An Experiment in Minimalism: Tackling the Bookshelf

books classic

After my last posts on minimalism (and my personal failings), I decided I should do an experiment in practicing what I preach.

I decided to pare down my library.

As I mention in my confession post, I know that they take up unnecessary space in my house. And anything that I’m not using could potentially be used by someone else. And besides, I thought it would be valuable to explore the reasons I hang onto things – to examine myself and try to understand what is driving my compulsion to hoard things.

Let me tell you, it was hard.

I didn’t realize how the exercise would force me to confront certain things about myself.

I realized, while I was struggling with my book shelf, that I was letting material things define me. That’s why I had so much trouble letting them go.

See, for years, I got my sense of identity from being a scholar. I was a very successful student in university. I kept all of my books and proudly displayed them at home on a book case in my living room like trophies. I have all these because I am a scholar, my bookshelf said.

 Or at least that’s what I thought it said.

Now, as a more mature person going through each book, one by one, then compulsively putting them back on the shelf, I realized what they were saying was something more like, I am a pretentious douche who hangs onto material possessions because I derive my self-worth from them.

(I wonder how many other people have heard them say that?)

For a long time, my books represented who I wanted to be: a smart, creative, cultured, intellectually sophisticated person. I kept them as physical reminders to myself that I am a worthwhile human being because I am well-read.

* * *

As I went through on each of my books, I had some almost-legitimate reasons to hang on to some of them.

What if I wanted to re-read them someday?

What if I wanted to reference a work in some of my own writing someday? Or just fact-check, or procure a quotation?

What if Lydia wants to read them someday?

I realized that these were pretty frail reasons to hang onto many of my books.

Most hadn’t brought me pleasure in their first reading – I’d only read them because I’d had to, and because they were canonical. I hated The Mill on the Floss. I found Wordsworth’s sister unbelievably boring. What made me think I would ever choose to read them again? And when would I ever write another academic essay in my life? And why would I want to encourage Lydia to read something as awful as Matthew Lewis’ The Monk?

I had to ask myself whether it was worth it to store books for years and years – moving them from house to house — just on the off-chance that I would want to read them again.

I concluded that it probably was not.

Into a box I reluctantly put them.

Then there were some completely illegitimate reasons for hanging onto my books.

But this one’s about Donne. I have a published article on Donne! I’m practically a Donne scholar! I can’t part with this.

And this one’s about Blake. I traveled to England to give a presentation on Blake! It just wouldn’t seem right to get rid of it.

I helped to publish these books! I’m . . . I’m kind of a part of them and they’re a part of me, right?

But these are CLASSIC WORKS that any true student of literature should have in her library!

In other words, I was still deriving my sense of identity from these books. I felt like they defined me, and I had sentimental attachments to them.

I had to argue with myself: But if they’re not enjoyable, what’s the point of keeping them? What’s the value of being a “true student of literature,” anyway? There’s no monetary reward for having read and kept Anna Karenina or Brothers Karamazov. And how does owning certain books make you one, anyway? 

And besides, if you ever decide you do want to read them for whatever reason, there’s always the library.


Into the box, into the box.

* * *

I decided to keep some of my books, of course.

I decided to keep books that I’d truly enjoyed, not the ones I thought I should have enjoyed. Jane Austen, Julian of Norwich and Charles Dickens (but not Hard Times) got to stay, as did John Donne (but not books about Donne).

I reasoned that I might want to lend out these books. I would want Lydia to read them someday, maybe.

And frankly, I just couldn’t bring myself to part with many of them, though it’s unlikely I’ll read them again, just because they were so formative. I LOATHED Nietzsche, but I spent so much time and energy into hating him, he was almost like an old friend.

I also kept all my anthologies. I am still a mere mortal. I paid so much money for them.

* * *

OK, honesty time:

When all was said and done, I only managed to get rid of about one-fifth of my books.* Many books that went into the box ended up back on the shelf. I know I’ll probably never need my German language textbook again, but what if I go to Germany some day?! And oh, those beautiful anthologies that smell like iambic pentameter. They are filled with my handwriting. Who would want scribbled-on anthologies?

But I guess the most valuable outcome of the experience was having to recognize how I let my material possessions define me.

I had to come to terms with the fact that that part of my life – the academic part – is over. While my experience at university shaped me profoundly, it’s not the biggest part of me anymore. I’m not a student anymore. And that’s okay.

And even if it was, owning books doesn’t make you a literary person. Loving books does. And my love of books will always be with me, no matter what’s sitting on my shelf.

How about you? Do you think you’ve ever let material possessions define you? Do you have the same problem with books that I have?


*No, I didn’t do any real math to come up with that number. I started out with five shelves full and ended up with four.

The Importance of Not Being Busy

time busy

The year before Lydia was born, I worked at a small publishing press which ran out of my boss’ home.

It was, without question, the worst year of my life.

I won’t go into everything here, but I came out of that experience having learned one important thing: I never, ever wanted to live like that man.

The word “ogre” doesn’t do justice to how absolutely miserably my boss was. His presence was toxic, shriveling, vitriolic.

He lived in the wealthiest suburban neighbourhood I’d ever seen: during lunch, I’d take walks along street after street of sprawling brick mansions on postage-stamp-sized lawns, polished by professional landscapers to utter perfection.

But my boss was a mess. His life was crammed full of responsibilities and activities. I came to the conclusion that his life was simply WAY WAY too full. He was too busy. There was no way he could keep up with everything he needed to do. He slept three hours a night, worked while eating lunch. His office was literally toppling over with stuff that needed his attention.

I didn’t want that life for myself.

I decided that I needed to make a commitment to not being busy.

I decided that I was willing to make all kinds of sacrifices to ensure I never became overly busy. I was willing to sacrifice dreams, goals, ambitions, money, status, and material possessions for the cause.

It’s the reason I currently only post twice a week on this blog, realizing that I’ll never become a “successful” blogger at this rate, though I’ve always dreamed of being a professional writer. I don’t care. I don’t want to be overly busy. My health and sanity are too important to me.

Since my time at the publishing press, I’ve continued to give more thought to the issue of busyness. I’ve watched people with packed schedules, and reflected on the lives of busy people I’ve seen throughout my life.

I’ve become more and more convinced of the importance of being not busy.

Here are just a few reasons I am committed to not being busy.

Busy people are less likely to give their time to people in need.

I once read about an experiment done at a seminary where two groups of students were instructed to give presentations. One group was given the topic of the Good Samaritan while the other was given some other topic unrelated to helping others. All of them were made to wait in one building before walking to a second building to give their presentations.

Before they made their way to the second building, half of the students were told they had plenty of time before presenting while the other half was told they needed to hurry or they  would be late. Along the path, an actor lay on the ground, looking ill and in need of help. The experimenters predicted that the students who were given the topic of the Good Samaritan would be more likely to help.

Interestingly, there was no correlation between the presentation topic and the likelihood of stopping to help. The real determinant of who helped and who didn’t was how much time they were given: of those who were told they had plenty of time, most offered some kind of help, while almost none of those who were told they needed to hurry stopped to help.

In other words, the people who were in a hurry were much less likely to help the man in need.

(I learned similar things in Psych 101 in university: busy people are less likely to offer help than people who aren’t in a hurry).

The conclusion I drew from this experiment? We need to be less busy if we want to foster compassion and generosity. We need to have the space and time to be able to actually notice the people who need our help, and the flexibility in our schedules to be able to accommodate them.

Hurried people get into more accidents.

When you’re rushing around madly from one thing to the next, you’re not able to concentrate fully on each task. Busy people tend to feel the need to multi-task, resulting in divided attention. (Eating breakfast while driving, anyone?). Being in a rush is dangerous.

Busy people tend not to sleep enough or eat well.

In Western culture, when there are too many things to do, one of the first things to get cut from the to-do list is getting enough sleep. We just don’t value sleep as much as we value accomplishments. As a result, our health and our ability to concentrate suffer.

I’ve made a personal commitment to always get at least six hours of sleep every night (though I strive for around eight); if I ever get less than that in any given night, I’ve committed myself to taking a nap during the day. Sleep is too important to my overall health and well-being. Accomplishments can wait.

Another thing that often gets the axe when people are busy is the time to sit down to a home-cooked meal. We all know the consequences of this omission: westerners are overweight and suffer from heart disease, diabetes, and ADD. So again, I’ve made regular, home-cooked meals a priority over getting other stuff done.

Hurried people yell more.

I’ve seen this too much. When parents are in a hurry, they snap at their kids. When employers are under pressure, they holler at their employees.

I don’t want to be a yelling parent. So I’m keeping my schedule as empty as possible.

Busy people are no fun to be around.

Basically, for all of the reasons above: they tend to be anxious, sleep-deprived, and irritable. Busy people have no time for relaxation and play, so they don’t understand why you should.

I don’t want to be an ogre. So I avoid over-scheduling.

Busy children have a hard time identifying their true loves and passions.

I want my children to have time to be bored — to explore, invent, imagine, and play. And they won’t be able to do those things if I fill their lives with lessons, activities, and extracurriculars. So I want to encourage a slower pace for everyone. I might enroll Lydia in one or two things as she gets older — voice lessons, maybe, or a swimming or dance, depending on her interests — but I won’t hesitate to cut back if they put a strain on our daily rhythms.

Busy families are wasteful.

When everyone is dashing from one activity to the next, no one has time to wash piles of dishes or launder loads of cloth diapers or fold stacks of cloth napkins. Disposable consumer products become essential to the busy household: paper towels, disposable baby wipes (in disposable containers), individual-sized yogurt cups, styrofoam takeout dishes . . . the list goes on.

A commitment to sustainability, then, requires a commitment to keeping an emptier schedule, where there’s room to wash, scrub, fold, and reuse.

* * *
So those are just a few reasons I’m committed to a more relaxed schedule.

Am I missing anything?

Photo by Helga Weber.

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