Honestly, I don’t own a lot of stuff. By monkish or Third-World standards, my house and office probably resemble overstuffed warehouses but not by the standards of my time and place. Two suits, two sport coats, maybe eight dress shirts, some ties, three pairs of shoes – a serviceable wardrobe for the life I lead. My one indulgence, the one possession in which I take active pleasure, is books. That has been true since I was a kid. I’m not a hoarder and I remain a discriminating culler. I’ve never thought of books as an investment. I don’t own a single volume I wouldn’t give away to the right home. Still, I don’t understand W.S. Di Piero’s reasoning:
“I’ve decided to sell off or give away most of my books. [Thus far, no problem.] If I read them well in the first place, I’ll always own them. [No, you won’t.] They have certainly owned me [perhaps], which is a reason for letting them go [New Age mumbo jumbo]. I want them out of my apartment, out of my sight, and me out of their sight, for they’ve watched me—watched over and examined and compassed me—long enough. [Here, he loses me completely.] Time to go now, old friends, old obsessors, forsakers, forget-me-nots. Give me reprieve finally from that life of mind and heart that has come to oppress me. Time for you (and me) to go.”
I’ve never once felt judged or oppressed by books, mine or anyone else’s. They’ve always been a comfort and consolation. Di Piero’s move sounds like renunciation, a shedding of possessions for vaguely religious reasons, a secular vow of poverty. If I give away my volume of Montaigne essays, I can no longer enjoy it. A lifetime of reading him lingers, the way dust lingers after you’ve beaten the rug, but it’s fleeting. I need the words, the embodied thoughts, not a general impression, which is probably related to my total indifference to e-books – too flighty, too disembodied. Two pages later, Di Piero clarifies things a little: “When I was getting rid of my books I decided not what to sell or give away but what to keep.”
What I choose to admit to my world and retain is a process I only partially understand. I need only one edition of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy but I hold on to three. It’s not greed that motivates me, or pride of ownership. How many people who look at my shelves even know Burton’s Wunderkammer of a book? Certain books feel like talismans. My head says: rubbish. My heart says: sort of makes sense . . .