On the title page of just about every book on my bookshelves you’ll find my sprawled signature and a date scribbled in the top right corner. I am sometimes asked why I decline offers to borrow books from friends, or why I don’t check out books from the library, and the reason is that if I am not the owner of the book, I can not sign and date it, and put it on my shelf.
I realize that this tradition – this habit – comes w/ an air of privilege about it, perhaps even pretentiousness. There is a seemingly apparent vibe of overt materialism which I am otherwise not particularly known for. While I can certainly appreciate this perspective, I view the owning and displaying of books in a different way.
Several months ago I read an article in The Nation about bookstore owners in Communist East Germany. One of the points of the piece was that in a society where material possessions were shunned, treated as needless clutter and ostentatious examples of bourgeois values, books were not only acceptable objects to own and display, they were encouraged and celebrated, because they represented intellectual capacity, and a desire to be well read and informed.
In other words, the information and ideas that were found within the pages of books outweighed the fact that books were indeed material possessions. Reading this article resonated w/ my own already established philosophy regarding intellectualism and materialism.
Lately, I have been conscious of clutter, both mental and physical. I have been mindful of assessing what I do and do not need in my life, material objects as well as activities and obligations, things that take up an undue amount of space, time, and attention. I get annoyed or frustrated, for example, when I am unable to properly dispose of old objects in the garage, or when I find myself having made the decision to participate in an activity that is not engaging or particularly useful.
Books, however, are always a good use of physical space. Reading them is always a good use of my mental capacity. Far from being bothered by my many, many shelves of books – both read and unread – I look at the rows of titles and authors as a personal history of who I was in the past, who I am now, and who I will become in the future.
I enjoy occasionally perusing the books, taking one off the shelf, and opening to the title page to see when I read it. Often, I can place the date w/ other specific activities and events that were going on in my life at that time, and the book then becomes more meaningful to me. It gets woven in to the social fabric that is the history of who I am as a person.
I’ve even thought of going through all my books and arranging them in chronological order by when I read them, to help me further connect what I was reading w/ what I was doing and what I was thinking at each point along the journey I call my life. The task is one I have not yet taken up, but as daunting (and perhaps as ludicrous) as it may sound, it is not out of the question for a future time.
For now, I will continue to mark my intellectual territory on my admittedly material possessions. And as my book collection continues to grow, I will continue to be mindful that each book, and each signature and date scrawled on each title page, is part of my personal history. A history that may not carry much significance in the present, but will likely be important when the present becomes the past.