me wrong, I love some of the new technology, but I must have my books!

  7. Stefanie says:

    heh, yeah, forget primates. Scientists need to search for 'the missing link” in the packrat species. I would so love to have one of those minimalist Zen looking houses, and while I would happily get rid of everything else, I won't bend on the books.

  8. Sylvia says:

    Lioness, I couldn't agree more!

    Stefanie, I love those Zen houses too, but I don't understand the compulsion to have a house that looks like nobody lives there. And don't get me started on bought-by-the-foot libraries and slipcovers that make books match the décor…

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