When do riches tip from being a blessing to a curse?
You know that stereotypical image of the miser hunched over his (it’s always a man, an old man) piles of gold, looking sullen? The miser made miserable because “having” became “coveting” and all of the ugly emotion that involves. There is a saying “The spendthrift robs his heirs; the miser robs himself.” What other riches did the miser deny himself? What did he say “no” to in order to say “yes” to all of that worthless coin?
The absurdity of the miser is that his wealth is meaningless because it no longer has an exchange value; he hoards for the sake of having and not spending.
There is a word in Japanese that captures some of that same absurdity when the object in question is books and not money. Tsundoku means to buy books and let them pile up unread. It was a word I once both gleefully and sheepishly embraced as an accurate word for me, but the scales have tipped much more in favour of the sheepish lately, and the absurdity of my book-buying addiction has felt more keenly foolish than gleeful. Why now?
My infinite riches in the printed word department suggest not just abundance but the finite amount of time in which to enjoy that abundance. Where once I was able to suspend the knowledge that I did not have the time to read all that I collected, I am faced ever more starkly with the simple fact that I do not have the time. Lack pronounces itself ever more bluntly.
Those of you who know me well may have to sit down to read this next bit: I have the very beginnings of feeling a miser’s misery about my piles of books. Things that once brought me unequivocal joy–reading about books, listening to podcasts about books, creating lists of books to buy, shopping for books and always coming away gleefully with more than I intended to buy, organizing my books–all of these things are now tinged with the sadness of the insistence that I do not have the time.
I have spent my coin on riches that now exceed my ability to enjoy them. I do not have the time to read them all, much less to have the kind of discussions about them that will bring them even more fully to life.
I am not so far gone as to stop wanting books. I’m not even prepared to admit that I have too many. My husband wished me happy birthday with a card that affirmed that there is no such thing as too many books, only not enough bookshelves. I still hold this to be true, but I also admire more and more the ability of those of my friends who have emptied their homes of books. One friend set up a Little Free Library outside her house, and slowly but surely emptied her metres and metres of bookshelves onto its little shelves. It is a generosity beyond my ability, but I can see that her generosity and the space it has opened up in her life and her living space has given her as much pleasure as collecting my piles of books has given me. Do I pivot away from what has filled me but now weighs me down, or do I work to reclaim the joy of absurd abundance?
Some people declare a year of “yes” in order to fill their lives with as much as possible. One of my friends has declared this her year of “no” in order to ensure that her schedule is full of only the important things. Yes, no, yes, no. Do you set limits or embrace all possibilities as the best route to happiness? Do you say “stop” or “go”?
I am drawn to the simple insistence of these words with one syllable: move, plan, sweat, do, act, now. Yes. No. Stop. Go.
While I puzzle out how to apportion time, whether to say yes or no, I want to wrestle to reclaim the love of excess. Having realized that I’ve tipped past glee into stupidity, I am working to pull my piles of books back into the black. I want a positive accounting of my piles of riches.