Sunday, August 05, 2007

Left Many Books Unread

You know that column Books Purchased But Are They Read? 2007 on the sidebar? I did that to keep track of the number of books I bought this year, and which one I actually read in the same year.

So it seems I bought 72 books this year (and it is only August!), but read only 23. I swear, they should carve it on my headstone when I die: "Left Many Books Unread".

The Books Purchased But Are They Read? 2007 list is just evidence that I desperately need to curb down the book-buying. We will be moving out of our apartment soon - when the new flat is ready in about two years time. The thought of moving house with the amount of books I have is daunting. I have books on floor, fighting for space with my yoga mat. I bruised my little toe walking onto The Art of Eating twice this week. Books are becoming a safety hazard. Death by Books; now, that could be the title to the story of my life.

Chris recently wrote about losing some of his books because of Katrina. Part of his lost collection was the Lords of the Rings trilogy. His excitement at receiving a new set of Tolkien was palpable. It made me appreciate that I still have my library. I started looking at my bookshelves, wondering which are the books I can afford to give up, and which are the ones that will break my heart to relinquish. I find it harder to give up certains books than I realise. I am possessed by my possessions - how un-Zen of me.

Chris's story reminded me of the 2004 Tsunami when people lost their lives and their homes in a single day - Boxing Day 26th December. Back then, we were bombarded by the images of death and loss everyday. I happened to be attending a Buddhist meditation course then. Our teacher spoke of some of his students who went over to help out at the tsunami stricken areas, and what they witnessed.

One of his students was a dental specialist, and her team was in charge of identifying the bodies through dental records. They had to process hundreds of bloated corpses everyday, and some of the members on the team find themselves breaking down emotionally.

They were dentists, and nothing in their training prepared them for such a brutal confrontation with death: The bloated, rotting corpses. Nameless bodies unclaimed. This is what lives had been reduced to in an instance. Nothing that these people did or owned matters anymore. In the end, this is all that we are: A pile of rotted skin, flesh and bones. My meditation teacher taught us to meditate on this.

In the Mahabharata, there was a riddle: "Of all the world's wonders, which is the most wonderful?"

Yudhishtira, the wisest of the Pandava brothers, replied, "That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die."

It is this recognition of transience that monks relinquish possessions and focus on their spiritual learning. Recognising that all shall pass, why hold on to things? My books, CDs, DVDs are overwhelming my life. Why not let them go, to leave space for more important things in life?

Partly because of my blue-collared upbringing, I grew up with an aspiration to learning. My book-buying habit is as much a syndrome of this desire to acquire knowledge. Each book I buy speaks of a hope, a dream of one day reading it, and learning something. But I wonder: with so many books unread, and more coming, will I ever truly get to them? It is just hoarding, isn't it? Do I need these dead-weights in my life?

I'm not going to stop buying and reading books of course. If anything, awareness of transience means appreciating what you have now. It demands that we live it more fully, instead of always looking ahead for the next "better" thing, or dwelling in the past for what you have lost.

And I should be appreciating the books I have now, instead of buying new ones all the time. In fact, each time I pick up a book from the bookstore, I should ask myself - do I really need it? Could I perhaps find it in a public library? Will I miss it if I lose it in a fire? And perhaps, I could extend this reasoning to all the other material possessions in my life.

If I lose all I own in a fire, what are the things I will miss, and what are the ones I could do without?


Ana S. said...

This is something I struggle with also. I try to be careful - not always successfully, of course, but I try not to have more than 10-15 unread books in the house. If I do, then I try and read those before I buy more.

I would probably need 3 lifetimes to read all the books out there I have some interest in, and in a way the thought is daunting. But if I look at it from another perspective, it can be uplifting. It means the world will never cease to hold wonders - that as long as I live, there will always be things to discover and love.

darkorpheus said...

Friends, when they see my bookshelves often ask me, "Have you read all these books?"

I answer, "Would you go to a library where you have nothing to read?"

I know what you mean. Still. I need to really cut down on the books I buy and focus more on reading them.

chrisa511 said...

I've thought about this many times myself, especially following Katrina (much like yourself following the Tsunami). And yet I still find myself with an entire bookshelf (probably about 130-150) of unread TBR pile.

I must say though that books are the only thing that I "collect" since Katrina..I take that back :p I've always been fond of Buddha statues and figures of Hindu gods and goddesses and collect those as well, but they are small. Still have those too. But before Katrina, I was a serious pack rat. I've learned that material possessions are not as important as they once were.

Reading is different to me though. Books are more than just material possessions. They're like photographs...they're irreplaceable. I need to own the copy that I read because each book is it's own experience down to the cover, the smell, the feel of the page, the story...etc. Hence the ridiculous amount of books that I still buy...

darkorpheus said...

I understand, Chris. Sometimes books are more than just bounded pages with writings in them. I find it easier to give up things like shoes, clothes and bags - but books are a lot harder.

Rebecca H. said...

Ah, very good questions and thoughts here. I only started collecting unread books recently, and I feel conflicted about it -- before I would buy something as I wanted to read it (for the most part). But I like the sense of possibility unread books give me.

Anonymous said...

As I look around at all my unread piles of books I know exactly what you mean. I ask myself these questions too. I do wonder sometimes if I am hoarding. But since I don't collect anything else, my answer to why I have so many unread books around is that they represent my hopes for the future. I hope that someday I will be able to read them. I hope I will have the time and health to read them. Judging from how many books there are, I am a very hope-filled person :)

Carl V. Anderson said...

I commisserated with you and this post on my post for today.

I truly respect those who give up everything to become more enlightened, to help refocus on what is important, etc. Sometimes a good cleansing can be just that.

I do, however, not subscribe to the idea that the only way to get closer to God, or self, or whatever one believes in, has to be at the expense of the things one enjoys. Extremes can sometimes be necessary but I don't feel that it has to always get to that point. Just taking a bit of time each day to focus on what is important can effect a lifetime of change, if one is really taking the time.

While my latest binge is excessive, those binges are rare, and I feel like I am defined as much by my religious beliefs and relationships with others as I am with the relationship I have with art and with story. If I was to lose all it would be momentarily devastating, but at the same time I would have cherished memories of those things and what they represented in my life.

Balance is the name of the game in my opinion...and remember this is only in my opinion!!! What do I know, I'm a book addict! ;)

Andi said...

I try to always ask myself "do I really need this?" when I'm buying books. And I ask myself again after I've read a book. I've gotten pretty good at letting those books go that I don't think I'll read again or teach at some point. It makes for a lot more room in the house, and a very happy boyfriend. :)

darkorpheus said...

Dorothy "sense of possibility" - another good way of seeing it. But does this mean you usually finish the books you buy? Wow.

Stefanie "Judging from how many books there are, I am a very hope-filled person." - Definitely!

Carl I think when we speak of the spiritual life of priests and monks - we're talking about extremes. (Extreme at least to a layman like myself, who cannot imagine that kind of life for themselves. But to the monks and nuns themselves, the decision behind their spiritual choice probably make sense to them.)

I agree with you that having a spiritual life doesn't mean giving up things that we enjoy. But I think making a commitment to anything (whether it is religion, career or marriage) means priority does shift, so we find ourselves making time for the more important things.

For example, being married doesn't mean you don't enjoy going to the pub or hanging out with friends. But sometimes you realise you just want to spend that time with your partner, or helping your kids with their homework.

You are right also that balance is the key. Excesses, binges - sometimes we just have to live a little.

What is excessive is relative. It's how comfortable we feel about the stuff in our life. For myself, I'm starting to feel overwhelmed by the clutter. There are a lot of books I can't let go of because of their emotional significance in my life. But then there are the other stuff I can let go. I feel I should let go of the latter to make space for the new stuff.

On a practical side, perhaps after decluttering I will finally be able to see more of my floor! ;p

Andi It always goes back to the same questions, doesn't it? "Do I need this?" That question of what is a "Need" and what is a "Want".

But yeah, I need more room in the apartment too.

Carl V. Anderson said...

"What is excessive is relative." You nailed it! Prioritization and balance are keys, as you mentioned.

And I wholly understand a person giving up worldly possessions etc. if they are going into a life of ministry or on some sort of whole self spiritual journey. It makes perfect sense that you wouldn't want other things distracting you from your purpose.

And we should all get lessons growing up about how to properly declutter, both internally and externally! ;)

Melwyk said...

I have friends who only keep a few books, the ones that look aesthetically pleasing on the fancy, empty bookshelves. I keep telling them that bookshelves were not made for photos and vases, but they won't believe me!

Books, for me, are the one thing I never think I have too many of. Except when I have to pack them all and move them. Seriously, they are a symbol for me of my search for knowledge and understanding, and I don't want to give up one that I haven't read, in case it will reveal something I haven't come across yet. After I've read it, if I don't absolutely love it, I will pass it on.

darkorpheus said...

Carl My mom once offered the suggestion to decluttering: "Maybe you should just throw away your books. Or not buy so many."

I was horrified, of course.

Melanie I can't imagine just using books for aesthetics. There's something just wrong about empty bookshelves for vases. And photos.

I think empty bookshelves scare me. I wouldn't know how to respond to someone who don't like reading.

Crafty Green Poet said...

What an excellent post, I love how you've threaded so many things together here. I try not to hoard stuff but books, well the pile gets bigger. I only buy second hand books and I have 18months worth of novels sitting there. I like the choice and my tastes are unusual so the chances of coming across another second hand copy of a book that appeals to me is unlikely. Once I've read a book, I'm pretty good at passing it on if I don't think I'll re-read it or refer to it in the future.