Sunday, February 15, 2009

Library or Wastebasket?

Most of us in the modern age have a collection of books. But as I was musing today about all the books I own I asked myself, am I using my personal library as a waste bin? If I am, it sure is a pretty insane thing to do. But, I ask myself, do you ever really read those books again? If you do, do you really read them enough? Or do you use it as a wastebasket: a place to put your books when you're finished with them because throwing them in the garbage just feels wrong somehow?

We live in a world that has survived the book-burning Nazi's, and I think we've all heard the dire warnings of Bradbury's Farenheit 451 and the celebrity-laden public service posters of the libraries of childhood reminding us to treat books with a sacred reverence. Even now, my wife admonishes me, with good reason, to take better care of my books.

For anyone who owns more than a few dozen books and has ever had to move, you know that moving those suckers isn't an easy task. But why do we go to all that trouble?
What's the point of it?
Do we really re-read the books we've bought, committing thereby to schlep them from place to place.

I like to say that I do, though I probably don't read them often enough, particularly the poetry. I've been working on that.
See's Candies has a great slogan referring to their product as "a happy habit." Of course their motive is to get you to buy more chocolate regularly, not just on special occasions, but there's some truth in the sentiment. Charles M. Shulz said "All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and again never hurts either." I agree 100%, but I won't get into the wonders and magical properties of chocolate just now. Suffice it to say that, as I've voluntarily taken up some of my poetry books lately, I've come to see them less as bran muffins (something to be forced down and gulped before you can taste it because "it's good for you," though it's really revolting), and more as little literary chocolates. I'm starting to look at them as a rich, liqueury, expensive-tasting chocolate of the type Mary See and Co. would have us consider a happy habit.

I've rolled the thunderous peals of Whitman around in my mouth (Walt, of course, not the drugstore chocolatier). He often starts with a sudden sting of an almost musical quality that reminds me of Beethoven:

"A California Song!" (Song of the Redwoods, Line 1)

What an opening! And what follows doesn't disappoint, especially not for someone as in love with the people and landscape of California as I have come to be. Check out Leaves of Grass if you'd like to see what I mean. And that's only the beginning of what my old books have been teaching me lately, but that's another blog.

My mother taught me some great things about collecting books. That advice can be summed up in this sentence; more isn't always better. After all, one can only read so many books in one's life.

Indulge me here in a little math. If you're a relatively slow, but avid reader like me, you probably average about a dozen books a year. Of those, how many had you ever read before? Probably few, if any. Which ones did you re-read? One or two? That's about the going rate for me. So, let's say that I'm fortunate enough to live to be, say, 75. Starting from age 18 that's only 57 good years of reading, coming to only about 684 books altogether, a mere drop of invisible water vapor in an ocean of titles. At two re-read books per year that comes to 114 books you justifiably own, assuming you only read those only once more!

So ask yourself, is your library just a waste basket? A place where good books go to die? That hardly seems fair. As for your children, that's another question. Now I ask myself two questions before buying a new book: "will I ever read it again?", and "would I want my kids to read this if I had any?" If the answer to either of these is "no," I just let it lie and buy a good cheeseburger instead. I've only got so much money, cheeseburgers, and reading time in my life. This, in spite of my attempts to trick myself into thinking I have, like the man in the Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough At Last" to read everything I want to read. But we know what happened to him.

Of course you have to stick your head up and live every once in a while. As a writer it's an occupational hazard of mine to just live deep in my books and while away a monk-like existence. But I really do have to go out from time to time if only to find something to write about. But reading is important – "a happy habit" that maybe we could all put a little more thought and effort into for our own good, and for the good of the next generation. Reading, like anything worth doing, is a skill. Consider taking a moment to examine how well you do it, as I've done here for myself.


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