The Unbearable Heaviness of Books
Fragment from a recent dream: I discover two Vintage International paperbacks lying on a table, one of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and one of his Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I comment on how I enjoyed reading both in my 12th grade English literature course (which is true) then wake up.
I have been obsessed with books lately, yet not in the normal bibliophile way. An avid reader since the age of 4, I have always been drawn to the printed word, and the feel of a book in my hand is second nature. My first dollars were earned shelving books at the public library; my next job involved bibliography searching and cataloguing new books in a college campus library before I moved into retail and worked at a used bookstore while finishing my studies and deciding What Next.
This recent obsession with books, however, is different. Though I do not actively collect books, I am a book magnet – and the attraction is mutual. They appear in my wake, congregate on the coffee table, wait for me to pick them up, turn their pages, absorb the wisdom they have to offer. When I visit a person’s home for the first time, I am inevitably drawn to the bookshelves, my eyes narrowing and shrewdly assessing the book situation. I read an interview with Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho in which he said that he keeps his books in closed cabinets so visitors do not know what he reads. A bit paranoid, perhaps, but the paper company we keep is indeed revealing.
For the past year or so, I have been trying to free myself of material and mental ballast. We need so much less than we think we do. I practice yoga because it helps me experience a feeling of lightness and spaciousness within my body, a sensation I associate with health and well-being. I have been trying to create a similarly unencumbered space in my home by removing excess things. Since books are the category of objects I have the most of, I have been working on radically reducing their number.
At one point in the past year, I decided to employ a different tactic than choosing what books to get rid of. Instead, I told myself I could keep one book for every year of my life. Out of the several hundred books on my shelves at that time, I only found 25 that I deemed important enough to carry close to me the rest of my life – with a comfortable margin for this core collection to grow! This exercise made me see how I view many of my books as temporary companions and has helped me loosen my grip on and let go of dozens of others.
I have come to realize that the books we place on our shelves represent projections of who we wish to be. It is a good practice to periodically reexamine what dreams are staring down at us from the shelves and potentially weighing us down with unrealistic expectations – and then take appropriate action. The shelf above, for example, constantly scolds me for doing nothing to make good on my wish of learning Polish and Russian well enough to read literature. Yet this wish was formulated in a past that no longer has much of a connection to my present. Isn’t it enough that I can already read books in three foreign languages, I plead with the Polish textbooks, who respond with stony silence and disappointment at my audacity to reject More and be satisfied with Enough.
May the books on your shelves be supportive and not reproachful!