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  • Ross Moughtin

When our books own us


Great belated birthday gift from Alan and Wanda: Neil Oliver’s “The story of the British Isles in 100 places.” I look forward to reading it and also to referring to it during our travels. However, a weighty book – it is 4 cms thick. That is important because of my policy on books. This is a product of our successful downsizing last year which included a massive cull of my books: nearly all went. So today all my books – including photograph albums, fit into my new Ikea book cases. Hold on – I will just measure them. Where’s my tape measure? Each shelf is 120 cms and there are six shelves. So all the books which I own occupy 720 cms of shelf space. Which means if Oliver’s book goes in, some 4 cms of book have to come out – straight to Barnardo’s. Or -if you are quick – to your house. Selected for removal are Michael Faber’s “The book of straight things,” Maureen Roche’s “Reflections” and Brian Draper’s ‘What matters most? Which is somewhat poignant for Draper’s book hits this particular nail on the head. On page 69, for example, he answers the question “How to let go.” The answer, of course, is by giving your book away. There has been a lot of debate recently on how many books in this age of Kindle we need to keep. This has been sparked off by the Netflix series on downsizing by Japanese organizing consultant, Marie Kondo. Sounds like my kind of person although I haven’t seen any of her programmes.. According to Wikipedia Kondo's method of organising is known as the KonMari method, and consists of gathering together all of one's belongings, one category at a time, and then keeping only those things that "spark joy." It seems she allows us just 30 books. Given that my books average, I guess, 3.5 cms in width, that means just over 100 cms of shelf space, possibly slightly more if I choose to keep the more weighty toms. Gulp, I am over seven times the limit! However, this has caused consternation in the bibliophile world. For one, Stig Abell, editor of The Times Literary Supplement, responds: “I have hundreds of books I rely on to help me get through life; chucking them out would be an act of self-harm.” When we are talking about books, what we are really talking about here is our attitude to things. This is now fast becoming a crisis in our cluttered homes where we often cannot find what we are looking for. That assumes, of course, we actually remember what we own. Jesus wants us to declutter in a big way . In fact, totally. So he challenges the rich young ruler: “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21). That includes, of course, all his books. Things are not us, neither are we to be defined by the things we own. As disciples of Jesus we resolve to travel light. We decide to put things in their place – which may well mean in the skip. I was talking to the guy who organised our house removal. He had been in the trade for many years, since leaving school He commented that in the last 15 years or so he has seen a huge growth in the amount of stuff we own. Sadly this has a cost, not just in the price of house removals. In fact, even the New Scientist comments: “We invest emotion and memories in our possessions, giving them deep meaning, but that doesn’t necessarily make us happy – it may drive us slightly mad.” You can see this in Stig’s comment five paragraphs above. The danger is always that our possessions own us so as Christians we need to take a determined stand – unlike my wife who refused to part with her edition of Dr Spock even though she hadn’t touched it for nearly 40 years. I am praying for her release from such wanton materialism. Canadian academic, Russell Belk, observes: “As well as being useful, our possessions represent our extended selves. They provide a sense of past and tell us “who we are, where we have come from and perhaps where we are going.” Well, no, says Jesus. “Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.” (Matthew 6:19-21 the Message translation) So books – like all our possessions - are ultimately disposable. They are not friends: only people can be friends. They are things and there are times when we need to take a stand, our book stand in fact. This may be costly in the short term – of showing who owns who. So take a hard look at your bookcase – and certainly those boxes in the loft. Of course, for some of us books can be tools of our trade. But I guess even here there is a compulsion to hoard, of owning more than we actually need. For the truth is that in this world we only need one book (or given another definition, just 66 of them). Maybe the writer of one of these books has a point when he (or she) writes: “Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12) That’s why my limit is 720 cms.

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