Saturday, August 02, 2008

Catharsis: Today I gave away some of my books.

Today I threw out some books for the first time in my life.

In the early years of our marriage my wife couldn't understand my reluctance to part with any book that I have ever read. It is not that I am a fastidious collector who keeps volumes lovingly indexed on pristine bookshelves. I have books on shelves, books in drawers, books in boxes, books everywhere in fact with no obvious organisation.

Some of my clinginess stems from my early realisation of the unreliable nature of human memory. I have a terrible memory. Many times I have launched into a new title from a serial novel only to realise that I cannot recall what happened before or who the main characters are. As long as I had the original book on the shelf somewhere of course this never mattered. Books became an extension of my memory and parting with one of my books became as unthinkable as parting with a piece of my head.

I am also old enough to remember an age when books were more potent totems than they are in the information overloaded age that we live in today. For much of the last millennium books were the only repository of knowledge and knowledge has always been power. I was proud of my books. At some strange subconscious level I imagined the day when I would be called to account. Then I would be able to hold my head high and prove that I had indeed read Koestler's "The Sleepwalkers" or Gibson's "Neuromancer"by pointing to the copies sitting on my shelf.

So what has changed? Well for one thing I have. One of the lessons of age is that you cannot hold on to everything. Sometimes you need to let old things go to make room for the new. This applies both to the physical articles and to the memories that they carry. Throwing out some of my older books is in itself a form of renewal.

Of course the information environment itself has changed beyond recognition. At 15 I dreamed of owning my own set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. That dream has never been fulfilled although my wife did buy me a DVD edition of Britannica a few years back. The truth is that in this age of Google and Wikipedia printed books have been displaced as our main sources of information. I no longer need books to act as extensions of my memory.

The final reason for my catharsis is more practical. I have a nine year old daughter who reads for hours every day. She consumes up to ten books every week. If she follows in my footseteps and insists on keeping every book she ever reads there will soon be no room in our house for humans. I must lead by example and show her that it is possible to let go.

At least my babies are going to a good home. I have given them to a surprisingly good charity bookfair that we go to every month. They always have a large selection of children's books selling for ridiculously low prices. The fair is a major contributor to the fact that we have not yet been bankrupted by my daughter's obsession. It makes sense to give something back in return.


Anonymous said...

Just remember you can always buy new editions of the books you have let go, at a later date of course & when you feel the need to read them again.

It's been over a year since I completed reading a book...

mbp said...

DM I think I am going to wait for the day when electronic book readers become standardised and ubiquitous. Then I will happily re build a collection of books in electronic format.