Purging is good
We’re expecting a baby in June, but we’re not in a position to move out of our tiny one-bedroom apartment. So we’re rearranging our lives. We’ve bought some storage “solutions” from Ikea, we’ve learned to artfully stack our belongings and — most importantly — we’re getting rid of stuff. Lots of it.
We’ve purged ourselves of old clothes, small appliances and all sorts of other items, including a disused folding bike, last year’s New Year’s resolution. Purging is good. It’s cleansing, and it reminds us that we really don’t need much to be happy.
But there’s one category of stuff that seems exempt from our purging habits: our books.
Entering a no nostalgia zone
I am an avid ebook reader. I have a Kindle stuffed to the gills with everything from the Count of Monte Cristo to cookbooks for fancy sandwiches. Ever since buying an iPad Mini, my digital reading habits have increased to include digital magazines and the occasional digital comic book.
I have no romantic feelings toward old school books. Clunky, impractical and made of dead trees, they were never the best way to read — they were simply the only way to read. When I see people riding the subway, awkwardly clutching a 600-page George R. R. Martin tomb in one hand while trying to hold on to a rail with the other, I think, “I’m so glad that’s not me anymore.”
And yet, as I type this I glance over the top of my laptop at two towering bookshelves flanking my TV. They are filled, predictably, with books. Actual books. Heavy stacks of paper colorfully bound, their spines reading like an index of my interests.
There are books on animation, typography, art, social science, traveling, foreign language and product design. The shelves are peppered with contemporary fiction and an occasional book of poetry, too.
The funny thing is, I can’t remember the last time I took a book off the shelf and actually opened it.
When we moved to New York from spacious Texas, we rid ourselves of about half of our books. Those were nearly all works of fiction. I told myself, “Look, they’re just text on pages. You can always get them again as an ebook.”
Roughly 90% of the books that survived contain loads of imagery. Maybe they are full of explanatory illustrations or photographs; maybe they use graphs and charts to make their point; or maybe they are large format coffee-table books of highly detailed art.
The fiction I tell myself (and, I suspect, many people tell themselves) is that I keep these books because they are special. They cannot be faithfully reproduced in electronic form, and so they need to be protected, coveted, cherished.
Calling BS on myself
This may be true — there really isn’t a digital equivalent to some of my gorgeous art books — but the fact is that I still don’t use them. They are essentially decoration.
In one sense, they are the most deplorable kind of decoration that exists: narcissistic decorations. Each book is supposed to indicate something about me. Collectively, they represent an impressive blend of interests and knowledge. Keeping them around is tantamount to a marble bust of myself sitting just below my television with a small brass plaque that reads, “Look at me! I am awesome.”
The price of imagined longing
The truth is that we keep most of our junk around because we believe that if we get rid of it, we will miss it terribly in some imagined future. Four weeks from now, we’ll rummage through a kitchen cabinet, looking for that French press coffee maker before realizing — damn, that’s right: we gave it away! And then we will cry.
All of which is ridiculous, of course. Even if there is a time in the future when you reach out for some object that once was there, is it really that big of a deal to pine over its absence? For one or two minutes, we might feel a dull needling of regret, but then we’ll be off to something else, the cherished object already fading from consciousness.
So to avoid this moment of imaginary sadness, we keep our crap around us, surrounding us on all sides.
After writing this much about my beloved books, I thought I’d get the urge to pull one down and thumb through its pages, for old time’s sake.
Nope. I’m scanning the shelves, but I feel nothing. No urge to plunge into the pulpy pleasures of bound paper and ink. No need to once again peruse the paintings of an artist who’s real impact was made on me in the museum, not while reviewing his monograph.
These books are just ghosts of a former time. Like ghosts, they haunt me. But unlike ghosts, they take up space.