I need something to read and I need it immediately. I’m wandering around the aisles of Barnes & Noble, our closest physical bookstore, and I’m desperate. We’re going camping for a week. I love camping, but I’m feeling really emotional about not having backup ebooks, electrical power, or wifi. Anything I’m going to read is going to have to be on paper. Paper! I ask of you! Bulky, heavy, and incapable of being reloaded. The only thing a physical book does better than an electronic book is insect control. There’s another problem: I’ve basically read everything already.
What I’m looking for is what I call a BFB, or Big Fat Book. I can generally read a 250- or 300-page book in a day. I want something in the 600- to 800-page range that a) has a great reputation and b) has not already been feverishly consumed by Past Me. Past Me is extremely selfish about hogging all the good books.
I look at a table, thoughtfully labeled “Must-Reads.” I have read all but two books on the table, both of which are in the 180- to 200-page range. I’d stand here and read them right now, but I’m still in search of something for our trip.
I go to my husband, who is carrying a fantastic large book that I have, um, already read. He can tell I’m panicking. “What do I do after I’ve read ALL THE BOOKS?”
“That won’t happen.”
“I kind of think it already HAS happened!”
I start methodically winding through the aisles of Fiction/Literature, looking at everything thick, and big, and complicated like trig. Several of these books I read as ebooks, and I was a bit staggered to see how long they are. You could build a nice little igloo out of these things. There are some sentimental moments, moments when I see something I loved reading, and I want to shake Past Me for not waiting just a little longer. I’m promising Future Me that I won’t read any more BFB’s during daily life; I’ll save them for times when I need to read something in-tents.
I wind up with a copy of The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. This cheeses me off a little, because I know it’s available as an ebook. I somehow restrain myself from opening it on the bus ride home.
There is nowhere to put this one-pound, inch-thick paperback book when we get home to our 680-square-foot apartment. Well, technically there are several very inconvenient places to put it, such as on the bed, on the kitchen counter, or on the dining table. That would last for possibly as long as two hours. Why not put it on a bookshelf?
Well, um, you see, about that…
I’ve been consciously trying to divest myself of books for the past four years of our marriage. We move a lot, we’ve been downsizing, and books are really inconvenient (autocorrect suggests ‘inconsiderate’ and ‘inconsistent,’ the latter of which is demonstrably false because I have consistently always had too many books). I’ve sold some and donated some and given some away. They just keep getting in!
There are two types of book hoarders: the type who keep everything after they read it, and the type who accumulate unread books, often on the bedside table. I have no bedside table, so my unread books are in the bookshelves. Once I’ve read something, it goes into a box, to be evacuated as soon as possible. Right now, I’ve got this double-parking situation going on. It looks terrible and it’s driving me crazy. I’d get rid of them right now, except for the sad fact that these books aren’t available digitally. Can someone explain to me how this is even possible? With all of the spam email in the world, there is obviously plenty of text available.
The question being raised here is, if my house is so full of unread books, why can’t I simply bring one of them on our camping trip?
What are you implying? That I can just grab any old book that happens to be there, and just… just start reading it? Right now? Pfffft.
By number and mass, most of “our” books are my husband’s aerospace and robotics engineering textbooks. If you think I’m bad, look at him. I can’t even understand the titles of most of his books; I thought “Theory of Wing Sections” was an ornithology book, and by gum, it should be.
My books almost entirely consist of cookbooks; fitness reference manuals; business reference books; foreign language dictionaries; birding guides; and, yes, two novels I haven’t read yet, one in the 1000-page range and the other in two volumes at 2500+ pages. I can almost hear them chanting “NERDS! NERDS! NERDS!”
I had this idea of printing classic, pre-copyright books in tiny font on biodegradable toilet paper. Then you could take it backpacking, read it, and use it (AS KINDLING, OF COURSE) bit by bit. It is stunning to me that nobody is doing this, but possibly because someone typed Moby-Dick onto TP and it took four rolls. If someone could please take this on, I will be your first customer.
Most book lovers want to be surrounded by books at all times. We like to look at them and carry them around and surreptitiously smell them. Books are how we recognize one another. Although, how can I be friends with someone who is reading on the bus and refusing to hold the book at such an angle that I can clearly read the spine or cover? Come on! Inquiring minds want to know! We go to each other’s homes and turn our heads sideways, looking at each other’s shelves and noting which books we have in common. This doesn’t really work at my house. I’ve moved 28 times since 1993 and I’ve read over 4500 books in my life so far. If you want to know what I read, follow me on Goodreads or LibraryThing because I ain’t carrying those cartons up and down stairs just to satisfy your curiosity. This is my other invention: a custom poster with thumbnail icons of my top 500 favorite books. I can tape it to my wall, like, THERE! I just saved 300 pounds and half a moving van, while avoiding a herniated disc, and you can still find out that we both like Harry Potter. Like that was ever a question. You won’t even have to turn your head sideways.
One day there will be some kind of tiny device that stores books in a skin patch or something. It will run on body heat or the kinetic power generated by my pacing back and forth in a bookstore, assuming they still exist. I’ll be able to read just by staring at the palm of my hand and watching the text projected out of a ring or watch. And I won’t be able to use it because I will already have read everything.
I don't have a table next to my bed. This is more interesting than it sounds. It's a conscious decision, just like the fact that I refuse to have a coffee table because I hate stubbing my toe.
I had a bedside table as far back as I could remember. Usually it was a makeshift item in some way. For a while, it was a vintage sewing machine in a cabinet. I've also had an old suitcase, an IKEA nightstand I assembled myself, a dresser, and a floating shelf. I had to have something, because otherwise, where would I put my books?
Books, a lamp, water glasses, a box of tissues, lip balm, hand cream, more books, my journal, a pen, hair ties, scented candle and matches, etc etc etc.
One night, when I was in high school, I had what I did not realize at the time was a night terror. I yelled, flung my arm out in my sleep, and knocked over the two-foot-high stack of library books on my nightstand. They toppled into my wastebasket, knocking over a plastic Super Big Gulp cup of water, which spilled all over my face and chest. The entire family woke up and started shouting at me. I woke up soaking wet, freaked out, angry, and confused. As usual, when my habits resulted in annoyance and inconvenience for myself and others, I ignored it and carried on with those same habits.
Why did I have a two-foot-high stack of library books next to my bed? 1. I guess I thought I could read them all at once, 2. I guess I thought the library would close or all the books would vanish, 3. There was no room on my bookshelves. Clutter expands to fill the space available.
The result of having a nightstand, for me, is reading in bed. That works great for a single person, or for someone who shares a bed with another nighttime reader. I'm a night owl married to a lark, though, and it's unfair for me to keep the light on. It's also a bad idea, because my bedtime starts shifting later and later and I can't sleep well during the day. The first time I stayed up until 6 AM, I was twelve. I heard my dad's alarm go off for work during my summer vacation, and I thought "UHOH!" The next night, I melted the shade on my plastic book light.
The great sorrow of my life is that I can't read 24 hours a day. I can't seem to read any faster, either. I will die not having read anywhere near one percent of all the books ever written. If there is any justice in this world, heaven is a library.
I actually have found a way to read more, which is to listen to audio books while I do chores and cook and exercise and walk to the store. Often I am on my feet longer than I would have planned, because I want to finish a great read and sitting makes me restless. This has been a really effective trade for reading in bed at night. Sometimes, if I can't sleep, I keep listening to my book until I get drowsy. No light to keep me awake or bother my honey. I keep my phone in my pillowcase, which I would do anyway in case of emergency.
Why don't I have a nightstand anymore? Three reasons. The first is that our current house was built in 1939, and the bedroom barely fits our California King mattress. There's just no room. My side of the bed abuts the doorframe. If we tried to put some kind of shelf or storage headboard up, there would be no room to walk around the foot of the bed. It's cozy, but there's no room for extra storage, so we try not to need it. The second reason, of course, is that I want to discourage myself from my counterproductive bedtime reading habit of yore.
The third reason has to do with what happened on my side of the bed when we first got married.
I've moved nearly thirty times in my adult life. My mom was always big on rearranging the furniture when I was a kid. Due to this, I hadn't really experienced what happens when furniture is left in the same position for more than a year. Dust accumulation. I had started having respiratory issues, sneezing, coughing, and wheezing when my husband and stepdaughter weren't having any problems. It got marginally better when I found and removed a coating of dust on top of the kitchen cabinets, closets, and and exposed beams in the house. Then I took a closer look at my nightstand. It had two shelves and a drawer, and the contents thereof would have filled two moving boxes. I started going through it and realized that the entire thing was coated with dust, as was the carpet underneath and the wall behind it. I wound up getting rid of the whole thing and replacing it with a one-foot-square floating shelf. There was only enough room for my phone and a box of tissues, and that was enough. The Roomba could vacuum underneath it - problem solved. I haven't had a wheezing, sneezing problem in any of the years since.
Everything that I used to keep in my nightstand is still accessible to me. I just interact with it before bed. Lotion stays in the bathroom. I write in my journal in the living room. I try to drink two-thirds of my water before lunch, and avoiding water at bedtime helps me sleep through the night. I read before bed, but there's no reason I can't continue doing it on the couch. When I go to bed, I'm going to bed.
Since I got rid of my nightstand, I sleep about two more hours per night. There are several other factors involved, but it's definitely salient to the transition. Sleep procrastination is an issue for a lot of people, and staying up to read ONE MORE CHAPTER ONE MORE CHAPTER can be a big part of this. It's hard to accept that we'll never have time to read everything we would like to read, but the lifestyle upgrade of getting significantly more sleep is worth it.
I don't miss having a nightstand. Even if I had the space, I wouldn't get another one. I see it now as an attractive nuisance, an irresistible clutter magnet. It's one more surface to gather dust and piles of stuff. It's a place to bonk my head and a place to knock over toppling towers of stuff. It's a way to mess up my photos. It's one more item to pack and haul the next time we move. For some people, it's one of the few private spaces where they can store personal belongings in a crowded house. Acknowledging this, I choose to make the space next to my sleeping head a free space, and to claim personal territory elsewhere in the house.
I can't remember a time when my life didn't revolve around books. There's a picture of me at a family gathering, sitting alone on the couch with an oversized book in my lap, at the tender age of two. My mom used to drop whatever she was doing to read to me, because I would interrupt her with a book in my hand. Often I would ask her to read the same book again. We read The Party That Grew four times in a row one day. When I was seven, I tried to teach myself to read one book with each eye. Not much has changed; I just checked my phone and I am carrying no fewer than six audiobooks, forty-one e-books (with sixteen more on my tablet), and about a thousand news articles. Not to mention a physical library book. I hope books aren't the very meaning and substance of my life, but it's starting to look that way.
I'm not an introvert, but I play one on TV. I'm a shy extrovert, and I'm awkward in many social settings. I like meeting people and being in groups as long as I feel like I understand the group dynamic. I absolutely understand the innate preference for the company of a good book rather than some random stranger. The known versus the unknown. The comfort of sitting in the GO AWAY I'M READING bubble. The inherent attraction of the book itself. The book, I can choose. The stranger, not so much. I don't have to read annoying books, but I do sometimes have to interact with annoying people.
What I've started to realize is that everything I love about books is something to love about other people, as well. Unimpressive cover art may be hiding a fascinating story underneath. I might be swept away by a story that didn't seem all that interesting at first. This may be my first encounter with a singular voice unlike any I've known before. I'm going to learn something I never knew. For a short while, I can slip into another perspective and learn about life from another point of view.
Books are each the unique product of another human being's experience. This was brought home to me recently on a plane flight. The woman next to me asked me what I did, and when I told her I was a writer, she immediately asked me if I knew any ghostwriters. "That's the question of someone with a story to tell," I said. Sure enough, she had, and if she sold it, it could be a blockbuster. She had grown up in the world of boxing, had a picture of herself as a young girl with Muhammad Ali, knew some mafia figures, had traveled all around the world, and now judged dog shows. I asked her if she had ever ridden a camel, as a random guess, and she said yes! To think, my plan for that flight had been to finish a true crime book I was reading. Nothing whatsoever about my seat-mate's external appearance would have led me to guess any of the wild stories she carried inside.
Reading is like listening. We passively sit back and absorb the story, asking only that it hold our attention. Listening can be like reading. We can actively seek out a listening experience, anticipating that it will be interesting and worth our time. Maybe it will be fascinating. Maybe it will be so totally absorbing that we forget the passage of time. Maybe listening to this story can change our lives.
As a budding novelist, I've started to see listening to strangers as a supremely valuable opportunity. The better I get at my quest to be a world-class listener, the better I get at drawing great stories from unlikely sources. I'm not a naturally confident networker. I'd far, far rather stand at the sidelines and observe the proceedings. What I've started to try to do is to see myself as a rescuer of fellow shy people. If I see someone else who looks as uncomfortable as I feel, I will go over and try to break the ice. As long as we're both stuck there, we can spend a few minutes together. Maybe we can each get a book recommendation out of the conversation. Maybe this person is one of the roughly forty percent of introverts in our society, and a one-on-one conversation would be preferable to trying to mingle with a dozen strangers. Maybe this fellow shy person is an extrovert like me, who only needs a bit of encouragement to open up. Maybe we have all sorts of things in common, and maybe we can make friends.
When I say that books are people, I mean that they are mere artifacts of another human mind. Getting to know a book is inextricably linked to getting to know another person's perspective and manner of expression. Anything we can enjoy from reading can also be extracted from conversation, with enough imagination and skill. What I'm really saying is that people are books, waiting to be discovered and read attentively.
People are always looking for something new to read.
Millions of people have published a book, or several, and lived to tell the tale.
It creates jobs for publishers, editors, graphic designers, marketers, bookstore clerks, printers, warehouse stockers, truck drivers, and on and on.
Who are you to deprive the world of your work?
The worst case scenario is that nobody will read it, and that's HAPPENING NOW.
Another negative scenario is that someone will criticize it, but you can be criticized anywhere on the Internet or walking down the street for no reason. If it happens, at least it happened because you did something.
Is your unfinished manuscript really what you want to be thinking about on your deathbed?
Aren't you curious what happens in the last chapter?
You can always write it and then choose not to publish it.
You can always write another draft.
You can always publish it under a pen name.
The writing process makes you smarter and improves your writing skills.
Publishing a book is an opportunity to meet new people, people who like books.
Publishing a book is also a great excuse to lock yourself up like a hermit.
Compare it to training for a marathon. If you want an impressive achievement under your belt, which one is easier?
Writing is a much more interesting default behavior than most of the alternatives, such as watching TV or wandering around a shopping mall.
Get it out of the way so you can move forward. Maybe you choose never to write another book, or maybe you love it and you start another one right away. At least you're not stuck in the doorway wondering anymore.
You wouldn't even be thinking about writing a book if you didn't have a story somewhere inside you.
Your story deserves to be told. Your words want to be free.
You are not entitled to be the judge and jury of whether your story should be available to people. It belongs to the world. How dare you lock it away and leave your audience with nothing better to do than to watch reality television?
You are killing literature! You selfish non-writer, you. Where is it? Give it to me!
Start typing because we're out here waiting to find out what you have to say.
Heresy! I have razored pages out of a bound book! I have torn off the binding! Sacrilege!
Blank books used to be a major weakness of mine. I decided to start buying fancy bound books instead of cheap spiral notebooks as soon as I saw a stack of them at Ross for $2.99 each. Before I knew it, I had an entire shelf of them. I would be using one as my all-purpose writing notebook, but then I wouldn't have it with me, and I'd desperately want a notebook, so I'd buy a new one. The same project found its way into half a dozen books. Then there were the journals, the songbook, the poetry notebook, etc. It got a little out of hand.
I realized that bound books simply don't work for me as a writing tool. I could never restrict myself to only one topic per notebook, so all my work got mixed together. There was no way to rearrange pages or swap them between books, most of which were of different formats. I also went through a lengthy index card phase. Let's not talk about the various sizes of colored sticky notes.
If the goal was to track my work, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was to be able to easily find a specific note, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was portability and accessing my work remotely, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was to protect my papers from the action-oriented hands of professional movers, notebooks were not working.
The only thing that was working about the notebooks was that I liked how they looked. They had pretty covers (although they didn't look all that great next to each other). I have great penmanship. The notebooks made lovely props if my goal was to impress people with how writerly I am. Theoretically, that's what my published work is for, but in practice, people can probably tell by the way I mutter to myself and try to store multiple writing implements behind my ear.
I got a laptop. The paper note habit almost completely disappeared. I started writing about 5x more material. I developed a note-taking system that works for me, which is that I start a new note every month and label it with the month and year. IDEA LOG: SEPTEMBER 2016. Then I put the date each time I have something to write down. I can access it from my phone. I have successfully used the search function to track down notes. It's restful.
Then I started to feel more concerned about my older paper notes. I couldn't search them. There were several occasions when I wanted something off a paper note, but I was at the library or the cafe, and I'd have to wait until I got home. I couldn't always find what I wanted, because I couldn't always picture which notebook it was in. Madness, I tell you!
We had a problem with the sprinkler system in our yard while we were out of town one weekend. The landlord lives next door, and he noticed it and brought in a plumber. Meantime, the floor of our laundry room was flooded. The plumber was there when we got home, which was great, but my first thought was: "What if a pipe happens to burst in the wall right next to my files?" The thought of my sole copies of all those years of work suddenly soaking wet and running ink made me turn pale.
I've been scanning my old notes, and I'm nearly done. It's incredibly tedious. It does make good podcast listening time, though. Each time I label a file and store it in the cloud, I breathe a little easier. I'm that much more likely to be able to find something when I need it. That much more of my work is safe from ruin.
The process of going through twenty years of paper has brought up some interesting revelations. The sheer volume of it has finally convinced me that yes, I am a real writer. It turns out to be something that, over the last thirty years, I simply haven't been able to stop myself from doing. There were far more plays, stories, poems, song lyrics, timelines, and novel outlines than I had realized. Like, triple. The other thing I noticed was that I used to write very faintly in pencil, and over time, I switched to ink. It got thicker and darker over the years. It's almost like I gradually turned up the volume of my voice from inaudible to loud.
The drawback to that is that my earlier work doesn't scan well. I'm having to type it. Otherwise, I could pay to mail it off and have it scanned by a service for two cents a page.
I made the decision of whether to type or scan based on relevance. If I consider the project to be 'active,' meaning I have plans to publish it in the next few years, it gets typed and filed in the same cloud folder as the other notes on that project. If I don't plan to do anything with it, I scan it. I've changed my mind on older projects before, and they feel worth saving, but at this moment they don't feel worth the hours of typing I would have to do. It's also much faster to preserve them.
I took apart a bound notebook. It wasn't all that hard. First, I used a razor cutting tool to slice out the used pages. More than half of the book was still blank, which has been true of most of my notebooks. Then I tore off the binding, which I had cut up with the razor anyway. The pages with notes were much easier to sort into groups, based on project, and several pages went straight into the recycling bin.
How do we deal with the emotional pain of damaging a bound book, when we've been taught to revere books? We remind ourselves that the contents are what's important, and that storing a lone copy on paper makes it vulnerable to every kind of loss or damage. We don't want to be creating a home "Library of Alexandria" situation.
How do we deal with the emotional pain of "wasting" all that blank paper? We remind ourselves that we also wasted the paper on which we wrote. We remind ourselves of all the junk mail, brochures, takeout menus, and other forms of paper we've brought home over the years. We put it into context. What we're trying to do is to create a system that will cut back on paper consumption for years to come. We're recycling. We can't spend our lives torturing ourselves with guilt, dread, and anxiety over material objects. We redirect our focus and attention to PEOPLE and loving our loved ones.
The way I'm approaching my boring, time-consuming scanning project is to keep reminding myself that soon, I'll be done. Once I'm done, I'll never have to do it again. It's a blip. After an hour and a half, I feel like I'm losing my mind, and I stop and come back to it on a later day. Sometimes the next day, sometimes not until the next week. Inevitably, I start thinking about burst pipes again, and that brings me in to do another stack.
As I finish scanning file folders and bound books, I start letting go of others. I've been holding back certain notebooks because I wanted to keep them in handwritten form. They've felt like talismans of a sort. One is the poetry notebook I started in middle school and another is the journal I kept in Iceland. Today I looked at them and realized that the only way to keep them is to digitize them. The process has been more comforting than I anticipated. I only wish I'd started sooner.
The paradox in the bounty of this world is that the more options we have, the more deprived we feel. We're overwhelmed by decisions. No matter what we pick, no matter how we choose to spend our time, there's always something else we could be doing or experiencing. I notice this from time to time when a group of my out-of-state friends goes out for karaoke, and the reason I know about it is that they keep popping on Facebook while sitting at the table together. Seriously, you guys, look up and wave at each other. I can tell you right now that you're having more fun than the rest of us. Although you might not be if I were there, since I'd be compelled to sing...
FoMO plays a big part in our emotional attachment to stuff. The first thing we think when we consider getting rid of something is: What if I NEED IT? I'd be MISSING OUT. Not only would I not have this precious thing I have to talk myself into keeping, but I'd also lose the money I spent on it. There are three problems with this.
Sunk cost fallacy. The money is already gone whether the item gets used or not. We never account for what it costs to keep things, in space, rent, maintenance and cleaning time, mental bandwidth, or emotional depth.
Utility. We don't have to come up with reasons to keep obviously useful things, like a toothbrush or a spoon. The minute we find ourselves turning into an item's defense attorney, it's a dead giveaway that we don't actually need it.
Abundance. We have plenty of stuff already, and when we fixate on the potential loss of any one of these items, we forget our attachment to the rest of it.
I've been working on my sense of Fear of Missing Out in regard to books, articles, and podcasts. My book wish list is still over a thousand items, although I've finally gotten my article bookmarks below six hundred. Apparently I have eleven gigs of podcasts loaded on my phone right now (and eight audio books). I am finally starting to realize that not only will I never "catch up," I wouldn't really want to. To read everything on my list would occupy me for the next four years, and that would mean four years without reading anything new. My fixation on Past Self's reading choices is depriving Future Self of fresh new possibilities. To pace myself and read at a rate that would keep me "caught up" would require me to cut back on time I spend doing other things, like sleeping or telling my parrot her bedtime story.
Another way to look at this is that I am blessed with total abundance in my reading and listening options.
We're never going to run out! Over three hundred thousand new books are published in the US every year, and that doesn't include other English-speaking countries. I get a warm and gooey feeling when I think of all my favorite living authors who are doubtless working on fabulous new titles right now. Stephen King is probably still typing assiduously as this posts. (I often picture him at his morning labors as I try to reach his daily word count quota). That doesn't even begin to touch how many blogs, vlogs, journal articles, podcasts, movies, and music videos are constantly being released. Multiple lifetimes wouldn't be enough to experience all of it, even without taking breaks to actually absorb any of it.
This is the origin of sleep procrastination. We can't bear to pull away from the ceaseless flow of entertainment and information. Arianna Huffington broke her cheekbone when she passed out from chronic exhaustion. It didn't surprise me, as a close friend of mine has fallen asleep and hit his face on his desk multiple times. He's trying to watch All the Music Videos. The music FoMO is distracting from what should be a case of sleep FoMO. We replace our actual dreams with electronic simulacra of dreams.
All objects are stand-ins for experiences. A book is just an expensive chunk of firewood when we remove the potential reading experience. Clothing is about the experience of protection from the elements, discount sunblock, and of course a style statement. We become attached to objects because we like the feeling of looking at them, interacting with them, using them, or merely having them. Sometimes we don't even care about any of that, because we really just like the experience of shopping for them. Sometimes we really only want them as conversation pieces, or ways to connect with other people.
We can try to tap into an experience of abundance, using the exact same data that lead us to the feeling of scarcity and missing out. There will always be MORE waiting out there in the world: people who aren't currently in the room with us, countries we aren't currently visiting, music we aren't currently hearing, cuisines we aren't currently tasting. We can only be in one place at a time, and that is: RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW.
As I look into my closet, I can replace the thought that "I don't have anything to wear" with the thought that "I would look dorky if I wore everything in here at the same time."
As I look at my groaning bookshelves, I can replace the thought that "I should be able to read one book with each eye" with the thought that "I should call my grandma and tell her what I just said to myself."
As I learn that my friends are out partying without me, I can replace the thought that "they're having fun without me" with the thought that "I love that they're having fun together," and also that "I'll be sound asleep hours before they're ready to leave, not because I am boring but because my inner eyelids are a beautiful and well-kept secret."
I appreciate the experience of having few clothes, all of which fit me today, all of which are fairly current, and all of which are reasonably flattering. Certainly more so than a peeling full-body sunburn.
I appreciate the awareness that I am constantly surrounded by a broad selection of reading material, and that the majority of the world's knowledge is available at my fingertips, lurking in my pockets, waiting to be butt-dialed so Siri can tell me, "That wasn't very nice," when I wasn't even talking to her.
I appreciate that there are people who love me, people whom I can visit when I pass through their city, people who will return my texts, and also that I love sleeping a lot.
The real experiences we're missing are very much emotional states. We're missing out on the feeling of being well-rested and composed. We're missing out on the feeling of being thrillingly alive, energetic, strong, and running through the forest like a (pretty slow) deer. We're missing out on the feeling of being fully alert, in tune, and absorbed in listening to someone at the speed of love. We're missing out on the feeling of contentment.
What a fabulous world, so full of animals we've never seen, sea floors that have never been mapped, archaeological artifacts waiting to be discovered, medical innovations currently being tested (as though correcting color blindness weren't enough), works waiting for translation, and of course, fascinating new friends to meet. How can we fear we're missing out on anything when we're surrounded by so much more than we could ever hope to sample?
The aspirational nature of books is undeniable. We display books we haven’t read because we believe the appearance of these unread books says something about us. (It does: our desire to present ourselves in a certain light). We leave certain books out where they are visible, while hiding others, which is much easier now that we can read electronically. We’re reluctant to cull books that have sat unopened on our shelves for years. We buy magazines, which mostly symbolize high-quality leisure time, and genuinely believe we’re going to read them one day. In my case, I tend to accumulate books of a similar type when I’m trying to get my head around something. The books symbolize an intention that may remain unfulfilled for years.
I keep digital records of books I’ve read. I started doing it ten years ago, and when I started, I put in a lot of mental effort to include everything I’d read up to that point. I don’t need physical or electronic copies of the books I’ve read to remind myself that I read them; I can check LibraryThing or Goodreads. I don’t re-read books as a general rule, because a second read almost always replaces my initial impression with a less favorable one. Most of my reading comes from library books. If physical books are hanging around my house, it’s because I felt a strong impulse to buy them, but haven’t read them yet. Since I read over 200 books a year, I have to assume that I had plenty of time to read everything in the house. Why haven’t I?
I have a two-volume novel, The Man Without Qualities, that I bought because I wanted to read it and the local library didn’t have it. It’s gone through five moves with me and it’s still sitting there. I had this idea that I’d save it for the plane when I finally went to Europe. When I did “finally go to Europe,” I was backpacking, and I didn’t really want to carry nearly four pounds of printed matter. When am I going to read this 1800-page epic? What am I trying to prove? The cover prices total $50 (probably not what I spent), so do I think I won’t have wasted money if I ever finally read the darn thing? If someone came over and was impressed by the fact that I own this unread book, it would mean nothing. If that person had read the book and enthusiastically wanted to discuss it with me, I’d be busted. Hopefully it’s just aspirational and not completely pretentious.
I have a couple of books on writing screenplays. I bought them when we first moved to Southern California. I can look out my window and see palm trees; I don’t need books to remind me that I am indeed near an entertainment wonderland. If I really did have solid intentions to write a screenplay, I’m sure I could have found some manuals at that time. Maybe they’d even be up to date.
I have a few dozen cookbooks, down from over a hundred a few years ago. Cookbooks used to be an impulse purchase for me. I was powerless in my desire for more. I bought and assembled an entire bookcase to house them. When I finally started to learn to cook, the pressure started to relax. I discovered that not all cookbooks were created equal. Gradually, I tried enough recipes in certain volumes that I was sure I didn’t want to try more! What happened after a couple of years was that I started confidently throwing things into pots and knowing it would work. I often found that what I called “Freezer Surprise” turned out better than other people’s recipes. I haven’t bought a new cookbook in about two years now. The books stood for an unformed desire. I wanted to eat delicious meals, but it took longer than it should have for me to realize that they wouldn’t spring out of the illustrations without a little help.
I have a stack of running manuals and fitness books. I ran a marathon and I am a pretty fit person, fit for a middle-aged suburbanite anyway. I bought them as a stand-in when I injured my ankle. Then I found that reading them upset me too much. It was like reading a romance novel after a bad breakup. I used to buy fitness books in the same way I bought cookbooks; I had no idea what I was doing, but being in that aisle of the bookstore would give me a fleeting burst of motivation that fled by morning.
I have a few German-language novels that I found at various used bookstores. I’m at A1 level in German, barely able to ask for a glass of water. Those were moments of FoMO and bargain hunting. I saw something I believed at the time to be scarce, I thought I was getting a deal, and I whipped out my wallet. Apparently I could have waited at least three years, because I can’t even read a child’s picture book yet.
We won’t talk about the various other foreign language dictionaries and textbooks I have hanging around.
There is a small folding bookshelf in our office. It’s full of textbooks. They’re not mine, as would be abundantly clear to you if you read the titles. They’re my husband’s books from engineering school. He actually uses them. Periodically, a few of them will disappear for a while, and eventually return. There are too many to keep near his desk at work, and he’s just as likely to refer to them here at the house. Once or twice a year, he’ll order a textbook or software manual online. Do you know what he does? I still have trouble believing it even though I’ve seen him do it. He opens the box, starts reading the book, goes through it cover to cover, and finishes it! He’s over there reading a robotics manual and I’m over here with my unread, cliché screenwriting manuals. He can demonstrably build a robot. Can I write a screenplay? Like every waiter in my region? Nobody knows. Nobody will ever know because evidently I’ve committed myself to read a two-volume, 1800-page novel first. Maybe I’ll adapt it.
I have a history of resolving certain intentions and letting go of the books. I’m down to maybe 20% of what I had ten years ago. I used to buy books of knitting and crochet patterns; I worked through many of them and gave the results away as gifts. I used to chain-read metric buttloads of true crime books, and now I rarely do because I figured out why I read them. If I get ahold of a mystery or thriller, especially by certain authors, I’ll read it right away. When I was in a book club (three times), I would actually read the book before we met. Occasionally, I’ll buy a book of poetry at an independent bookstore, because THAT IS WHAT I DO, SO SUE ME, and work through it a little at a time. I bought a couple of ukulele songbooks and spent hours learning a dozen or so simple songs. (Then I realized that my level of playing was designed to accompany singing, and that kind of fizzled out, but come on over if you like to sing the Everly Brothers). We read graphic novels as a family (Walking Dead, Scott Pilgrim), and those go like popcorn. Books go through our house at a significantly faster rate than loaves of bread. Why is it, then, that some go when they’re still fresh and others hang around when they’ve gone stale?
It’s different in every house. A lot of people hang on to old textbooks and academic notebooks. There are so many hundreds of thousands of collections of old National Geographic magazines that we could use them to decoupage the Statue of Liberty. A surprising number of people have every book from their childhood bookcase. I know I’m not the only person who buys novels and leaves them unread. What I don’t do is to put them back on the shelf only partially finished, though I think that is another common habit. Probably the most common unresolved intention is when people save every book they ever liked, believing they will go back and reread them all one day. The math on this is discouraging.
As much as I’ve always lived my life surrounded by books, my feelings about this have started to change. Moving 27 times in 20 years may have had something to do with this. When I want the comfort of walls of books around me, I can go to a bookstore or the public library. Being surrounded by books I haven’t read, despite a stated intention, is becoming stressful. I’ve started seeing them as one long centipede of a volume, thousands of pages long, that I’ll have to get through before I can bring home anything new. As a writer, I’ve started to feel dirty about buying used books, knowing the author doesn’t get any of the proceeds. As a reader, I’ve gotten sucked into the delight of buying books with my fingerprint and being able to read them 10 seconds later. My shelves have gradually diminished over the last few years. I’ve been reading through them and letting them go. I keep telling myself that “the next time I move, they’ll all be gone,” and maybe one day that will actually be true.
Humbly admitting to yourself that you don’t know as much as you thought you did is one of the very toughest experiences for the ego. It’s almost as tough as giving a sincere apology. When I think of this practice of dumping inaccurate, mistaken, preconceived, or unhelpful information, I refer to it as emptying the cup. It comes from a Zen story about a know-it-all novice monk who wouldn’t listen. I see my personal mental teacup as one of the traditional Asian variety; it only holds a couple of tablespoons! If I want fresh, hot tea, I need to routinely drain my cup and make room for more. It takes discipline to Snopes yourself all the time and let go of incorrect stories. I’m going to walk through my process of doing this, specifically for the category of physical fitness.
A “factual statement” purports something to be objectively verifiable. “The Moon is made of green cheese.” “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” There are probably a million times more pseudo-facts than there are actual facts. Misinformation is much easier to find than accurate information. My first task is to lay out what I think I know. Then I need to pick through what’s working and what isn’t working.
Unfortunately, I know from experience that I tend to cling desperately to the least effective things I’ve been doing, while strongly resisting exactly the new information that would be most helpful. Resistance tends to pop up in response to unfamiliar new information, not incorrect or inaccurate information. It feels like boredom or disgust. That’s my flag. Resistance means I’m onto something! Resistance means it’s time to activate the ignition on my curiosity. As I learn around the edges of a new topic, it starts to become more familiar, more interesting, and more appealing. Some of the very things that are most interesting to me now began as things that totally repelled me before. (Cooking, mud runs, the world of finance).
My original attitude toward physical fitness was that it was the consolation of idiots. I thought certain people were born smart and others weren’t, and that the drive to work out or play any kind of sports was a signal of cognitive deficiency. I was so smart I wound up spending years trapped in chronic pain and fatigue. It was my comeuppance. You think you know so much? Here, have a four-day migraine! Discovering that I could control my illness through physical inputs really knocked me down several pegs. I was finally ready to listen.
I started running on a whim. The decision came out of nowhere. I just turned to my husband and said, “You know how I do something new at the New Year?” “Yeah?” “Next year, I think it’s going to be running.” His head rocked back. “Really?” I felt a little sick as I realized what I was doing, but I felt the commitment in my gut. “Yeah, I think so.” I started a couple weeks early. On the first day, I literally couldn’t run around the block without stopping. I had to lie on the floor until I stopped seeing black spots. At that point, I understood in a visceral way something that I never could understand in an intellectual way. I was NOT in good shape for a 35-year-old. (I try to think of my body from the perspective of 80-year-old Future Me).
“I guess I know what I’m doing tomorrow,” I thought.
I learned a lot over the next four years. I learned how to fit workout time into my schedule. I learned that it didn’t matter whether I ran in the morning, afternoon, or late at night. I learned to plan routes and gradually increase my distance. I learned that my weight was determined 98% by what I ate, and that my workout had virtually nothing at all to do with whether I lost or gained. I learned how to sign up for races and attach a race bib. I learned that the time I saw on the clock as I crossed the finish line was not my actual time, and that I could check for my true time online. I learned what arrangements of workout clothes worked for me in different weather conditions. I had to re-learn how to tie my shoelaces, and if you ever want an exercise in being more humble, that is a good one.
My dog learned to distinguish the word RUN in normal ape conversation, such as, “I’m going to run some laundry.” He would come around the corner so fast he would skid out on the tile. He would show up ready to RUN even when he’d already RUN six miles that day. (He’s a master at recovery; he sprawls on the floor after a workout and sleeps).
I became one of Those People. I started fantasizing about running. I would think about my next run while I was still on the trail during my current run. I would look out a window, see someone running, and want to jump up and join her. I scoped out people’s gear. I read running magazines and books. I watched running documentaries. I took pictures of my race medals. I secretly hoarded my worn-out running shoes. I had lucky socks.
Then the almost-inevitable happened. I got sidelined by an overuse injury. It happens to 8 out of 10 runners at some point.
The pain in my ankle became so intense that it would wake me in the night. It felt like someone was kicking me in a specific spot with a cowboy boot. I learned that the analgesic effect of distance running that had helped me overcome chronic pain could also mask the pain of injury. I didn’t notice something was wrong until it was really, really wrong. I learned all about physical therapy, foam rollers, ice massage, kinesiotherapy tape, and ace bandages.
I’m starting from zero now. Well, not zero, because my base fitness level is in the stratosphere compared to where it was when I started. I think of myself as a runner now, rather than Not Applicable or Haha, No. Where I’m starting now is the place of the empty cup.
My prior routine was to suit up, run whatever route suited the distance I felt like running that day, shower, change clothes, and Eat All the Things. I had read that stretching had either no discernible effect or could actually lead to injury, so I didn’t do any warmup or cool-down. I knew there was this thing called “cross-training,” and that there were specific strength training exercises that runners could do to help their performance, but I shrugged that stuff off. Not interested. I had seen such amazing changes in my body from running that I didn’t think I needed more. What I’m doing works for me, so shut up. My cup was full.
It turns out that I was in a dangerous position. I had personal experience up to a certain point on the growth curve. I thought I knew everything I needed to know. I wasn’t a coach or a trainer. I had no experience in organized athletics. What I was doing “worked” until it quit working. I was like a novice driver with a new car, going along great until the engine ran out of oil. In retrospect, if I wasn’t going to work with a trainer, I should have come up with a more organized plan before I began training for a marathon. I doubled my distance, changed my shoes, and started training on a different surface all at the same time. Too many variables. When the injury started surfacing, I didn’t recognize it for what it was.
Fast forward 18 months.
I’m desperate to get back out there. Default Me is downbeat, moody, and tightly wound. Running Me is cheerful and energetic. Running Me sleeps better. Running Me is more productive. Running Me is less triggered by interpersonal drama, more forgiving, better at listening. There is no substitute for cardio. If it came in a pill it would be more revolutionary than antibiotics. That’s why I want to be doing it in the long term. I want to run another marathon, and next time, I’m going to do it without having to drag my leg the last 8 miles.
I took careful notes in physical therapy. I learned that I have weak glutes. This corresponded with how I felt after my marathon. I was sore in certain areas but not others. I worked one hip flexor to failure, and this helped me understand that I was probably running a little heavier on one side. Strengthening my glutes and hip flexors should help steady my stride. I also learned that my calves are extremely tight, something that probably affects that tendon in my ankle. I need to work my core and my quads. Now I have independent sources corroborating the same information: running manuals, a physical therapist, and sensations in isolated muscle groups that I can physically feel in my own body. It’s easy to nod along and think, “Duh, obviously.” It’s unforgettable when you try to step into the shower and have to grab your thigh with your hands and pick up your leg because your foot won’t respond to your command.
I have another couple of weeks before my toenail finishes growing back (long story) and I’m going to use that as study time. I’m starting from the perspective of a Sadder But Wiser Person Who Wants to Avoid Injury. Fortunately/unfortunately, there is a cottage industry for middle-aged athletes who want to come back after various overuse injuries. Not only do I want to proceed without my ankle acting up again, I want to make sure I avoid developing any “new and different” injuries to other parts of my body. Rather than skimming or skipping the diagrams and chapters on sports physiology, I’m going to read with a highlighter behind each ear. I’m going to stick post-its everywhere. I’m going to take written notes in an actual notepad. I’m going to slap myself whenever I catch myself feeling resistance or lack of focus. If I really think I’m so smart, I’m smart enough to pay attention and recognize I can benefit from learning more.
The first day I show my dog his harness and ask if he’s READY to RUN, I’m going to make sure I’m really ready, too.
Queues. Lists. Bookmarks. Playlists. It’s not enough that we can fill our homes with stacks of paper representing stored information. Now we can even fill the intangible world of the Cloud with electronic representations of information! It follows us everywhere. Even in our sleep, the junk mail, spam, email, newsletter subscriptions, and algorithmic recommendations of new TV shows, books, articles, movies, music, and products keep coming at us. They’re etheric arrows aiming straight at our thought bubbles. What are we going to do with it all? How are we going to keep up?
When are we going to get “caught up”?
There is no “catching up” to anything. It’s the Catch-22 of journaling. The more time I spend trying to track the details of my life for posterity, the more time I must dedicate to journaling, until the day I find myself meta-journaling about my journaling habit. There isn’t anything left to write about except the process of writing. The same is true of managing the constant influx of new information. If we genuinely try to “keep up” with all of it, eventually that’s the only thing we’ll do.
This is what we mean when we talk about focusing on the past, the present, or the future. Past Self has made a lot of decisions for us about desirable ways to spend our time. Past Self loves to try to assign us binge-watching episodes, magazine articles, books, and especially recipes. We look at Past Self’s stacks, shrug, and address them to Future Self. My grandmother, for example, has been reading through all the books she already owns but hadn’t “gotten around to” yet. Some are from the 1970s. This gives me pause, because I’m working on the same project, and I have books in my stack that I bought about a decade ago.
On a scale of 1-10, I’m probably at around a 7 for information hoarding. We do paperless billing. I do my writing digitally. I’ve been working on reading through my book collection and redefining what I consider a “reference” book. I’ve been going through cookbooks (my biggest area of clutter) and winnowing them. We don’t have cable, and the most TV we’ll watch is a purchased season of a TV series every couple of months. So I’m getting better. I do, however, still have an ungainly collection of notebooks, loose notes, and more index cards than a casino has playing cards. There are about 3600 recipes in my digital recipe collection. I have 89 e-books and audio books on my digital library wish list. Well, for one library. In the interest of full disclosure, there are 560 on my other library account. As for saved articles, I have no idea, but it’s a lot more than 560.
I understand that I have assigned my Future Self at least three years’ worth of reading. That’s assuming that I never see another book or article that interests me. If snow fell in hell, or pigs flew, there would undoubtedly be articles published about these events, and I would undoubtedly bookmark them and plan to read them “later.” In other words, I haven’t yet gotten my head around the idea that THERE IS NOT ENOUGH TIME. I can only pretend I’ll be able to “catch up.” I can only pretend that time has no meaning in certain circumstances. I can only pretend that there is a wormhole, which I will find, which will enable me to read as much as I want outside the flow of years, minutes, and hours.
My areas of info hoarding are pretty specific. I have no real limits on my writing notes, even though I’ve already determined that paper notes are unsafe. My sole copies of these ideas and bits of reference material are totally vulnerable to loss, water damage, or fire. I can’t access them from remote locations, which is bad, because most of my work is not done at home. This is an example of a specific problem, with a specific solution, for a specific purpose. My issue with no-limit, no-boundary leisure reading is on the opposite end of the scale. I don’t have specific purposes for reading books and articles; I just want to. My stack of paper notes, notebooks, files, and index cards is finite and measurable. My queue of pleasure reading material is more or less infinite.
The sort of info hoarding among my clients is all over the map. Almost everyone has at least a little trouble organizing papers and electronic information, even regular folk who are not chronically disorganized. People who have no other clutter often have paper clutter. There are some common areas of focus, though.
Mail (real, important mail)
Mail (junk mail, often disguised as real mail)
Old academic papers (notes, notebooks, handouts)
Magazine or newspaper clippings
Personal letters / cards / e-mail
Invitations that need decisions
Keepsakes (invitations, event programs, favors, souvenirs, ticket stubs)
The prime question when evaluating information is, WHAT DO I PLAN TO DO WITH IT? Obviously, important mail needs to get processed. Bills need to be paid, checks need to be deposited, bank statements need to be reconciled, subpoenas need to be answered. Invitations can be ignored until the date has passed, a habit we indulge until the day we ourselves schedule something for which we desire RSVPs. EVERYTHING ELSE can sit indefinitely. That’s fine – there’s nothing necessarily wrong with owning a stack of paper – except that paper has a nefarious tendency to get on top of more important paper and hide it. It takes constant vigilance to track and process the important stuff.
What do we think we’re going to do with our old academic papers? I scanned mine and put them on a thumb drive. I have never needed any of them. I think I thought they might come in handy one day, if I met a younger person who wanted an example of a certain type of academic paper. I saved scanned images if they had a grade I liked scrawled on them. “Looky, an A!” Needless to say, though I tend to have a lot of college-aged kids in my life at any given moment, none of them has ever asked to see my old papers. I suspect I’m keeping them as proof that I put myself through school. The point, though, is that we learned that material. Education should be a starting point, not an ending point. It’s true that I’ve gone on to read and learn a lot more about history since I got my degree. I can’t learn much from reading my own papers or my own notes. If I went back to grad school at some point, I wouldn’t be pursuing a master’s in history; I already made that decision. I save my old notes because they fit on the thumb drive, and I don’t have to make the decision to delete them based on space.
What do we think we’re going to do with all the photographs? At a certain point, I transitioned to digital photographs. Everything I have in a hard copy is old. I have at least 100x more photographs of the people I care about now than I did 20 years ago. They’re of better quality and they tend to reflect moments of daily life rather than artificial poses and awkward smiles. I also take scads of photos of random things, because it’s so easy and because I always have a camera in my pocket now. The aluminum box that contains my photo collection is almost never opened. I seem to remember looking through everything in it about 7 years ago, when I did a burning ceremony, but those photos are not a part of my daily life. If they were, I would have put them in frames. (Frames, not flames).
What do we think we’re going to do with all the recipes? I’m probably the worst offender in the world when it comes to clipping recipes. Not only do I have the 3600 digital recipes, I have no fewer than four recipe apps on my phone. I also have a box of recipes on index cards and a collection of roughly 50 cookbooks. I’m not going to run out! The funniest thing about this is that I don’t always use recipes anymore. We tend to cook the same vegetables in the same ways. I probably only test out a new recipe about once a month now. Every now and then, I freak out about how many untested recipes I have. Even if I had done one a day since then, I still would not have made a dent.
What do we think we’re going to do with all the magazine or newspaper clippings? This is a big one for a lot of people. My issue is that I think I’m going to read them all one day. Since I always bookmark more each day than I read, I could only “catch up” if I quit bookmarking anything for the rest of the year. I’m better off giving up on the older stuff and limiting myself to a certain amount of reading time per day. I have yet to make that happen. For many people, the issue is rather one of preserving information they’ve already read. They want to save it. For what, though? What are they going to do with the information? How are they going to let it change their lives? Are they researching a specific project? If not, well, my philosophy is to ‘read and delete.’ I tend to want to forward everything to everyone, but I can’t force other people to be interested in things they aren’t. If I read it and it doesn’t make enough of an impression for me to remember it, change my mind, or change my behavior, eh, easy come easy go.
What do we think we’re going to do with the letters, cards, and email? It turns out that a lot of people get these personal missives and freeze. We can’t bring ourselves to return the favor and write back. When we do this (talking to myself here), we’re effectively rejecting the other person’s gesture of love and connection. They don’t see it as shyness or a desire to wait until the proper attention can be summoned to do it justice. They just see it as a disconnect. Old letters often represent a broken love affair, vanished friendship, or family connection that could have been made stronger. We hang on to these tokens out of grief and regret. Far better to reach out by other means, rebuild connections, and let the tokens go.
Invitations that need decisions are in the same category. Delay the decision too long and the decision has been made. REJECTED AND DENIED. We let ourselves off the hook. Often, our default response is ‘no.’ We have to double check and make sure that ‘no’ is really the setting we want for life. We’ll never know what would have happened if we had shown up, unless we do show up.
Business cards also represent potential connections and decisions that need to be made. So much of the time, we take someone’s card, and then never follow through. That’s fine – a business card is a very inexpensive, low-risk form of advertising – but perhaps we can start making the decisions earlier in the process. We don’t have to keep these cards forever. Most people have some kind of web presence if we look.
What do we think we’re going to do with the souvenirs and mementos? This can be a dangerous area. Almost anything can be construed as a souvenir. I saved an all-day lollipop from a trip to Disneyland for about 10 years. For some reason, I thought that would be a great souvenir, even though I had also saved the ticket stubs. Then I found this sucker again. (See what I did there?) It was melted and stuck all over everything. It had in fact ruined other things I had intended to save. I’m really lucky my papers weren’t swarming with ants. As with many things, keeping clutter left me worse off than getting rid of it.
Dealing with the flow of information is a problem that will never end. It’s like laundry, except that laundry doesn’t follow you into the Cloud. It helps to make categorical decisions. Why would I want to keep old school papers? Why would I want to save clippings or recipes? How often am I going to dedicate an hour of my life to looking through old photos or yearbooks? Which types of events am I never going to miss, and which will I always avoid? When we have figured out why we’re tracking or keeping information, we can start with what arrives from that day forward. Whether we ever get around to going through the older stuff is more of a philosophical question.
Before I ever learned that ‘minimalist’ referred to a lifestyle as well as a design principle, I started hearing about the trend of taking a complete inventory of one’s personal belongings. There seems to be a sort of contest among avowed minimalists as to who can detach from the most things. Surely a monk who owns nothing but a yellow robe and a begging bowl is the all-time winner of this game? (Although the last time I saw a yellow-robed monk, he had a tote bag with a 16-oz plastic bottle of Coke peeking out…)
I have tried taking my own inventory of personal items. It didn’t take long before I realized I should work out a list of must-haves, sort of like the accessories that are stapled to the inside of the display box of a new doll. It’s the middle-aged suburban writer model! She comes with a laptop bag, Scrabble board, battered notebook, parrot carrier, ukulele, and four hula hoops. Wait, that’s the custom version.
What I found during my attempt to devise a minimalist inventory checklist was that everyone who has done this… has cheated! The main cheat is to consider an entire category of objects as a single object, namely: BOOKS. You have got to be kidding me. Books are the heaviest and bulkiest aside from furniture! Of course books count as single items! The other pitfall is CLOTHING. Okay, no. I work with hoarding and compulsive acquisition, and I have only ever had one single client who was an exception to the rule that Clothes Will Take Over All Available Space and Then Some. There is a subcategory of minimalist inventories, and that is the cult of the capsule wardrobe. If they can do it, anyone can. If clothing, shoes, coats, and accessories don’t count as separate, individual items, then there is really no point to the exercise of trying to take the inventory in the first place.
I think I’ve hit on the problem here. I look at my belongings in the context of having to pack, move, and unpack them on a regular basis. Most of the minimalist thought leaders exclude shared or household items, such as furniture, linens, and housewares. That’s legit: it can be a real minefield when one person in a household becomes enamored of minimalism and tries to drag everyone else into it without the proper emotional adjustment period. From a more nomadic perspective, every toothpick, safety pin, and spare button has to count, because all of it has to be tracked, packed, and stacked.
I’ll never win the minimalist inventory game. My “go bag” alone has a few dozen items in it. My backpacking gear fits in a plastic tub, but it also consists of dozens of separate things. I’m not counting my sewing box as “one item” because, well, where does it stop? Do we just limit ourselves to, say, 100 categories? Do we then merge categories to capture everything? How about just calling it “MY STUFF” and leaving it in the singular?
My household consists of my husband, a dog, and a parrot. Hubby is better at minimalism than I am in some ways; I have seen him pack his entire work wardrobe into a single suitcase for a three-week international business trip. My minimalist project makes sense to him, and it supports his career development. We’re in it together. We have to be, as we’ve been married 6 years and we’ve already moved together 5 times. Our focus has been more on downsizing furniture and workout equipment – the big stuff. There is a base level of material goods that makes a comfortable home. We’re still in the process of unpacking from our latest move, and it is astonishing how much space is taken up by the blankets, pillows, soup pots, towels, mops, brooms, and hangers. Even such mundane items as a laundry basket and a dish rack start to add bulk and numbers quickly.
What counts? What doesn’t count? There are a lot of standard household items that we don’t have. We don’t have a barbecue, a roasting pan, a recliner, a wine rack, a second vehicle, a gaming system, holiday decorations, a stereo, a collection of CDs, or, well, actually we don’t even have a couch right now. Many of our ‘things’ are virtual. Do they count? Does it somehow not count that I have a couple dozen e-books, three movies, and hours of podcasts stored on my phone? How about all those digital photos? We are now entering a twilit world where we can be emotionally involved with things that aren’t there, whilst surrounded by physical things we don’t even notice anymore. My response to this has been to try to be more portable.
We are now living in a 728 square foot house that was built in 1939. We love it. It doesn’t feel small at all, perhaps because the ceilings are maybe a foot higher and the ratio of window to wall is higher, too. This place is 53% of the size of our last house. We’re not going to have to get rid of 47% of our stuff, though. The closet rod is 40” long – that’s THREE FEET FOUR INCHES - and all my existing clothes (and two hanging shoe racks) fit on it. We were able to contemplate moving here because we realized that we had a lot of wasted space. Each time we’ve moved, we’ve gotten rid of a certain amount of stuff. Either we had too many redundant spatulas or whatever, a piece of furniture wouldn’t fit the appropriate room, the colors were off, or we realized that time had gone by and we hadn’t been using it. Every time we cull items, we think about our desire to eventually live and work overseas for a few years, which means most of the basic housewares are completely expendable. All our media will eventually be digitized, from books, music, and movies to our few remaining binders and handwritten notes. The important things aren’t things at all. What we want to bring is our marriage, our pets, and our lifestyle.
The core of minimalism is to focus on what is most important in life. We are too prone as a society to focus on shopping and interacting with STUFF. Counting every item in the house is a great way to return our focus to STUFF instead of our loved ones, our values, and living our purpose. What I want to be thinking about are enduring topics like: Can I make my husband belly-laugh today? Can I teach my parrot to whistle any part of the Harry Potter theme? Can my dog learn to jump rope? The idea is to live life. We want to break our cultural addiction to debt, driving, staring at screens, overeating, under-sleeping, and clutter. We want to live within our means. We want to have the strongest relationships possible with all the people we care about. We want to find out just how big life can get. There needs to be room for it. We make space by turning away from material things and turning toward one another.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.