In selling our house this year, my wife and I went through what has become a cottage industry for baby boomers: downsizing.
We moved from a 2,300-square-foot home to our current rental, with 1,300 square feet. Getting from one to the other required getting rid of a lot of stuff, despite the help of two storage units.
For me, a large percentage of my stuff was made up of books. I have always loved books. I pretty much love them all: Novels, short stories, biographies, cartoon collections such as the Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes, a wide variety of non-fiction, from politics to medicine to science, even coffee table books -- well, there is a never-ending cornucopia to enjoy.
Although I have adapted to reading on a Kindle, I still love holding a book in my hands. It is a near-perfect piece of technology, although most people probably don’t think of it as technology. But the printing press remains the most disruptive technological advance in human history, and the book remains as its most important product. A few years ago you could argue that the newspaper was its equal, but despite the print newspaper’s demise at the hands of the Internet, the book has remained a major force, and is even undergoing something of a comeback. Certainly today the Internet has emerged as a transformative technology, but even it depends mostly on the printed word.
Now, adding to my downsizing challenge was the fact that I favor hardbacks. They take up a lot of shelf space at home, and create a lot of heavy boxes for storage. As we prepared to move I gave away hundreds of books to Friends of the Library, Open Books bookstore and local thrift stores. But I’ll have to cull even more books from my still large collection as we look toward building a modest-sized home on the edge of downtown Pensacola in the near future.
Meanwhile, I have been re-introduced to the power of unintended consequences: that is, our inability to predict what our actions might lead to. In this case, having forced myself to stop (well, almost stop) buying new books, I have rediscovered the public library.
One of the problems for modern readers is figuring out what to read. You could spend the rest of your life reading all those classics you promised yourself you would read. Or you could spend the rest of your life trying to keep up with the torrent of new books being published.
What I have rediscovered at the library is the joy of picking through the stacks to discover new authors. Yes, you can do this at a bookstore or online, and I still do, but at the risk of losing the downsizing war. At the library I shop guilt free, knowing that every book I take home will come back on the next visit.
I remember reading somewhere that it would take 170 years, give or take a few decades, to read all the books in a typical university library, and of course they publish more every year.
I don’t have 170 years, but I’m going to keep reading books as long as I can hold out.