On my way to meet Tigger from work yesterday, I passed by Oxfam. I had meant to go there for some time, in fact ever since I had prepared another bag of donations. This one was quite heavy as it contained books. I gave the bag to the young woman, turned and left the shop, showing as little emotion as I could. Getting rid of books is never easy.
Our flat is very tiny and we have very little room to spare. Moreover, within a couple of months we face upheaval as the Council is engaging in a major programme of refurbishment of its properties and we are on the list for October. Moving our stuff out will be quite a headache and in the meantime it seems wise to get rid of everything that isn’t strictly essential.
Of course, you can always claim that books are essential. You may buy a pot-boiler for a train journey and dump it on arrival without a qualm but this is surely an exception. Good books retain their value, not monetary value perhaps, but that unquantifiable value that is as solid as it is hard to define.
I don’t buy books on a whim. For one thing, money is an issue and a book that turns out bad or useless therefore represents a waste. Book tokens given to me as gifts are precious and it takes me months to spend them because I want to be sure I am buying the right books with them. Whenever I have bought a book it has been because of a passionate desire to read it. Throughout my life, my interests have changed and I have always been completely absorbed in whatever is my latest passion. The books I have bought in response to that passion are not “merely” books: they are mementos of a time in my life and recall that time and the thoughts and feelings I experienced then. Getting rid of a book is like getting rid of part of myself.
The most traumatic event of this kind happened just over two years ago. I walked out of one life and into a new one. Within a few days I had to move or get rid of a lifetime’s accumulation of property. This included 20 feet of shelving containing my core collection of books, a virtual history of my intellectual life up to that point, most of which I could not keep. Deciding which ones could go with me and which had to be cast aside was a painful task and it had to be done quickly. What was I to do with the rejected ones? There was no time to hawk them around the secondhand bookshops or put advertisements in the papers. In any case there was (and still is) a glut on the secondhand book market. No one is buying.
Fortunately, I had the use of a car. I made several trips, filling the boot with books, transporting them to their destination and coming back for more. The destination? A “book bank” in the car park of one of Sainsbury’s supermarkets. I found it by chance and it seemed the only solution to my dilemma. I filled the book bank and had to ram the books down to get them all in, hoping that whoever managed the facility would rescue the books and put them up for sale so that they might find space on someone else’s shelves, someone who would appreciate them and treasure them better than I had.
It was a telling experience. In the West, our property defines us and lack of property is regarded almost as a sin. The religious love of poverty seems an aberration, a kind of material anorexia. But property is also a burden. It takes up space, it requires care and attention and causes worry. There is a certain pleasure in getting rid of stuff and keeping only the essentials. The “one robe, one bowl” philosophy of Zen may be extreme but there is a nobility to it. I don’t aspire quite so high but recent experience, sobering as it was, has taught me a lesson: we can live comfortably with a lot less than we think we need. It is a thought to meditate on.