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Do I Care About Print Books?

I recently purged most of my belongings. A few boxes to a storage unit, but other than that, I purged it all.

I was at the end of a financial commitment related to a former marriage and at the end of a career in academic libraries of twenty-some years (which included twelve years overseas). Once the commitment to the former marriage was concluded, so, too, was my glittering academic career, which had served its purpose. And it was at this point that I knew I had to take off. No more job, no more house, no more car, no more commute, no more pointless meetings, no more soul-crushing HR workshops, no more...Any of that.

No, I was done. I had loved living in the Middle East and traveling the world, and I was going back on the road, to Mexico, passport in hand.

But before I could fly out, I had to purge the stuff that filled my house. Household stuff I gave to my kids. Other stuff went to the Salvation Army. Some stuff went to a little storage unit. And frankly, it wasn't that hard to get rid of that stuff. I was much more interested in my freedom than I was in my pots and pans or my furniture.

But my books...My thousands of books. I had been buying and saving books ever since I was a child. I haunted used book stores starting when I was seven or eight years old looking for interesting old books. I rooted around in library sales hoping to find those old, musty, acidy, 19th century books that no one reads anymore. And if I was lucky, I would find an 18th century book, beautifully bound with that indestructible rag paper that looked as new as the day it was published.

I also bought reference books--an encyclopedia of movie stars of the sound era (I was a movie buff whose favorite actor was Humphry Bogart). A bibliography of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. A handbook of life in the Regency and early Victorian England. These works I found in catalogs that came to the house, many from companies that sold anthologies of classic novels and reprints of old versions of Roget's Thesaurus or the 19th century dictionary of the Anglo-Indian idiom called Hobson-Jobson. These were odd, fascinating, works that appealed very much to a ten or fifteen year-old who was obsessed with C. S. Forester's Hornblower novels and books about the Duke of Wellington or novels about the Peninsular campaign (such as Forester's Rifleman Dodd).

I dreamed and day-dreamed about this Napoleonic and Regency era as a young person--became an insufferable anglophile and dreamed of going to England, where those Hearts of Oak lived and breathed and where I was certain I truly belonged. Throughout my teens, I read Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Patrick O'Brian, Alexander Kent, Rudyard Kipling (I especially liked The Man Who Would Be King), H. Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Sherlock Holmes stories...And P.G. Wodehouse, of course, who has nothing whatsoever to do with the others, but with whom I was nonetheless obsessed. I only discovered Anthony Trollope later, by the way, in my twenties, when I also discovered the joys of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and the Golden Age British mystery writers (beloved by my mother) against whom they were so staunchly reacting...

At any rate, books were at the center of my life ever since I was a kid. Buying them, ranging them on my shelves, reading and re-reading, browsing, storing in boxes when I began to move around, recovering them when I had a place of my own and unpacking these books and arranging them again on the shelves...

And when I was a working person and had a bit of money, I bought things such as a nice old edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy or reprints of 19th century travel books in the Middle East or India. If I could find them, I might pick up a random 18th or early 19th century British book, the interest of which was almost entirely tactile--some essays by a forgotten man on a topic that was of no interest to me, really, but...

Well, it wasn't always about wanting to read the book, per se, so much as wanting to hold it. Ever since I was little, when I held these old books it awakened in me a daydream of a life lived long ago. These pages...The book and its cover and spine. When I held the book, I felt the hands of the first man to open it in 1786 or 1811, to hold it and turn the pages, to consider it and to put it on the side table for later. I saw the Georgian study with shelves around the walls, the fireplace, the cup of tea and the glass of port. The bust of Julius Caesar and the massive globe or map of the world. The oil lamps and candles, the rain on the windows, the thick curtains to close against the wind and chill.

(Not my books, but I had some like them!)

And my hands and my fancy were absorbing all of this from holding this man's book two hundred years later. It was a sort of escapism, I suppose, but it was a powerful experience I have never stopped having.

Now, this may sound like one of those rants about hating ebooks and wanting to feel a book in my hand when I'm reading it, etc. It may sound like one of these pompous, bombastic, English professors who are always bemoaning electronic books and saying they will never read one.

But it really isn't. When I purged my belongings, it's true, one of the hardest things I had to do was to look at the thousands of books on my shelves and ask what these books meant to me. These books that I had been carting around for the last fifty years sometimes. Books I had been reading, scanning, browsing, and arranging (sometimes) since I was in single digits...These were the books I had kept after I had purged all of my graduate school books in the 1990s. They were books that I still read, still hoped to read, or which I just liked to look at or hold.

And I boxed the vast majority of them up and gave them away. Box after box after box after box. Because I was free now. No more job, no more commitments from the former marriage, no more house payments or car. I was free. I was going on the road. I had a backpack, a plan to teach yoga and meditation, and a one-way ticket to Oaxaca.

And a Kindle. Yes, I now had a Kindle that I was filling up with books when I could afford it (money is scarce when you don't have a real job!). I bought books about Kashmir Shaivism, yoga, Advaita Vedanta, iRest Yoga Nidra, Sufism, Golden Age mysteries, historical novels...And I had an Audible account that allowed me to listen to Don Quixote, Beowulf, The Iliad, The Three Musketeers, Pepys' Diaries, Lord of the Rings...All sorts of things I had wanted to read over the years but had never had time.

And these digital books were never going to restrict my freedom. The only thing that restricts them is the quality of the Wi-Fi. I have no complaints about e-books, even if the physical book itself--an ebook is just more words on a screen--will never allow me to travel through time to the lives of the Georgian reader or to the more distant and innocent version of myself who hoarded those volumes all those years ago. Holding my Kinde just doesn't do it. Nor does a pdf facsimile.

But not all print books did that for me, anyway. Only certain ones. An escapist adventure novel? Better as an ebook. Mysteries or other novels? Fine on Kindle. The Toenail Parings of F. Scott Fitzgerald: An Outraged Lacanian (un)Reading ...Print or ebook doesn't matter to me. My collection of Angela Thirkell or P. G. Wodehouse books? I like both the Kindle and the Audible versions just fine.

I moved on. I moved on from my house, my car, my household goods--and from my books. I realized that who I am, what I want to be, how I want to live...All of that is about freedom. It's about not being a slave to my stuff, to my past, to my memories, to my old habits and old dreams. Freedom is a state of mind, a state of spirit. I realized that I still want to read books, but that there was no way I was going to arrange my life around my print book collection.

It was incredibly hard. So many memories. So many dreams and ambitions and fantasies about who I was and who I would be were represented by these books, from Hornblower all the way up to my collection of books about E. A. Wallis Budge and his era. But when it came time to choose freedom? The books joined my pots and pans and I have not regretted unloading them (once the decision was made!) for one second.

I will still hold old books and drift off into dreamland. That's something I love. They just won't be books on my shelves.

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