When I bought this house three and a half years ago, I knew I’d have some issues related to its age. It was built in 1928, which lends it some charm, but it comes with problems, such as old floors that aren’t quite level. That sort of thing.
I have hundreds and hundreds of books. When I first started unpacking the boxes to put them onto my book shelves a few years ago, I discovered that the weight of the books combined with the slight warps in the floors meant the massive shelves weren’t stable.
Because I was afraid they might fall over and hit one of the cats, I left the books in boxes until I could get around to having someone come in to anchor the shelves to the walls for stability.
Somehow, I’ve never gotten around to doing that. The book boxes have remained the cats’ favorite playground and I’ve gotten accustomed to digging into boxes to find books I need. (One day, I’ll fix the shelves. Honest.)
Tonight, I went looking for a book and I had to empty several boxes in the search. As I looked at the stacks, something struck me.
There are a lot of these books which I wouldn’t buy now. I realized that I had been a radically different person when I bought them — and I suddenly realized that these books tell a lot of truth about who I’ve been and who I’m becoming.
I don’t get rid of books, at least not intentionally. (I lost some in the last move, and I’ll never know what happened to them. That’s a depressing tale.) This means that I have books going back to my college years — and I’ve continued to collect books in all the periods since then.
Over the years, I’ve organized my shelves mostly by subject. I’ve thought seriously of organizing them by the Library of Congress system or the simpler Dewey Decimal system. I realized tonight that I need to arrange them chronologically — because they tell quite a bit of my story.
A couple of decades ago, I was reading a lot of theology, both the serious kind (dense intellectual books by Francis Schaeffer, for instance) and the more popular kind (lightweight volumes by Charles Colson, for another example). As I looked at some of those books — and realized that I had no desire to open them again — it occurred to me that I have no interest in reading theology anymore.
Why? Is it because I know everything there is to know? Is it because I have everything figured out? No, it’s nothing like that. It’s simply because I read enough to come to peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for in those books.
I realized that I was never going to figure out the truth about God by reading about the experiences of Charles Finney or the arguments of Jonathan Edwards. I’m glad I read all those things, but I finally realized that any smart person could build a systematic theology on the foundation of what other people had told him to believe. I wasn’t going to find truth there. I could only find other people’s perceptions of truth.
My older books are very heavy on political theory and economics as well. The earlier examples of those are almost comically partisan and I can’t believe they ever interested me. As I grew, I bought more serious works and confronted tough ideas. But I find that most of what really interests me about political theory was voiced by the 19th century abolitionist Lysander Spooner and most of what interests me about economics was written by those of the Austrian school.
I don’t really need more convincing that human beings deserve to be free and that government intervention in economies hurts everyone, so I never read those sorts of books now.
So what dominates my more recent purchases? They’re mostly things about personal transformation. I have a lot about psychology. There’s quite a bit about personality and its development. I have more books about child development and how children learn than I remembered.
As I considered the changes in what I buy and read, something occurred to me. I like the person I am now better than the person I was a couple of decades ago.
I’m glad I know a lot of the facts and theories and history that I studied heavily when I was younger. I was clearly interested in exploring everything about the world out there. I wanted to understand the world around me, a place which frequently didn’t make sense.
But the books I choose now represent a turn inward. They represent my need to understand myself better — and in understanding myself better, to connect with someone and become a deeper and greater person than I could have ever been before.
When I was young, I obviously explored the world around me. It seemed alien and I wanted to understand it. As I matured, I turned to a far tougher quest — the desire to understand the human heart and mind and soul, starting with myself.
I guess I knew all this. I suppose I was conscious of the ways in which I’ve changed. But seeing it through my books tonight made me feel it in a way that I hadn’t really understood before.
Suddenly, I realize — again — that a person’s library tells who he is and who he’s been. I have the urge to arrange these books and use them to explain myself — once I find someone who’s interested in understanding who I am, of course.
Note: I can’t leave this behind without begging you to read a few books that have meant a lot to me. Ray Bradbury’s brilliant short novel “Fahrenheit 451” was written in the 1950s, but it will teach you a lot about modern culture and why we’re disconnected from one another. “The Lucifer Principle,” by Howard Bloom, will force you to re-examine many of your assumptions about the world. It’s hard to explain it, but it had a huge impact on me. About 10 years ago, I had my understanding of the world turned upside down by a very simple book of psychology called “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me),” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It’s a simple book that explains how cognitive dissonance makes it almost impossible for most people to reject what they already believe when they face new facts that contradict their existing beliefs. It will help you understand why people do some of the insane things they do. (I have to stop now before I beg you to read dozens of books.)