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?