Books and identity

I had a conversation the other day about books, downsizing, and identity.

After my divorce some years ago, I had to downsize my book collection dramatically. Over a couple of decades, I had systematically built up a small library of books by and about mystics, psychology, shamanism, Native American cultures and mythologies, vernacular/natural/sustainable architecture and design, permaculture, art, and so on. I bought two or three books a week, mostly from amazing used-books stores in Madison, Eugene, Portland (Powell’s Books!!!), and the Bay Area. So I assume the collection was between two and three thousand books, and mostly books you won’t find in most libraries.

It was painful for me to lose these books. Partly because I had made extensive notes in many of them and planned to use them as references for my own future book on mysticism. And equally importantly, because I had used them to build up and reinforce a certain identity.

In my mind, I could tell myself: Look at this cool book collection! Look what a cool and interesting guy I am who has all these books and has read almost all of them!

Collecting books is not the most terrible addiction out there, and using them to build up a certain identity is also not the most terrible thing we can do. I still love books, but it is good to be aware of what we use to build up and reinforce our identity and see what’s behind it.

Do I have a sense – and identity – of not being enough? Am I trying to fill a sense of lack through books? Or in other ways including other collections, clothes, titles, and so on?

Would I rather have kept the books? Yes. Am I grateful I got to more viscerally get how I used – and partially still use – books to build up and reinforce an identity? And that I am doing so to compensate for a sense of lack and not being enough? Yes, of course. In the bigger picture, that’s probably far more important than having an impressive book collection. It’s less visible and potentially more transforming.

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