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.