Yesterday I did two things I almost never do. I stopped reading a book I had started, and I threw another book in the trash. The book I stopped reading I had picked up at the library, so I could hardly throw it away. I wouldn’t have anyway; it was boring but innocuous. The other book, though, a very famous book, a Pulitzer Prize winner in fact, I skimmed through because I was looking for something new to read after abandoning the other one, found some passages that were genuinely abhorrent to me, and threw it in the trash because I knew I would never read it and didn’t want my sons to read it either.
This isn’t like me. I usually hang on to things, especially books. And I almost never stop reading a book after starting it.
Times change; habits change. Life is short. Maybe not for you, but it’s getting shorter for me. And I am coming to the realization that I don’t want to waste my time or clutter up my space with things I don’t need. Several weeks ago I actually purged some books off my shelves and took them to the local used book store to sell, admittedly for credit to buy more. I don’t own many clothes, but some of those in my closet I have never worn since I brought them with me from Greece three years ago. I won’t miss them at all if I donate them to charity. They may be of use to someone else.
When ruminating about wastage, I realized that the same principle holds for things that take up our time such as events, parties, customs, traditions. Very few things we do in life are obligatory. Most we impose upon ourselves. We need to choose that which benefits us and eschew that which bogs us down or wastes our time.
As a writer, I find myself sometimes slashing off hunks of prose that serve no purpose. Sometimes a story that has come to a grinding halt needs the last few paragraphs lopped off so it can go off in another direction.
I love accumulating books, which have been an important part of my life since my age was in single digits. I have inevitably had to dispose of my collections in the past, though, when I picked up and moved from place to place. For instance, in Los Angeles before the beginning of my epic hitchhiking journey across the State, Europe, the Middle East, and India, I had a valuable collection of science fiction and fantasy first editions, some of which would be worth good money now. I couldn’t take all that weight with me, so I sold it all for whatever I could get, hard currency being much more valuable to me during my travels. When I left Greece to move back to the States with my sons, I had a sizeable library accumulated in Thessaloniki. Again, I couldn’t take it with me and couldn’t afford to have it shipped. When my sons and I moved from San Diego up north to Yakima, we already had so much to take with us that I had to donate most of my books to Goodwill.
I’m beginning to get the message. Books are great; I love to be surrounded by shelves of books. But change is great too, and travel is great. Life throws variegations of routines into your path, and sometimes you have to leave it all behind and start over. It has happened to me several times.
Some of my writer colleagues would suggest switching over to electronic books. Alas, I like the feel of paper books. I have grown up with them. Someday, perhaps, and yet…
In the meantime, I have gotten wise to the fact that I never seem to stay in one place very long, and I am looking to keep my belongings trimmed down. That includes books. I no longer crave to own every book in existence. In Greece, it was harder to obtain books and I had to plan my reading ahead, whether I got books from the library, ordered them on the Internet, or browsed for them in bookstores. I have got lazy here in the States, in this land of abundance, and have accumulated books I will never read. I need to trim down the clutter. I need to reestablish my priorities. I need to realize the transient nature of existence and remain light and trim.
As I mentioned above, this applies not only to books, but all facets of life. When you begin to realize time is limited, it becomes immeasurably more precious. Every day, every hour, every minute is valuable. That’s probably why I can’t help getting depressed when I am so busy surviving I can’t get any of my own writing done. I have to fit it in somehow, a few hundred words a day at least. If I don’t say it now it may never get said. That alternative is unacceptable. Presently most of what I write is hack work, done only to pay the bills. I plan and work for a time when I can devote myself wholly to my own work, my novels, stories, memoirs, essays. In the meantime, I need to remain lean and ready, doing whatever I can to increase my efficiency, including purging whatever gets in the way of productivity.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not an ascetic. Entertainment is as crucial as work. Each in its place. But even entertainment must be carefully selected. There is so little time for it after all.