I’ve always had a tendency to accumulate stuff. Not a hoarder, I’m not that bad….but paper and books are especially difficult for me to let go of, closely followed by old photos. Some of it is sheer sentimentalism (old school exercise books, etc.) some is the fear of letting go of things that might one day be useful. You know how that is.
A couple of weeks ago I decided that I really needed to start thinning the pile in earnest, and figured that if I began with the most challenging—books—it would make letting go of other belongings easier. I’ve skimmed the top off the book pile a few times before, but now I was planning to cut into flesh. Not easy for me. (My wife, who is the opposite of me when it comes to belongings, is wonderfully patient with me.)
The problem with excess possessions, of course, is that they eventually possess you. They make it hard to clean, hard to move homes; they cost money because you need space for them; they limit your freedom in every way.
So why do we get attached to the material? Why, even when we know the reasons for attachment, and see them for the garbage they are, can some of us still not bear to let go of surplus possessions? How much do any of us actually need to be happy? Hell, one day we’re going to have to let go of the most important thing we have, life itself. So it’s probably a good idea to become a little more comfortable with the notion..
The only time I’ve ever viscerally grasped the insignificance of all the possessions we invest with such terrible sentiment and memory and symbolism has been in the presence of death. In London, for example, fifteen years ago, while going through my mother’s mountains of belongings with an old friend, I was struck so forcibly by the irrelevance of all the stuff she’d kept that I began to laugh out loud at the foolishness of it. You can’t take any of it with you. It’s nothing.
Of course I could see that my own tendency to accumulate was at least partly inherited. But my mother had been through wartime and her family had literally lost everything they owned: I was born into a time of plenty and didn’t have that excuse.
I decided that my acid test with the bookshelves would be the question, “am I really likely to read that book again?” And of course, quickly realized that there are many books that I occasionally pick up and read a few paragraphs of, or refer to something, or keep to loan out, etc. Oh, how quick the excuses. I resolved to be firm.
And then there’s the problem of inherited books. Like for instance a big quarto volume bound in what looked like white pigskin that I’d found—along with piles of age-yellowed Penguin Classics and Plays—among my mother’s belongings. The book was a novel, in Italian, and inside was a fascinating dedication, also in Italian: my mother (who, with her family, had endured WWII in Nazi-occupied Rome) had given it to her mother in late 1944, adding in the dedication that this was the first book to be printed in Italy after the liberation. Sentimental value high, practical value, zero: I have no children or family that reads Italian; though I do, I would never read this book; and I don’t have the time to start advertising every book I think might have value to someone somewhere.
Somewhere in the cluttered attic of my mind a little voice reminded me that if I could make these hardest choices, getting rid of the low sentiment possessions would be a breeze.
A few days ago I took several large boxes of books to my local used bookstore, one which donates all the books they can’t sell. In the three boxes were some tough calls: a number of Science Fiction hardbacks and also some of the very first SF books I ever owned as a teenager, people like Asimov and Poul Anderson, VanVogt and Clifford D. Simak. It was hard to let them go. But I know, know I’ll never read them again: the few that I will (like Asimov’s The End of Eternity), I kept. But the others, though I loved them as old friends, were just too dated.
It wasn’t much, but it was a start. Some tough calls were made and, yes, the pigskin-bound book is gone, too. There will be more, much more, and not just books. It won’t be easy, and the part of me that is so resistant to any change will fight and scream. It’s a bit like dieting or quitting smoking—you find every possible reason to put it off and not start now.
I will do it. No, really. I will.