Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I don't own books



After complaining about people who say "I don't own a TV," I'm going to make an equally irritating statement:

I don't own books.*

I like to make this statement because it shocks people who look down their noses on TV. We are supposed to think that TV is for dumb people and books are for smart people. Somebody posted on my Facebook feed recently,

"If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't fuck them." -- John Waters

I used to feel the same way as John Waters. Who would ever not have books?? Only a terrible person.

Growing up, there were always a ton of books in my house. My parents made the dining room over into a library, lining the walls with floor-to-ceiling books. It made the house feel homey and full of possibility. I could go almost anywhere in the house and find a new book to read. As guests glanced at our shelves, the sight of an interesting title or old favorite might strike up a conversation. It was the same with movies. My parents had a vast collection of VHS tapes, and, later, DVDs.

I always assumed that I would follow suit: that it was in my blood, in my upbringing, to maintain a household full of book and movies. One of my earliest teach-yourself-to-write-database-software projects was to create a catalog of my movies, which is how I know that at age 22, living in my first post-college apartment, I owned 78 movies. And that was the collection I considered more manageable and database-able. I probably owned about 200 books. Along with all these books and movies, I also owned three sets of shelves to keep them in, and I was constantly filling them and searching for more space. I moved five times in the next five years, packing all my books into boxes and unpacking them again.

* Confession: Okay, I own five books. They are Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant, and all four volumes of The Complete Calvin & Hobbes. They're comic strip collections, so they're nicer to read on paper than on an e-reader, and the Kate Beaton book is signed with a custom picture of Jane Austen I asked her to draw. That should prove my elitist bibliophile snob credentials.

The digital revolution

It started with music. I wondered why I owned and CDs. They seemed so retro, and anyway, I listened to all my music in mp3 or streaming format out of convenience. Since I didn't have all that many CDs to begin with, it was easy for me to institute a no-CD's policy. I also sensed that nobody wanted CDs anymore, so I gave them away while the giving away was good.

It made sense to apply the same logic to DVDs. The format wasn't going to last forever, and more and more movies and TV shows were available on streaming and downloadable formats. I gave away or sold everything I couldn't stream. Then, the longer I held onto the remaining DVDs, the less sense it made. Because it had been decimated by removing anything streamable, and because I no longer bought new DVDs, my collection no longer represented my tastes faithfully; it was a random subset of things I liked or had once liked. As a visual representation of my tastes, it failed. 

At some point I had the revelation:

You are not defined by the things you own.

I thought I knew this already. Brand names didn't do much for me. My mother had done a good job of convincing me that my jeans and light-up sneakers from K-Mart were just as good as my friends' name-brand items. Somehow, though, books and DVDs had remained a special case. 

I began to change my mind about what a DVD was. It wasn't a piece of my personality, displayed on a shelf. It was just a piece of hardware that allowed me to have a particular experience. The day I caught myself watching Scrubs on Netflix even though I owned the same season on DVD, I got rid of the rest of my DVDs.

Having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card.

"Discovering" the public library helped me to apply the experience mindset to books. (Of course I already knew about the library, but somehow I managed to keep forgetting about it and not using it consistently. "Did you know the library exists??" is one of those mind-blowing revelations I'd have every few years. Luckily, I've managed to remember its existence continuously for the last few years!)

"I love to reread" was my big reason/excuse for owning my favorite books in the past, but really, with the library, there's nothing to say that I can't take out the same book several times. In practice, though, I don't. There are so many books I haven't read out there, just waiting for me to have time to take them out, that it never occurs to me take out something I've already read. I realize now that my tendency to re-read was largely a byproduct of owning a finite number of books. My collection was big enough to unwieldy, but it still didn't satisfy my reading appetite. As a library user/abuser, I read more books than I could ever afford to buy. 

Using the library also helped me to realize that there is a subtle difference between the books I liked to own and the books I like to read. When you use the library, there is absolutely no reason to get out a book you're not excited to read in the next few days. Buying is different. There were many books that I bought because I thought an intelligent person ought to read them (and then I didn't read them). Or, as with movies, there were books that I didn't want to reread in the near future but felt I should own anyway, because I had liked them so much in the past, and I wanted to display that liking for an imaginary audience. 

I'm no longer interested in treating books as home decor. Owning a book is neither proof nor supporting evidence of the sort of person I am. Books are to be read. And now that I don't "gotta catch 'em all" with books, I read more than ever.

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