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Monday, September 15, 2008

War and Peace

For almost my entire adult life, I've had to own the books I read. Because books are so much more than printed text bound by a stiff spine. A book is map that traces a life, the reader’s life. And my swollen bookshelf has always reflected a vision of myself I can glimpse in no other way. My books are the closest things I have to an ad hoc growth chart scrawled on a kitchen doorway.

But three years ago I decided to give up. Not reading, but the unyielding need to own, to collect, each book for my archive. I knew I was entering a new phase of my life where I’d be moving across the country as often as good fortune would allow, and I was also trying to reduce my carbon footprint (books—in a way—do grow on trees, and that's sort of the problem). I was also trying to work on my attachment to material possessions. And since books were my most prized possessions, I thought they’d make the perfect test. Ever since my vow to stop buying books, I’ve come to them by means of the public library and their many helpful librarians.

All this leads to me to say that yesterday, while at the local Goodwill, I was paying the cashier for a pair of $2.99 black slacks. And in comes this college student with a tattered box of books. On top was this amazing copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The book looked as though it had been plucked straight off the set of Dead Poet’s Society.

I needed this book. To read, yes, but mainly for the realness of its crumbling cover and faded yellow pages. I needed this book for the pure purpose of archeological preservation.

But what about my vow? I decided it would not be a transgression to ask the Goodwill employee if I could just have the book. I mean, they’d possessed it less than five seconds, and, really, what was it to them if some bibliophile took a pathological obsession with something that they’d trash as soon as send to HQ for pricing?

This book has been granted the wish of all books: It has been read.

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