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Last January I made the decision to retire from the active pastorate. I informed my wife on a Friday and we began to consider what life would look like after retirement.
On Saturday I went to my office at the church and looked at my shelves, filled with a couple thousand books. When I retire, what will I do with them? Books are my life – on a number of levels.
I’ve loved books since I was a small child. Just this winter I’ve given my grandchildren Little Golden Books that have been mine since I spelled my name with a backwards “J” on the inside cover. In the sixth grade I made a pledge to myself to read a book every day, a pledge I kept for months.
When I entered seminary, I started reading and collecting books in earnest, purchasing them by the dozens each semester. My library expanded when three minister friends died and their wives allowed me to go through their libraries and take what I could use. The churches I served offered book allowances which allowed me to read and study as much as I could. I’ve spent 40 years gathering professional books, personal interest books, and books for pleasure reading. Shelves at home and in my office at church are the only reasons I’ve been able to keep so many.
About ten years ago I foresaw the foolishness of it all. At that time I began to part with a book every time I obtained a new one. I knew I’ve never have room for them all.
But I’ve loved them so. Many writers have described how books open new worlds and new ways of thinking. I can never describe how my understanding of Jesus has expanded from studying the works of others.
Now, facing retirement, what do I do with all these books? On that Saturday last January, I saw the futility of thinking I could keep them all. Painfully I began to pull many off the shelves and put them in boxes to discard. Once I had three boxes I had to stop. I was not ready to tell the congregation of my decision and surely someone would notice the absence of so many books from my office. And, after a flurry of activity, I couldn’t make any more decisions about books that helped me articulate my first sermons; books from the libraries with the name of friends who are long gone from our sight; books that had provided insight, understanding, and joy. I couldn’t give up any more.
The moment I knew those three boxes were not enough to discard was when I came across a quote from E. B. White:
Every morning, when I left for work, I would take something in my hand and walk off with it, for deposit in the big municipal wire trash basket at the corner of Third, on the theory that the physical act of disposal was the real key to the problem. My wife, a strategist, knew better and began quietly mobilizing the forces that would eventually put our goods to rout. A man could walk away for a thousand mornings carrying something with him to the corner and there would still be a home full of stuff. It is not possible to keep abreast of the normal tides of acquisition. A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on night and day — smoothly, subtly, imperceptibly. I have no sharp taste for acquiring things, but it is not necessary to desire things in order to acquire them. Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up. Books and oddities arrive in the mail. Gifts arrive on anniversaries and fete days. Veterans send ballpoint pens. Banks send memo books. If you happen to be a writer, readers send whatever may be cluttering up their own lives; I had a man once send me a chip of wood that showed the marks of a beaver’s teeth. Someone dies, and a little trickle of indestructible keepsakes appears, to swell the flood. This steady influx is not counterbalanced by any comparable outgo. Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in.
My desire to keep so many books was really an inability to admit that I will never be able to keep them all – that I don’t need them all. My struggle was with “stuff” that had dug in and didn’t want to let go. I realized that I was deferring my “stuff” problem to my children. Until that moment I thought, “Let me keep them all, my daughters can get rid of them someday.”
Retirement is not death. But it is a shrinking of life. It is a preview for those who will pay attention. Like those who have downsized to assisted living or the mother-in-law suite, the day is coming when we will have less. And, if we are surrounded by the people we love, we will have enough and be satisfied. Maybe God has been teaching us this lesson all our lives, but I have just now paid attention. It is easy to become too attached to the temporal. It is easy to think that life is made up of the material and more of is will make us happy.
Thus, I have begun anew the task of getting rid of many books. These old friends. Filled with dust mites, faded highlighting, and inscriptions from people I have loved, many of them are leaving as I work toward a more manageable collection of core books.
My life is richer for having read them, and for learning to let them go.