February 26, 2007

Reading Deliberately

I have always imagined myself as someone who travels light and fast, unencumbered by things, unmoored from the passion for possessions. Following the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau, I tried to simplify, to live life deliberately, to cut my own path. As Thoreau says in Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Yet as I prepare to move from one house into another I discover to my dismay that I have accumulated a great number of things that I could just as easily live without. Spartan-like I am not. Clothes I don’t wear, music I don’t listen to, things that once had some meaning or struck some emotional chord that are now just useless, meaningless clutter. Boxes and boxes of stuff that move with me from one spot to the next. Much more than enough to fill up the small cabin Thoreau built and inhabited at Walden Pond.

One thing I never really mind toting from place to place are my books. Books are to me what wine is to the oenophile. I could live without them, but what would be the point? They are always the first thing to be packed and one of the first things to be unpacked. Even though last year we got rid of probably 500 or so (donated to the local library), I still packed up 19 boxes worth in the past week. Most are novels (especially Southern literature), some poetry and a few history and mythology books. I have even managed to acquire a few Orthodox texts.

I know many people who don’t do a lot of reading and I wonder how they manage to muddle through. Books are to me mother’s milk. I even had one woman tell me she had never read a book cover to cover. I can’t imagine such an existence. Thoreau said this about books: “Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”

To me books are very much alive, silent companions waiting to share their wealth, to give up their secrets. Books are treasured memories, points of reference, a source of solidity and stability in a chaotic creation. As I loaded box after box I suddenly felt like a hoarder, like I was jealously keeping them all for myself. Briefly I thought I might donate the rest of them to the local library, perhaps in the hands of others they would live more fully, would more readily release their mysteries. But then I came to my senses.

Either way, books enrich my life immeasurably. As I get older what I read has changed a great deal, but the joy, the pure pleasure of reading will never diminish. I may not be traveling as light or as fast, but I am living deeper. Instead of sailing over the sea of life, I am gladly languishing in the pools.


Victoria said...

Amen to books! As Desiderius Erasmus said, "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes."

King of Peace said...

OK now this is too funny. I came to add the very Erasmus quote above as a comment and found that my lovely bride had already done so. Life is good.