A year without books … ?

April 11, 2008

So I was thinking last night, being that I was awake at 4 AM, how the things you own actually own you. If you own a house, the house in turn owns you. The ownership of a house, being one of the “landed gentry” as one of my friends calls it, is a double-edged sword. While owning a house is a good investment, and it’s nice to call something your own, a house is also a giant albatross around your neck that sucks money and time out of you. You mow the lawn, clean gutters, pump water from the crawlspace. If you own a pet, they in turn own a piece of you, own your time, your heart, and again, cost money for food and bills. If you own a slave girl, she in turn owns you, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve always said the chain goes both ways, especially in matters of the heart.

This idea also applies to my attachment to books. I own thousands of books, but they in turn own me, because I can’t seem to do without them, nor can I give them up. I keep them in boxes in my closet, on shelves, in stacks on furniture and beside the bed. I have books that were on my bedroom shelf when I was in high school, even junior high. I have plans to go through them all and get rid of a bunch, but I can’t seem to even begin. I sold dozens at a yard sale a few decades (!) ago, and felt horrible, and I’ve not gotten rid of many since though I will (very rarely) give some to the library for their book sale — usually items I bought from a previous sale anyway.

Reading Breath by Breath recently, a book about Insight Meditation by Larry Rosenberg, Rosenberg mentioned how he went to Korea to study and participate in a year long Buddhist retreat. On the flight over, he pulled out a stack of books on the plane. His teacher saw this, and exclaimed Rosenberg had read too much, and intellectualized too much, and demanded that he not read for the entire coming year. Desperate for reading material during the year, Rosenberg read the back of ketchup bottles at dinner.

This sounds horribly familiar. As a kid growing up, I read the back of cereal boxes at the breakfast table. Even now, faced with nothing to read while in the bathroom, I find myself reading the back of shampoo bottles and deodorant. Classy.

Yet Rosenberg says the process had a purpose and was a sort of relief, and he learned much from not reading at all. It has affected how he reads even now, and his choice of reading material has changed since.

I can’t imagine doing something like this, but at the same time, I marvel at the relief it might be. I’m always reading something. What window of time it open up if I didn’t read? What calm, perhaps, or maybe horrible dullness, would settle into my head without books and the ideas and wild tangents they cause to shoot through my head? Would I find myself simply sitting on my deck during the coming summer, staring into space and listening to birds? Would I, like Rosenberg, have nothing to do but my own version of meditation, my own version of just sitting, just thinking? And what would I have to think about without books?

Talk about introspection, and finding “yourself!”

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