One of the more dif­fi­cult parts about mov­ing, for me at least, has always been the attri­tion. Deciding what’s going with me and what’s being donated — or, in some cases, sim­ply pitched out — has always been more dif­fi­cult than I think it should be.

Nowhere is this more obvi­ous than with my book col­lec­tion. It’ll come as a micro­scopic sur­prise that I have a fairly sub­stan­tial library, prob­a­bly 80% of which I’ve read. The rest is on the wait­ing list. When your library con­tains some 500 titles, that’s obvi­ously a pretty big I’ll-get-to-it-soon stack.

Why on Earth would any­one even want that many books? I used to be asked that some­times by class­mates when I was in high school. (One even com­mented, in all seri­ous­ness, “I’ve never been so bored that I had to read.” It goes with­out say­ing that she and I never dated.)

To some extent, this is my father’s influ­ence. I used to go into his study as a child and stare in utter, silent awe at the wall of books there. The col­lec­tion showed a wide range of tastes, includ­ing lit­er­a­ture, fan­tasy, and SF. The first time I read Dangerous Visions, I was about four­teen, and it was from his col­lec­tion.1 DV was not the kind of book you’d nor­mally think of a young teen read­ing, but that was how it went in my fam­ily. As long as it was a book, and wasn’t from a porn shop, there was no censorship.

Even before I could really read, my folks had set me up with books. There was a col­lec­tion of pic­to­r­ial vol­umes on the nat­ural world, there were story books, and there was even a dic­tio­nary — a car­toon one based on Peanuts, called The Charlie Brown Dictionary. A rea­son­ably good start, by any standard.

Something I used to do dur­ing sum­mer vaca­tion was hang out down­town while my dad was work­ing in his law office. Not every day, mind you; this was usu­ally just half a day on Saturdays. While he was slav­ing over hot torts, I’d go down to the used book­store, located where the Amtrak wait­ing room is now in down­town Kingman. There they sold tatty paper­backs at 25 cents each or five for a buck. One of my early pur­chases was Chrichton’s Andromeda Strain. It was there that I bought my first copy of The Martian Chronicles, and there that I dis­cov­ered the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Books were — as they often are, for a cer­tain type of kid — a form of enter­tain­ment, but they were also ways to learn about other pos­si­ble modes of think­ing and exist­ing, and ways to expand my options for self-​​expression.

The seeds, then, for a life­long affec­tion for books were planted early. Besides, I learned that my col­lec­tion was impres­sive to oth­ers, even intim­i­dat­ing; by high school I reg­u­larly joked that my grow­ing library was my own ver­sion of a phal­lic symbol.

I wasn’t really jok­ing. In many ways, it was. My tastes were still devel­op­ing; I was obsessed with Stephen King, but also loved Douglas Adams. Looking back, I can even pin­point when my inter­est in the for­mer waned; it was with the pub­li­ca­tion of It, which I shall for­ever regard as indis­putable evi­dence that King really had begun pub­lish­ing his laun­dry lists.2

Later I dis­cov­ered William S. Burroughs, and even­tu­ally Philip K. Dick, and even the mar­velous (though incon­sis­tent) Discworld series. I con­tinue pick­ing up new authors and round­ing out my col­lec­tions of old favorites, and that’s why I have about 100 unread books in my pos­ses­sion today.

I also have some that I know I’ll never read again, and those are the ones that will end up in my sale or dona­tion pile. Still, even that is dif­fi­cult. It’s tough for me to part with some­thing that so pow­er­fully sym­bol­izes an impor­tant aspect of my per­son­al­ity, even when it’s a book I really just couldn’t get into — or have moved beyond.

One day, Siddhartha Gautama was hang­ing out with his monks, chew­ing the fat.3 They were approached by a cowherd, who asked them if they’d seen any cat­tle wan­der past. Well, no, they hadn’t. The cowherd lamented that he’d lost track of his dozen or so cat­tle, and went pelt­ing off in another direc­tion, still look­ing for them.

Gautama pointed out that this is how it often was with cows. You’d start with one for milk­ing, but then you’d get another to sup­ple­ment the first; then a third, and maybe then a bull, and then you’d have a great moo­ing heap of cat­tle. And some­where along the way, the cows would no longer be work­ing for you; you’d be the one work­ing for them. Beyond that comes the anx­i­ety when your herd gets away.

Contrasted to a rel­a­tively sim­ple exis­tence, one that didn’t anchor itself to the acqui­si­tion of more and more cat­tle, the life of a monk prob­a­bly looked pretty appeal­ing. Gautama then said, in essence, that what we all needed to do was reduce the num­ber of cows we were keeping.

This was best accom­plished, he believed, by grad­u­ally let­ting them go, a cow at a time, and sim­ply not replac­ing them after they left. I think there’s some truth to that, which makes it a lit­tle eas­ier to sort those books into the keep­ers and the escapees. I hope it goes as well with my DVD col­lec­tion; I guess time will tell on that.

I sup­pose you know, by now, that this isn’t really a post about books or cows.

It’s my wish that we can all look at the cows we’ve been so care­fully herd­ing, and find a way to let some of them go. At the very least, it’ll make pack­ing eas­ier to manage.


1. Dangerous Visions is a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries edited by Harlan Ellison, and famous for its coun­ter­cul­tural sub­ver­sive­ness. Now, forty years after its pub­li­ca­tion, it seems almost quaint — though Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah” still stands out as lyri­cally stun­ning. ^

2. He really lost me with It, in more or less the same way thar Rowling lost me with the fourth book in the Harry Potter series. Both King and Rowling are com­pe­tent sto­ry­tellers and good writ­ers, but they also ben­e­fit most with an edi­tor who has the spine to say, “Look, this is just too sprawl­ing. Redact about ten thou­sand words from this chap­ter, cut out the mid­dle third, and tweak the pac­ing a lit­tle, and we’ll go ahead with the print­ing.” Alas. ^

3. Figuratively. Gautama was a veg­e­tar­ian, I believe. ^


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