Thinking about Lent and Books

Lent is officially here. At my house, among other things, we’re taking stock of the way that we do things and what stuff is lying around. It’s time to think again about if, when, and how our stuff is holding us back.

For me this is always challenging work. The bulk of my possessions is easily in one major area: books. I’ve been through lots of schools and accumulated books through my course of study. I’ve also had the opportunity to plunder two good clergy libraries (people who were retiring and gave me an opportunity to go through their shelves and grab what I liked…). I have more bookshelves than can easily be numbered let alone books. And yet—that’s an awful lot of stuff…

In our last cross-country move, I actually had to go back and do the trip again because we had too many things the first time around. And the bulk of it was books…

They say that in letting go of things, you have to remember that relationships are more important than stuff. Sometimes we hold on to clutter and crap because we received various things from various people; we hold onto the material as a way of holding onto the relationship or holding on to the memories. The great mental hurdle is the realization that the relationship doesn’t have to go just because the item does.

But a book is a relationship.

It’s an opportunity to connect with someone else and to see inside their mind.

To let go of the book is to let go of that opportunity.

At least, that’s the way I’ve always rationalized it to myself…

When M and I first discussed getting Kindles (several years ago now), one of the decisions to get them was because of the promise of the reduction of physical books. If you can just have it electronically, then you don’t need to have it physically. Yeah, well, the promise inherent there hasn’t quite materialized yet.

I am getting closer, though. Over the last few days I’ve started thinking more seriously about thinning out the book collection. I won’t say I’m quite ready yet, but forward progress is occurring.

Of course, one of the things making this easier is the growing availability of electronic materials. Amazon has been doing a great job of convincing/coercing publishers into publishing electronically. There are a number of hopeful movements out there. You’ll note that Forward Movement is doing a great job of putting out things electronically (like Fr. John-Julian’s Stars in a Dark World). The St. Augustine’s Prayer Book will be available there soon (I just got word today that it’s finally being sent off to the printer on Wednesday!)

I was going to link to an example of a scholarly book where the hardback was selling for over a hundred dollars and the Kindle version was available for under ten—which is definitely movement in the right direction!—but upon checking I now see that the Kindle version is back above a hundred bucks. Ok—things are still shaking out there.

Additionally, a little competition is never a bad thing… I’ve been a huge fan of Paulist Press’s Classics of Western Spirituality series ever since encountering the mystics through it in college. It’s bugged me for a while that none of these books aren’t available for the Kindle. However, I recently got word that Logos is preparing to put out the series for their reference system. Right now they’re offering it in very large chunks: the whole set; or the set in three sections: Pre-Reformation Christianity, Post-Reformation Christianity, and Judaism, Islam, and Native American Religions. They’re in a pre-order state right now; I can only assume that individual volumes will also be available for sale once the set is completed.

Now—once I get a hold of an electronic copy of Meister Eckhart or Johannes Tauler or Jeremy Taylor, does that mean I’ll be willing to part with my paper copy?

Hmm. I’ll have to keep pondering that…

14 Replies to “Thinking about Lent and Books”

  1. It’s funny that we’re both thinking about our relationship to books this Lent. I decided to use this season to fast from new purchases because I often buy a ton of books and then never read them. And sometimes, it’s almost like I’m more satisfied that I’m interested in the book’s subject than in the reward of actually reading it. So in the end, my desire for new books is more of a way to puff up my self-regard rather than building that relationship with the author you mentioned.

  2. One day my wife gestured to our groaning book shelf and said, “These were all readable fifty years ago, and they will be fifty years from now.”

    She could have said 250 years. And that’s the crux of it for me. Once Amazon goes under, or stops making Kindles, or the tablet someone is using finally gives up and the technology has moved on, e-books vanish or can’t be read. Meanwhile, real books are never obsolete. Oh, Amazon won’t EVER go out of business! Tablets will never be obsolete! Yeah, neither would Blockbuster Video or Blackberry, and now one is gone and the other dying. Our parish’s former envelope secretary was wedded to Lotus. You couldn’t convince him that despite its superior functionality, Microsoft had buried it. In the end, we had to hand re-enter all of our data, because the Lotus machine died and nobody had a floppy drive to reload the program. Heck, even CD’s aren’t long for this world, and the digital files that replace them won’t last much longer.

    So when I have something that’s rock-solid, as accessible tomorrow and for a thousand tomorrows after that…I’ll stick with books.

  3. That sounds so familiar! I thought about making the decision to stop buying books until I’d actually read all of the ones I already have. The fact that I even have to wrestle with that lets me know that there’s an unhealthy acquisition thing going on…

  4. Very true. There is something incarnate with the codex that you don’t get with the e-book file. That’s why I think I’ll always want the most important books in paper. Their physicality reminds me of their importance and, perhaps, helps me distinguish between something that needs to be incarnate and permanent in my dwelling, and those things that are more ephemeral and peripheral.

    Hmm… I like that… I’ll have to think about that some more…

  5. Oh—totally meant to include this in the rambling but forgot… One of the most challenging passages for me in the letters of Seneca is this bit from Letter 2: “A multitude of books only gets in one’s way. So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read.”

  6. Ah, but the minute I get rid of a book I am absolutely sure I will never get around to reading, or have read a thousand times and don’t need it any more, that is when I will need it next week. It just always works like that.

  7. I suggested on Ash Wednesday that people tithe their clothes- go through each category and give one in ten whatever to those who need it more. If books are a thing for you, perhaps one in twenty, but it sounds like one in ten would be more of a challenge and thus more spiritually useful.

  8. I’m a retired librarian. We call the process of getting rid of old books “weeding.” For us, the first step is getting rid of books that are falling apart. Then the outdated ones. Then ones that aren’t read. So do you have weeds in your personal library?

  9. I have a KJV Bible that belonged to a friend of my grandmother. It is, maybe 110-120 years old. It is falling apart, both the paper and the leather cover. I did some research on the proper way to dispose of an old, unsalvable sacred text, and came upon some amazing suggestions. Burial and cremation were foremost. I still have it, I can’t bear to part with it. I reminds me of my mother. She said the owners of the Bible were so incredibly kind to her, in her rough childhood.

  10. A challenge I find, when I consider e-texts instead of physical copies, is the way my memory works. If I’m looking for a passage or an idea to revisit or to quote, my brain seems to remember roughly where on the page it is, and roughly where that page is within the volume. That odd set of internal indices works most of the time. And yet, it doesn’t for reading via Kindle.

  11. Maybe it’s the lack of any actual place, the amorphous and unspecific that is the hallmark of electronic media. You can’t find the spot because there isn’t one.

  12. If digital media is indexed it’s easier to find the spot. Unfortunately, indexing properly (a trained human being) is expensive and keyword indexing doesn’t help much.

  13. True! One of my big problems is since I write about so many different things, I never know when I might need something on a certain topic.

  14. Yes!! And a lot of digital editions don’t do nearly as good of a job with this as they should in my opinion. I know it’s expensive/time-consuming. I’ve done it. But the end product really is superior.

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