Friday, August 3, 2012

Birds from My Hands

Fight Club is an exceptionally problematic set of philosophies, but I went into that
to the tune of a 30-page independent study project when I was in college
and now is not the time. This piece of the work I can truck with. 

Although I was pretty sure I endorsed this message from the time I heard it, I don't think I really got what it meant until recently. (Or perhaps what follows is just what it means to me.) I used to think it was a message about consumerism, about the value of a dollar earned through labor versus what it buys you, which is to say: a lot less than your labor is worth. Standing in a store and comparing the cost of something to the number of hours of work, at your hourly rate, whatever your job is, that it will take to buy that something, is an incredibly effective way to shrink your expenditures. Chasing after strine green stripe patterns only grants happiness in limited avenues, I think - like my joy over my lil' Tom Servo, just one of the many items on my desk, some of which you could sell or swap or drop in the sea and I wouldn't grieve for long. If you're in a lifestyle where it makes you really happy to own things that are as good or better than the things owned by people around you, cool, but I refer you to DFW's speech about choosing what to worship.

Getting sidetracked. Last night I looked at the bookshelf I've half-filled over the last two weeks with new books, wondering what awaited me between their covers. I bought a copy of The Chronology of Water at Book Soup while I was there for the Cheryl Strayed reading, and although I'm knee-deep in Caitlin Moran's amazing wonderful hilarious totally self-affirming book How to Be a Woman, the second reading of Chronology is coming soon. I'm sure it's a book I'll keep forever.

It was hard to get rid of a third of our books before we moved out here. It was hard. For as long as I can remember, since I was a child, I've prided myself on my book collection. I always joke about having too many books, but it's an arrogant joke: look at me, I'm a book person. As you can see from the overstuffed shelves all around you. Many of the books I hadn't read. Some of them I'd read and hadn't enjoyed. Some of them were gifts I hadn't wanted. I kept them anyway to keep a piece of identity: I am a person who owns this many books.

In weeding through them, it started to seem either like I should just get rid of everything, aside from The Chronicles of Narnia and The Blind Assassin, or keep all of them, just to be safe. Matt, on the other hand, made piles of giveaways that made me stop him repeatedly to ask "are you sure?" He put all of the Harry Dresden paperbacks in the giveaway pile, books he'd sped through gleefully and went careening out to B&N to get the next one. He shrugged and told me that he'd read them and doubted he'd read them again.

I nodded assent, but he might as well have been speaking Chinese. Don't you want them? I wanted to ask. Never mind reading them, don't you want them anyway? To look at on the shelf, to remind and reassure you that you had a good time while reading them? That such nice things exist in the world and you've experienced them? That other people will look at these books and say ah, yes, you are a reader?

Matt has always been smarter than me.

One of the blogs I follow is What I Wore 2Day, a daily outfit blog. I don't have that much interest in fashion, but the stuff the blogger comes up with to wear is fascinating. Nearly all of her combinations I would never wear, but I salute her for her adventurousness. Part of the reason I followed her in the first place was a contradiction about her that opened my mind a bit on people and their hobbies: she loves fashion and clothes and is not an idiot. She's a former Marine and a sweet, clever cookie. It was thoughtless of me to believe that people who pursued what I saw as "shallow" interests were also shallow, and Kasmira turned that around for me in a way I'm really grateful to her for.

She also lets things slip in and out of her wardrobe so, so easily. I don't think it would be accurate to call her closet the primary interest of her exceptionally full and active life, but she spends an enormous amount of time and energy on it. In the years I've followed the blog, she has purchased and then swapped/given away/sold positively hundreds of items of clothing. Potentially thousands. She will keep stuff that's useful and versatile for years, but when it's time to let it go, she does. She doesn't talk much about this, but I can tell that she's not sentimental about or attached to her clothes. When it interests her, she picks it up, and when it ceases to interest her (for a variety of potential reasons), she lets it go. I hugely admire her emotional noninvestment about this, and wonder how she manages. I get attached to my clothes, few and uncool as they are, too easily.

When I looked at my bookshelf last night, I realized that it was possible to read a book and then just give it away, if I so chose. I could let it slip out of my hands, having had the experience. It was possible to see physical books as metaphysically disposable. Of course there are books with influences that last and last and reverberate throughout the space of a life, but the wide majority of books, no. I can read them and then send them off to be read by others. Like birds from my hands.

I saw a little slice of this (not the whole thing) months ago. As an experiment, when I finished Then We Came to the End, which I liked enormously, I brought it to my friend Maleesha when we met in Colorado. I gave it to her, because I thought she'd really like it, and thus sent it on its way. Maybe she'll give it to someone else. Maybe it'll speak to her more than it did to me and she'll keep it in a hallowed spot on her bookshelf.

But if I'd let Then We Came to the End sit in my own house, it would have had a hold on me that was disproportionate to my enjoyment of it. It would have been there needlessly: feeding my ego and the perception of myself as a Book Person, but not giving anyone else enjoyment. That's sad. And it would have contributed to locking me into being a Book Person, a Person Who Owns Too Many Books, in its own small way. It would have owned me. Maybe it would only have owned a single cell of me - while the whole collection of books own maybe an arm or a leg of me - but that would have been too much.

So I sent it away. And I'm so glad I did, because Maleesha told me she really liked it. I liked it too, I thought it was clever and funny and insightful and met a difficult technical challenge, but I doubt I'll want to go back and read it over and over like I do Bag of Bones or Wicked or Bradbury's short stories.

Those sorts of books, the ones that flow in your arteries and that you don't forget even for a single week of your life, those are the ones you keep. And about which you say "oh, I'll just buy you a copy" to people who ask if they can borrow them. They don't own you, but they ground you, keep you in the place you belong.

Ultimately, nothing should own you, nothing should tell you who you are. No thing, no philosophy, no person or tendency. And don't talk about Fight Club.