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. ^
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