Posted by: Dan | October 16, 2007

On the Formation of Images (and the consumption of books)

Last December, I wrote a post on my materialism (cf. http://poserorprophet.livejournal.com/97365.html) and the convictions that I mentioned then have only further developed over the last year (especially given recent readings which have focused both on the simplicity and generosity of the early Christian churches, and the ravages imposed by contemporary consumption).

Now, I don't really buy a lot of things. I rarely buy clothes (about one item per year — usually socks), I don't really buy music (although, over the years, I built up a collection of approximately 100 CDs), I don't buy DVDs or any of those technological gadgets that people love to have (iPods, iPhones, whatever), but I do buy a helluva lot of books. In fact, on my last count, I had about 1100 books in my collection. Most I have read in full, others I have read in part and continue to refer to in my research, and some I have yet to read.

Now here's the thing: I like being the guy who has a lot of books. People can come to our house and, yep, be impressed by the scope and breadth of my reading. In fact, as I have continued to confront my materialism, I have realized that part of the attraction of building a personal library is building a brand-image for myself. Look at my fiction collection and you will see the great classics — Hugo, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Cervantes, Joyce, Camus, etc. — alongside of more contemporary greats — Sinclair, Steinbeck, DeLillo, Pynchon, Eco, Atwood, etc. Look at my non-fiction and you will see theology, philosophy, psychology, literary criticism, biblical studies, social commentary, and counter-cultural voices, all represented.

Of course, a great deal of this ends up providing me with subtle (or not so subtle) opportunities to boost my ego. Hence you get a scenario like this:

Guest: “Oh, wow, you've read Joyce's Ulysses?”
Dan: “I read it but, man, what a terrible book [hence, I posit that I have a greater grasp on what counts as quality literature than most of the English departments in the world]. If you really want to read a book that will change the way you think about the world, then I suggest… [here I'll pull some lesser known title from the shelf, one my guest probably does not know, and in this why I will continue to impress them with the scope of my reading and my knowledge of lesser known gems].

Of course, I have been able to rationalize my book consumption in all sorts of other ways. Maybe my wife and I will have kids one day, and all my fiction (including the collection of children's literature that I own) would be a great resource for them. As for all my nonfiction, who knows what I'll be researching in the future, so I better hold on to all of those books. Indeed, if I'm going to teach in the future (because, who knows, maybe I will), then isn't owning thousands of books a prerequisite for teaching? Have you ever been in a professor's office that wasn't covered, wall to wall, with books?

Well, I no longer accept these rationalizations. Hoarding books, because of some potential future use, is no longer justified in my mind. Indeed, it was only after these rationalizations collapsed that I was able to discern just how much my ego was caught up in this. When I concluded that I needed to begin down-sizing my collection, and giving books to those who would read them now, it was the image thing that prevented me from acting. Sure, I'm not going to read Ulysses again (thank goodness), but it's nice to have it on my bookshelf. How stupid is that? Sure, I have enjoyed some of Hugo's stories (like Les Miserables and Notre Dame de Paris) but other works of his that I own (like Toilers of the Sea) I like to have on my shelf just so that I can demonstrate that I have read other, more obscure, works of Hugo, than the general crowd. Ridiculous, eh?

Consequently, I have finally started my book giveaway. Over the last few weeks I have given away approximately 150 books (mostly to family members — like giving my children's literature to my brothers' who have kids [what a concept!] — and to peers at my school). Mostly I just ask, “would you be interested in reading this book in the near future?” and if the answer is in the affirmative then the book has been given away. Other books, that were not taken by peers or family members, I have given to homeless fellows to resell at used book stores (oh, and I also gave them about 20 of my CDs).

It has been difficult process, but it has also been liberating. Along the way I have learned that one of the greatest challenges we face when confronting consumption, is the way in which consumption feeds our pride. The issue isn't so much that we are attached to our possessions; rather, the issue is that we become attached to the image that our possessions provide for us (is this what it means to be “possessed”?). It is this image that is the most difficult thing to sacrifice. But it is precisely this image that we must sacrifice as Christians.

Richard (of http://subrationedei.com/) has recently confronted his personal book consumption by formulating this rule: he can buy as many books as he wants, so long as the net total of books waiting to be read decreases every month (if he breaks this rule, he has provided himself with a rather hilarious form of punishment). My current plan is to continue to give away more books than I buy (and the same goes for CDs).

Consumerism will get us any way that it can — if we're not buying clothes, we're buying music; if we're not buying music we're buying gadgets; if we're not buying gadgets, we're buying books. It really doesn't care what we're buying, so long as we continue to buy. And not only buy, but hoard. This is my clothes collection, my music collection, my collection of gadgets, my collection of books. As Christians, I believe that we should be pursuing a trajectory that leads us to hold our things in common, both with those in the community of faith, and with those who have need. This (hopefully ongoing) book giveaway, is but one small step on that road. We can break the hold of consumerism over our lives, but that means that we must sacrifice the images we have constructed of ourselves, and be transformed into the image of the crucified Christ.

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