I used to own 2,000 books. Slightly more than that, actually. All kinds of books: hard covers, paperbacks, trade paperbacks, literary fiction, writing and grammar books, books of photography, self-help books, my deceased father’s collection of old medical journals, genre fiction, those cute little pop-up books—you name it.
I had shelves and shelves and more shelves of books, some of which I’d actually read, and many of which I’d read someday—you know, whenever I got around to it.
Who was I kidding? I thought my overflowing shelves of books made me look important, intelligent, and cool. Look at me, I know how to read—a lot!
What’s worse, I thought these books made me somebody. They were a part of my identity: those books were a part of me. And once something’s a part of your identity—once it becomes a part of you—it’s exceedingly hard to shed.
This is true for anything we incorporate into our identities—our careers, our cars, our homes, our possessions, our sentimental items. These things become part of us, and they become anchors in our lives—anchors that keep us at bay, away from the freedom of the open seas.
“Reject the basic assumptions of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions.”
“The things you own end up owning you.”
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
These words resonated with me deeply: I could feel on my nerve-endings what Palahniuk was saying. I read those quotes several times, and within a week sold or donated 98% of my books. I purchased a Kindle and kept one shelf of my favorite physical books. Some older books aren’t yet on Kindle, which is a shame. In those rare cases, I’ll get the book elsewhere—a public library, a local independent bookstore, online—and when I’m finished reading it, I’ll often donate it.
I no longer own piles of books, but I read more than before. I enjoy each book, taking them in slowly, absorbing the knowledge, processing the information, contemplating their lessons—but I needn’t retain the physical book to get value from its words.
Think about it: how much value was I placing in all the books I owned? Obviously it was far more than their real value. The real value was in the words—in the action of reading—not in the physical books themselves.
Read this essay and 150 others in our new book, Essential, and then donate it to someone else when you’re finished.