Today I tried to sort through a number of reading lists I keep on Amazon.com in order to find a few new things to read.
I failed. Quickly.
A minute amount of arithmetic can show us why. If I dropped everything else of interest to me and developed greater discipline than I’ve exhibited in the last several years and devoted all of my free time each day to reading, I might, possibly, get through all of the titles I’ve accumulated in my lists in about… five years.
Five years straight of regimented reading. And of course these titles were accumulated over a period of about five years, so by the time I finished, I’d have my reading for the next five years ready to go. An endless fight, I could make my way through the stacks until life itself exceeds me and I succumb to my war wounds, surrounded by loved ones and my unread materiel.
Trying to sort these potential odysseys, I became overwhelmed and soon the books sorted me. How did I get here? What am I really trying to do? What is the point?
Every book I’ve encountered and subscribed to my lists (there are 22, by the way, starting with “American History”, ranging through “Farming & Ecology” and ending with “Social Science”) represents a hope for mastery and wisdom. Each represents one human being’s life work, in many cases, or at least a component piece of a corpus representing everything they’ve learned about a specific area of human inquiry they’ve devoted their energies and attentions to understanding.
So I grabbed them by the bushel, the box, the bundle, and stuffed them into 22 unique intellectual genuses for my future edification. Are you seeing the problem here?
This is intellectual hoarding on an epic scale. And each hope hides a dying regret, that I didn’t learn all of this sooner or at some other time in my life.
There may have been many opportunities to learn everything there is to know about Ancient Roman social and political and philosophical history; of EO Wilson’s sociobiology and studies of ants; of comparative studies in global religious traditions and the historical implications for host societies; of the supreme importance of mycelia (read: mushrooms) for soil health in one’s home garden or the world at large; of what the Founding Fathers really meant by the words they wrote in the Constitution and why the US really is a unique and special polity on the world stage.
But I didn’t. And I have to learn to accept that fact and let all these possible, potential, unrealized versions of me go. I know 80% more about philosophy than the average yokel, but I will never truly know Nietzsche. I made it this far without such arcane wisdom and I’ll have to see if I can make it a bit further.
It’s hard for me to let go of all the time I spent finding this stuff, though. In some weird combination of the sunk cost fallacy and the labor theory of value, it seems like because I spent all this time and had all these dreams it’d be a shame to just, hit the delete key, and watch these lists get disappeared out of some internet memory bank.
Instead of wholesale, scorched earth reset, I am considering utilizing Marie Kondo’s “spark joy” principle. I will scan my list and imagine, briefly, pulling each of these titles out of a freshly delivered Amazon.com box and holding it in my hands, feeling its weight and staring at the cover in person for the first time. How do I imagine myself feeling in that moment?
If I am ready to forget whatever it was I was doing the split second before the package arrived because I am too eager to sit down and begin reading, this title is capable of “sparking joy” for me. It touches something of my true essence, my actionable values, and a case can be made for keeping it on a shortlist for purchase if not ordering it immediately.
Everything else is getting torched. If it doesn’t spark joy for me now, it might spark joy for me never. It would be wasteful to maintain the delusion that I’m going to get to it one day and worse still to make the mistake of actually buying it. Then, Amazon’s inventory investment problems become my own. And I have no retail platform!
Some might suggest that there is value in maintaining a personal library. Here’s a recent picture of mine:
This is not every book I’ve ever owned nor every book I currently own. Sadly, I have more books than this and in more places than this. Many have been read. Some never will be. If the idea that I’ll eventually read all of these books is insane, the notion that some are worth keeping for re-reading or reference is marginally less connected to reality. Who has time for this? I don’t.
One of my greatest joys in reading has been discovering books and chasing down my own rabbit holes. Maintaining a library says something like, “One day, someone in my family or one of my friends or someone who cares about me is going to be really excited to chase down all my old rabbit holes like I did.” That day isn’t coming, but one in which your loved ones, a friend or someone who cared about you (maybe because they’re being paid to haul away your garbage and remains) tosses your books in the dump, is. It’s vanity to collect books as if it represents some important intellectual legacy you’re preserving for others.
That being said, maybe as part of family governance there are a select few titles that the patriarch (or matriarch) insists family members become familiar with as part of a shared family intellectual culture. That seems reasonable. But in the photo above, such selections would probably be able to fit on an individual division of one shelf at maximum.
Besides losing some nice wall art, you would gain some space if you stopped having a library and copious lists of books you’ll never actually read. You might also gain some freedom and satisfaction. What does it do to your soul to carry all that stuff you’ll never do and all the knowledge you’ll never have stuck in books you’ll never read, to carry it around in the back of your mind, day after day? What limitations do you set on yourself here and now when you spend any amount of time punishing yourself for what you aren’t yet but might be one day?
So, just let it go. If it’s important, if it’s you, it’ll come back to you one day when you go looking for it.