I’ve been on a voluntary simplicity kick recently. You know the sort of thing – throwing out old stuff I no longer require or use (of which there is a surprising amount), resisting buying new stuff no matter how big the temptation and so on.
It gives life a bit of discipline and one of the major effects is that it makes me think twice about buying something new just because I feel the sudden urge to spend and I see something shiny. After all, what is the point of acquiring it if I know there is a good chance of throwing it out in the foreseeable future. The process of stripping away the stuff from my life dramatises this possibility and makes it very real.
I started using a method recommended by an article on Lifehacker. I threw out one thing per day, sometimes more, never less. This is about the easiest way I can think of for getting rid of unwanted stuff. There is nothing hard about it. It takes next to no effort. It can be done in minutes, if not seconds, and, over the course of a month or two, it adds up. Things were going smoothly on the simplicity front until, a couple of weeks ago, I hit a major roadblock.
Looking around my office I discovered I had run out of easy things to dump. One object did catch my eye, a copy of The Pickwick Papers, one of the Wordsworth classic editions that probably cost £1 when I bought it God knows how long ago.
It was a nice edition complete with the original illustrations but I own multiple e-book versions of the complete works of Dickens. I have one that I bought from Amazon for my Kindle and one I acquired over a decade ago for my PalmPilot and which I still use on my non-Amazon e-readers. It was not like I needed a print copy of this particular work and the truth is that it would not cost me the Earth if I needed to buy one in the future.
I picked up that copy of The Pickwick Papers and I got ready to throw it out. Actually, I didn’t. I paused. It occurred to me that perhaps I could sell it to a second-hand bookstore or give it to a charity shop. The former seemed unlikely given how cheap the book was originally and I could not find a charity shop in our neighbourhood that would take an old book in English. To be honest, I could not find a charity shop. It all seemed a little too much like work for the sake of getting rid of this one thing.
I decided that I would just throw it in the trash but, when it came to it, I could not make myself do it. This was a book! I don’t think in all my life I have ever thrown away a book. I’ve given some to friends. I’ve sold some to second-hand bookstores. But actually throwing away a book was just not something I could bring myself to do.
When I was growing up, books were treasures. This was in the dark days before the Internet, when there were only three television channels and those showed whatever the programming gods decided was appropriate that particular day. Video recorders were science fiction, at least in my neighbourhood. Books were a simple, reliable means of escape and entertainment. They were what I spent my pocket money on. In my teenage years my personal library of science fiction and fantasy was my greatest treasure.
It’s hard to believe now but there was not the super-abundance of fantastic fiction available back then that there is now. Every book was read and re-read multiple times. Often I would not be able to find the first book in a series but that did not matter, I would still read all the other books if they were there. That was how I encountered Michael Moorcock, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E Howard and many others for the first time.
Over the four decades since then I have accumulated more and more books. The last time we moved house I shipped a ton and a half books internationally. I left at least twice that weight in storage with friends and family. If it sounds crass to discuss books in terms of tonnage, I apologise, but it was a discovery that shocked me particularly since I had to pay for every pound of it.
In recent times our apartments have gotten larger and larger every time we shifted. In part this was simply to provide storage for my ever growing library.
Only one thing has slowed down the relentless takeover of our living space by my burgeoning collection of books and that was the arrival in recent years of e-books. According to my Kindle I have purchased 600 over the past three years. Since a significant number of these are things like The Collected Works of Charles Dickens or Jack London or Leo Tolstoy or Anthony Trollope I strongly suspect that I have over 1000 books on my Kindle. If they were physical objects they would probably take up another room in our flat.
Anyway to cut short this digression, let me just say that I could think of no real reason for not throwing away that copy of The Pickwick Papers. And yet I struggled to make myself do it. It felt sacrilegious, like I was contemplating something heinous. The thought sidled into my mind that this might just be the start of a very long process. After all, I own e-book copies of many of the paper books on my shelf. If I started, where would it stop?
And it really mattered to me – somehow the possession of all those books was a part of my identity. I had defined myself over the years as a book lover, as a book hoarder. I felt as if I was standing at a fork in the road. Down one path lay a future in which my shelves would be stripped bare. Down the other path was a vision of rooms slowly vanishing beneath piles of books.
I went backwards and forwards. I had no sentimental attachment to this particular copy of The Pickwick Papers. It was just something I had picked up somewhere along the line some time ago. I love the book but I can read it any time anyway. In the end I think that’s what decided me.
I walked down stairs and I put the book in the trash. I felt like a criminal.
It’s been a couple of weeks and only this morning did I manage to make myself throw out another book. It was a fat book fantasy that I have never been able to get past chapter 3 of. I disliked it immensely when I read it and I have been known to complain about the stupidity of its premise and characters to any of my friends who are foolish enough to listen. And still I checked on the Internet to make sure that a Kindle version was available in the unlikely event that I ever feel the need to read it in the future. Only after doing so did I toss it. It was still a struggle but a less desperate one this time. I suspect it’s only going to get easier.
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