What I’m Learning From Thinning Out My Books

by James Wallace Harris, 9/22/22

I want a new stereo system for my bedroom. A higher fidelity one than what I described in “To Go, or Not to Go — To the Bookstore?” That was written back in July, well before I had my hernia surgery on August 29th. I used researching stereo equipment to avoid thinking about surgery before my operation and to ignore my physical discomforts afterward. I have a long history of using unpleasant experiences as justifications for buying myself new toys.

Two things have stopped me from ordering my new stereo equipment. First, my release instructions warned me not to pick up anything over five pounds while I recovered. Second, I have no room to set up new equipment. Making room will involve getting rid of stuff and rearranging furniture, all weighing over five pounds. So while lying around with pillows on my lap to protect my swollen private parts from cats, I’ve been mentally analyzing the best way to free up the most wall space while requiring the least weight lifting.

After much grinding of my mental gears, I’ve concluded the easiest solution is to get rid of two bookcases worth of books. My bedroom has four bookcases of books. For twenty years before I quit working I stashed away books for my retirement years. Well, I squirreled away too many. Way too many. And in the decade since I’ve had all my time free, I’ve learned that most of the approximately 500 books I’ve read over the last ten years were bought after I retired.

I’ve been trying to thin out my collection for decades. But whenever I try to pull volumes to give to the Friends of the Library I start reading and think, “Oh man, I’ll read this someday. This one is too good to give up.” I just can’t follow Marie Kondo’s advice because every book I hold sparks joy.

It’s either give up books or forget about that new stereo. Ouch! I’ve spent four hours this morning going through half a bookcase. With much agonizing, I’ve found 23 books to discard. That’s about one shelf of books. I need to clear off eleven more shelves.

This is so painful. But what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger – right? What I’m learning is each book is a little world of knowledge that I wanted to incorporate into my soul. And to decide not to read a book means deciding that’s an area of knowledge I’ll remain ignorant of.

By the way, did I tell you that all these books are nonfiction? I’m not ready to thin out my science fiction collection. That’s revealing too.

Some of the books I’m discarding I’ve decided would be better on audio anyway. I’m opening each book up and reading from it randomly. I realize that some books, particularly certain kinds of history books, I’d rather listen to than reading. I can get rid of those (unless I’d want to keep them for reference). Examples are Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson and Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch.

However, I’ve discovered another type of book I can part with, but the reason why disturbs and depresses me. I’m finding some books I thought I could read when I was younger are probably too difficult for my older mind or would require a level of concentration that I no longer possess. A good example is Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates. Her intellectual analyses are ones I’m no longer capable of handling, and maybe never was.

The final type represents an acceptance of resignation. I’m just not going to live long enough to get around to some books. These are the books I feel would be the last in line. I’d love to read Complete Collected Essays by V. S. Pritchett or Harlan Ellison’s Watching because I admire their commentary on pop culture’s past. But I have to decide what’s really worth learning in my fading years of life.

Another funny kind of realization is I’m torn between preserving my precious reading time for what’s relevant to the existential needs of my remaining years and books that offer the purest delightful fun. Two examples of what I’m keeping are Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes and Zappa: A Biography by Barry Miles.

I know without a doubt I could give away all the books in all four bookcases and not really miss them. My eyes now prefer reading ebooks and I have over a thousand of them waiting to be read. I also have over a thousand audiobooks hidden away in the cloud. And I have six bookcases of physical books in my computer room. Yet, I just hate to part with physical books. I’ve thought about putting bookcases in other rooms of the house, but that would be unfair to Susan. She’s already bitching about how many books she’ll have to get rid of if I die before her.

With every book I hold to decide its fate, I mentally go through a gauntlet of emotions and thoughts. I should make a daily meditation of routinely going through my library. With each book, just reading a few paragraphs here and there inspires several ideas for blog essays.

JWH

I Can’t Take It With Me?

by James Wallace Harris, 7/3/21

That old saying warns us we can’t take it with us, but where does our stuff go when we say goodbye to this plane of existence? If I go first, Susan will just haul all my crap down to Goodwill. If she goes first, I’ll do the same for her. But if Susan goes first, who will process all my cherished possessions?

Before my mom died, she gave some of her stuff as little personal gifts to people she knew at church, or in the neighborhood, or relations. And the stuff she didn’t give away, she assumed either I or my sister would take after she died and cherish for the rest of our lives. We didn’t tell her we had other plans. After my mom died I went through her house looking for sentimental things like photographs, letters, and a few books. My sister wanted more of the knicknacks. My mom’s closets and extra bedrooms were jammed with things she’d had been saving since the 1945 when she married my dad. I told the ladies we had hired to sit with my mother when I was at work that they could have anything they wanted in the house except the stove and refrigerator. The house was clean enough to sell when I came back.

If I was kind and considerate, I’d get rid of my junk now. I’ve been getting rid of stuff for years, but there’s enough left to fill the pickup several times over. When I was young I thought I wanted a smaller house for when I was older, but now that I’m older, I don’t want that at all. This house has become the perfect size for our junk. Susan and I have divided our home into our individual territories. I junk up the den, two bedrooms, and one hall closet. Susan fills up the living, dining room, one bedroom, and the other hall closet. We both encourage the other to get rid of their stuff, but we don’t.

I’m not religious, but what if there was a heaven, and what if we could take it with us? What if St. Peter allowed everyone to bring one U-Haul trailer full of Earthly possessions to heaven, what would you take? Imagine everyone getting a luxury two-bedroom condo in paradise, how would you decorate it? (I wonder if they have the internet up there?)

My friend Connell has been moving out of his house where he’s lived since the 1980s and into a two-bedroom condo. He’s been selling his stuff on Craigslist. I wonder if I should set up an eBay account and sell off my stuff too? But it would be so much easier and put it off until I die and let Susan deal with it. Now I know why I always planned to go first.

JWH

I Marie Kondoed a Whole Building

by James Wallace Harris, 5/27/21

Well, to be honest, I didn’t hold everything that was in our old workshop and ask if it sparked joy, or even sort the building components into separate piles for reallocation considerations. I just asked the contractor if he could demolish the entire building and take it and its contents away. And they did.

But what a relief! What a weight off my shoulders! After Susan’s parents died she wanted to buy the house she grew up in, and I reluctantly agreed. Well, it made her happy. I did think it was neat the house came with a workshop full of woodworking tools and a small greenhouse. I imagined building and growing things. The house also came fully furnished with every closet stuffed with marvelous treasures her mother found at yard sales. Her dad hadn’t used the workshop in years and it had become their mini-storage unit. That was a dozen years ago and we’re almost through getting rid of their junk – and ours.

About seven years ago I decided neither Susan or I would ever do any woodworking or gardening and hired 1-800-Got-Junk to remove the now broken down greenhouse and clear out the workshop of ancient rusting woodworking machines and boxes of once cherished possessions. It took three of their trucks and a big check. But it felt great. My soul felt immensely lighter.

Then we started using the workshop for our overflow junk. A few years later I had the walls of the workshop replaced and painted because I feared our junk would go bad from neglect. That was even more money. Then this year I realized the roof was leaking and contracted to have it replaced. I also worried about the workshop all the time because a neighbor’s tree is dying, and it leans over both the power lines and our workshop. What a psychic burden.

I knew the plywood decking of the roof would need replacing along with the shingles, but when they started on the first sheet, the roofer called me out to show how the 2×6 rafters were so rotten they couldn’t nail the plywood to them. They offered to replace or brace the 2×6 beams, at even more expensive.

That’s when I knew there was no chance of that building ever bringing me joy. By the way, joy was defined as possible home resale value. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that we’ll probably die in this house and resale joy was a fading fantasy anyway. So I asked the roofer if they also demoed buildings and he said yes. I said, “Let me save a couple of things, and then I want you to take the building and everything in it away.” I kept two ladders, a push broom, a rake, a shovel, a pair of hedge clippers, and a couple cans of old house paint. (I’ll probably get rid of them too.) I told the roofer workers they could have anything they wanted. Susan told a neighbor.

Even though the value of our house went down, I felt wonderful seeing the finished job. Not only did I get rid of tons of possessions and responsibilities, but I no longer have a place to put all our extra crap. That’s quite freeing. And now I don’t have to worry about my neighbor’s tree falling on the workshop. Oh, it will take out the power lines and probably pull down a couple power poles, but I’m trying hard not worry about that.

Susan saved one four-foot long wooden level of her dad’s. She figured her brother might want it for sentimental reasons, and I overheard her talking to Johnny telling him she’d try and keep me from throwing it away. I’ll try hard, but Johnny better come soon. I’m already looking for more things in the house to throw away. I’m making Susan nervous eyeing the attic. Boxes have been going up there for a dozen years, but they never come down. Why?

I fantasize about a completely empty attic. Wouldn’t it feel so good?

JWH

Imagine Living Only in the Real World and Rejecting All Screens

by James Wallace Harris, 3/18/21

I grew up in the 1950s with the television screen. In the 1980s I became addicted to the computer screen. In the 2010s I started looking at the smartphone screen all the time. After having someone impersonate me with a fake Instagram account on Facebook last night I got disgusted with the internet I wondered if I shouldn’t abandon the online world. Then I thought, what would it be like to live just in the real world, without any screens, not even the TV screen? Much of what I find disturbing about the world comes through screens.

That’s a scary thought, giving up screens. I spend hours every day staring at them. My favorite past time right now is discussing science fiction short stories with folks on Facebook. If I didn’t use screens I could still read books but I couldn’t connect with the other people who love to read the same kind of things I do. Of course, what if we considered book pages to be like screens and abandoned them too?

Before screens there were books, newspapers, and magazines. I can imagine giving up screens, even giving up watching television, but I can’t imagine giving up the printed page. Isn’t that weird?

I’m trying to imagine life without screens or pages. It kind of blows my mind. My world would get very small. I’d probably keep up the house and yard way better than I do now. I’d probably get into gardening, cooking, and making things. I’d want to spend more time with people face-to-face. I assume life would slow way down. I guess I’d crave hearing about the world beyond my little place in it by talking to people and listening to their stories about events beyond my sight.

Without pages from books, magazines, and newspapers I’d be a lot more ignorant. Pages and screens inform us, connect us to the wider world. I can see now thinking about this, that screens really are an extension of pages. Screens add movement to the static type, illustrations and photos in printed matter.

When I watch YouTube videos created by amateurs I realize they are sending a highly constructed recorded speech with visuals which is more evolved than the printed essay, and an essay is more evolved than a lecture, and a lecture is more evolved than conversation.

The real world is nature. Plants and animals, earth and sky. Pages and screens are our way of communicating about nature. But hasn’t the abstraction of our communication moved us away from nature?

As much as I find nature beautiful and fascinating, I’m far more wrapped up in pages and screens, which if you think about it, is our way of reacting to nature. So what if we gave up abstraction and just dwelled in the natural world? (It might feel like living in a Ursula K. Le Guin novel. Even her futuristic human societies dwelling on far away worlds seem like medieval times on Earth.)

To be honest, it’s too late for me. I’m far too addicted to abstraction. I much prefer the fantasy of fiction on the page or screen to living actively in the real world. I much prefer the abstraction of nonfiction, news programs, and documentaries to studying reality first hand.

Should I feel guilty about that?

JWH

Collecting v. Accumulating v. Hoarding

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 27, 2020

Last night I had an epiphany while watching this YouTube video (starting at 6:18):

Seeing how well that CD/LP collection was organized I realized there was nothing wrong with collecting huge quantities of anything if you maintained an organization. I realized there was a difference between collecting and hoarding. And with a quick bit of naval gazing, I realized I was neither a collector nor a hoarder. I was something in between.

I believe I’m a clutterer or accumulator. I haven’t decided which is the better term. I acquire a lot of stuff I like, but I don’t maintain it in a tidy organized fashion, so I’m not really a collector. But then, I’m not traumatized by giving away stuff, I can shed possessions quite easily, so I’m not a hoarder either. This is a nice bit of self-realization.

A real collector will never consider Marie Kondo’s philosophy if their collection is beautifully organized. Hoarders will never give her a second thought either. It’s us clutterers and accumulators that feel Kondo is talking to us.

My problem is I collect stuff half-ass, that I’m a crappy collector. For example, I intentionally collect best-of-the-year science fiction anthologies, and I’m probably approaching 85% of what’s been published. But I don’t shelve my collection properly, I don’t index them, I don’t maintain them in Goodreads, I don’t make them look impressive in nice bookcases. I just acquired them. Some anthologies are in the designated anthology bookcases in a haphazard order, other anthologies are lying around, or stuck in convenient empty places in other bookshelves away from their brethren.

I’ve watched several of those Channel 33RPM videos that showcase people’s LP collections and listening rooms and it’s made me feel guilty about how badly I maintain my collections. I have other smaller collections that I also half-ass maintain. My man cave has no decor appeal at all, it’s just a comfy hovel. When things pile up too uncomfortable levels, I tidy it up, swearing I’ll never let it get untidy again, but weeks later, everything is in piles again.

I’m definitely not a hoarder. Sometimes when I tidy I do it by giving away stuff. It’s easier than making a place for everything and putting everything in its place. And it’s quicker than asking each object if it sparks joy.

I’ve been thinking if I really want to keep all the books I buy, I should have some bookcases built into some rooms. My friends Mike and Betsy did that and it looks great. Susan says we’ll probably stay in this house until we die, so it won’t matter if I ruin its sales appeal by having wall-to-wall bookshelves built.

On the other hand, if I had beautiful bookshelves I’d also feel the need to create an organized library of books, and that would be work. I realize that I’m an accumulator because I’m too lazy to collect properly. A good collector knows their collection, curates it properly, and showcases it in a beautiful presentation.

On Facebook I often see people post photos of their libraries. Some people are like me – they have a bunch of books. Others have made beautiful displays of their book, and I can see they are carefully organized. I can also see they spend more for their books because they get beautiful editions. I do love artistic dust jackets, and I’m willing to spend a little more, but I buy the best quality I can get for the least money, so my shelves mix pedigrees side-by-side with mutts.

Susan and I are well matched when it comes to house decorating — we both prefer being lazy. I’m a bit different because I feel guilty that I don’t make more of an effort. We have friends who make their houses look like creative representations of their personality. And you see that in the video above.

At 68, it’s probably too late to organize my spots. On one paw, I crave to be a minimalist. I’d love to decorate my den with just a large screen TV, great speakers, a network streamer, and two La-Z-Boys. I’d have no videos or albums, just stream everything. For my man cave/library/office I’d have a desk, chair, couch, reading chair, tablet, and computer. My library of books, audiobooks, and magazines would all be digital. On the other paw, I fantasize about creating rooms like the people in the videos, fill them with the physical objects I love, and decorate the walls to reflect what I collected.

The real me learns about a book, album, movie, TV show I want to consume and I order it. I spend my time enjoying creative works – I’m just not creative about collecting them. When I’m finished with one, I get another. And their physical containers just pile up. I accumulate. That causes clutter and I think about Marie Kondo just enough to feel guilty every once in a while. When I write these posts.

JWH

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