A few years ago, when my wife and I decided to get a divorce, I realized I had an opportunity to do something different for myself and the planet—to live lighter on the earth, more simply and more sustainably. The accumulation of possessions had become an obstacle in our marriage, and so as I prepared to move out of our house and set up an apartment on my own, I took a bare minimum of belongings with me—my clothes, my computer and work files, some artwork… and about 300 of my “most valuable” books.
As a writer, business strategist, and student of Buddhism, I had accumulated quite a few books over the years—over 1,200, by my rough count. Those 300 books were just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. How did I select them? Some were ready references for business; some were artifacts of my earlier life as a writer and literary critic; some were sources of inspiration for my spiritual study and practice. All of them were reflections of “me”—who I thought I was, who I wanted others to see me as.
Then recently, after a period of separation, the time finally came to sell our house and distribute our possessions among us. My wife got the furniture and household goods; I got the 900 books I had previously left behind.
When he died, the internationally renowned author and literary critic Umberto Eco left behind a library of more than 30,000 books. I thought of that number as I hauled several cartons of books onto the balcony of my small apartment and wondered what to do with them all. I could maybe squeeze another 100 books onto my bookshelves, but no more. How to decide what to keep and what to give away?
Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote that Professor Eco considered his bulging library not as a monument to how smart he was and how much he knew, but instead as a very weighty representation of what he did not know. Taleb called it an “antilibrary,” a humbling antidote to what might otherwise be a very formidable and intimidating résumé.
I thought about this as I sat down to the task of whittling down my 1,200 books to the 400 that the space allowed. Voluntary simplicity is about letting go of baggage—physical baggage yes, but also mental and spiritual baggage. To live light on the earth, one first has to begin to question why we need things at all. To support some sense of Important Self? That seemed more like hoarding to me than anything. To challenge me to be the kind of person who can live lightly on the earth with a sense of joy and aspiration to benefit all Life? That was a rationale I could buy into.
And so I’ve started. With each book I hold in my hand, I ask: “Can you teach me something I don’t know about how to live in harmony with the earth? Can you teach me how to make my life a benefit to all living beings?”
That’s a big stretch, of course. Who knows if I will ever come close to living a life that benefits the earth and all living beings more than it harms them? I don’t know if or how I will get there, except to say that not knowing whether I can do it or not—acknowledging my anti-résumé, so to speak—is the first step in living a voluntarily simple life, a life not bound up in who I am and what I think of myself, but instead in who I might be.