A beginner's guide to downsizing, part 4: Books and the rest

4.09.2014

We keep most junk around for economic reasons: because we think we'll use it, because we think we'll need it, because we can't accept a sunk cost or because we can afford to buy knick-knacks of no value. The last breed of junk, however, isn't economic; it's emotional.

#5: Books (stuff that you've read once and will probably never read again)

I should begin by noting that I am nothing if not a bibliophile, a lover of literature and the limitless knowledge and entertainment books contain. But loving literature is not the same as loving books.

I have great friends with lovely libraries, cabinets and cases of texts and tomes, paperbacks and publications, hundreds and hundreds of bindings containing thousands and thousands of pages. It's beautiful wall art.

But is it functional? Hardly. Think of all the books you've ever read. If you have a library, think of how many books you own. Now think of how many of those books you've read a second time. Some? A third time. A few? A fourth time. Maybe two, one, zero? Practically, personal libraries are overwhelmingly underused: a book purchased, read, and then shelved, never to be opened again. With over 130 million different titles in existence, the reader rarely returns to her collection. Rather, she adds to it—buy, read, shelf, repeat—and the library grows.

Many books, lots of space.

So what's the harm? Space, for one—libraries take up a lot of room and are a pain to move. Finances—buying books costs money. And then there's the environmental cost: books are, well, made from trees, and every new copy of a book requires new pages, new trees. My simple back-of-the-napkin estimate of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, for instance (200 million copies at an average of 500 pages each, with a single sixty-foot pine tree yielding about 80,000 pages), has required nearly 1.3 million trees to produce over its long print-cycle—about 3% of the Amazon's (the forest, not the retailer) present inventory. And remember, that's just the impact of one (very high-selling) book.

But space and money and planet aside, perhaps the best argument for ditching the library is sharing. As with just-in-case junk (for what is a library but just-in-case-I-want-to-read-this-later junk?), everything we have is something someone else can't have. When we hoard five hundred books just in case we want to reread five, we're keeping 495 books from our community, 495 books that can be read not later, but now—right now. And let's face it: if we care about a book enough to keep it, isn't it inherently something we think others deserve to experience as well?

But how do we go about reading without amassing a library? Simple. We begin by donating our books—all those but the few we really, really, really believe we'll read again—to real libraries, public libraries, libraries with free and open access to all. Or we build a little free library in our neighborhood and stock it with our best. Or we pass on our collection to a used books store, perhaps even sell them on Amazon (the retailer, not the forest) for a fair price. We keep the revolving door revolving.

Then, we get a library card. We check books out and check them back in, or we buy new books and sell them back when we're done. Maybe we get an e-reader. Me, I'm partial to the Kindle Paperwhite (though I trust they're all very good), finding it to offer quite a few benefits over the paper book:

  • It's light. At under 8 ounces, an e-reader weighs half of an average paperback, and that weight doesn't change for the epic novels. Infinite Jest and Cannery Row not only weigh the same, they weigh the same together—8 ounces on a Kindle, 2 pounds in hand. For travelers, e-readers are phenomenal; one can easily pack 100 books for a multi-month excursion, and stuff the whole collection right into their back pocket.
  • It's ... light. Speaking just for the Paperwhite here, it's an absolute pleasure to read in the dark. With a soft, adjustable backlight that's easy on the eyes, reading lamps, flashlights, and strained lenses are a thing of the past.
  • Books are affordable and available for all. With thousands of titles in the public domain—and many more free to download if you know where to look—e-readers have the potential to truly close the literary gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. Growing up with neither the money for books nor someone to take me to the library regularly, it's heartening to see such open access to literature growing and evolving, but it depends on the support of all of us to continue doing so.

Of course, I've heard the arguments against them—but I love the feel of a book!, they smell so good!, or the entitled and illogical ramblings of Jonathan Franzen—and for a while, I believed them too (maybe not the Franzen bit). But the truth is, first you try an e-reader, then you get used to an e-reader, and then you prefer an e-reader, and the bookworm inside of you thanks you for it. The minimalist in you does too.

Many books, little space.
#6: Sentimental junk (stuff that we may or may not hold dear)

I won't ridicule sentimental junk as I have junk's other five forms, for our sentimental items are often those we're most sensitive about. We give them value that transcends currency; often, we consider them irreplaceable. These treasured bits of ​our very selves adorn our home and warm our hearts—the very type of thing I've advocated for keeping around in the past—so I want to be clear that what I'm talking about here is not the urn or the photo album, nor the old rocking chair passed down through the generations. Sure, these are sentimental, but they are not sentimental junk.

Sentimental junk are those items we keep because we feel they should have value. Old holiday cards with more matter than message, ticket stubs we plan to scrapbook one day but never do, letters from lovers long gone, a final draft of a senior thesis or a diploma itself. In my own downsizing journey, these were the most difficult items to part with. But after the hesitance, recycling my diplomas and burning old correspondence felt cathartic, freeing, leaving my past alive in the only place it really exists and the only place it can be truly treasured: my memories.

And then, of course, there's digitization. Yes, we can burn our letters and toss our photo albums and discard our physical encumbrances, but that needn't be our only option. For we live in the digital age, an age of uploading and archiving, an age when the contents of a shoebox or a trunk can be preserved on a chip smaller than a fingernail. Perhaps flipping through digital albums isn't quite the same as passing an afternoon in the attic perusing old photobooks, but hey: at least you don't need an attic.

This post is the fourth of a series on living simply. More to come soon.
Cross-posted at Boneyard Studios.

Old adventures, new adventures

4.04.2014

It's springtime—maybe—time to wake from hibernation, to leave the little shell I've built, to seize the day and embrace the season. Time for adventure.

Wilder Ranch, Santa Cruz, California.


I'm off to a good start, just yesterday returning from a lovely week in California with good company: climbing through Joshua Tree, celebrating nuptials, following the great Pacific from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Once again eager, and excited, for travel.

But first, I have a house to finish. I have no true hopes of burying my hammer by the end of the month, but I am pleased with the progress this March has brought, thanks to Dave and thanks to Tony: new furniture—real furniture—a place to sit, a place for food and a place for wine, a place to hang my coat and my gear. And, oh, a bathroom, a fully working bathroom with a hot shower and a simple toilet, a bathroom with a door and lights and mirror, and with the very world plastered on its walls. There's little left to do—finishing touches, really—one more couch and some cushions and a little paint here and there, then some solar for the roof ... the end, it most certainly seems, is very much in sight.

Yet sooner than I think, I'll be off again—flights booked and rail pass in hand. On May 9, I'll depart for Madrid; on August 9, I'll return from Dublin. How I'll spend the ninety days in between is beautifully unplanned, spare a small excursion to Cairo and Istanbul, a few weeks accompanied by a wonderful friend, and a June 9 show in Amsterdam by one of the loveliest musicians to ever grace the face of a vinyl. I've packed my bag, over and over, reducing and lightening my load, aiming, in the immortal words of Thoreau:
... to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Bottomless rail pass in hand.
And yet, I fear I crave more than a jaunty backpacking trip around Europe, no matter how small the pack. I have a new expedition brewing—this, my ultimate adventure in simplicity.

Next winter, I shall find myself a little island: tiny, uninhabited, undeveloped. I shall row to it, kayak or boat perhaps, and with me I will bring nothing but literature, a knife, first aid supplies, and—if the island won't provide it—drinking water. And there, I'll spend thirty days with nothing but the sea and the forest and my thoughts and my books, thirty days of reducing life to its lowest terms and, if it proves to be mean, then getting the whole and genuine meanness of it, or if it be sublime, then to come to know it by experience.

I'm terribly excited, more excited than I've been for any adventure of late. But weary, too. It's a strange thing to be exhausted by the mere prospect of more travel, but here I am, planning for four months of minimalist nomadism within the next ten, and a sliver of my self begs for something more grounded.

Candidate 4 (highlighted) for home, 2015.
And this brings me to my final adventure—not my final ever, just the end of my visible horizon—a simple one, or so I think: the birth of a cafĂ©. Though the last thing this city, my city, any city needs is another place selling coffee, what my surroundings severely lack, at least in any acceptable number, is a gathering place, one with open seats and open doors, a place for community and conversation and, yes, hot beverages for garnish.

I do not want to be a business owner; I do not wish to start a business. For profit, money, expansion: these are the very enemies of simplicity and community. And so Walden Pond—for what else would it be called?—will be a non-profit, donation-based establishment, serving simple teas and simple foods, serving the community, an aspirational model of fair, responsible, ethical development.

More to come—on all of it, always, more to come.

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