A thousand books scattered about the apartment, stacked in knee-high piles. All of the bookshelves bare. This housecleaning project was unplanned, but had been on our mind for months—reviewing every single book we'd accumulated over the past 10 years, and deciding which ones we could live without. Deadline: we had to wrap it up before the end of the long weekend. Otherwise, my wife and I couldn't make it out the front door.
Books have always been my worst vice. A lifelong addiction, scented with ink and glue. Being inside a bookstore requires great restraint, as I'd like nothing more than to run off with an endcap of science books, and perhaps swipe a popular novel or two on the way out the door while laughing maniacally.
It wasn't always this way. Through most of high school and college, I was able to get by just with the library. When I was in graduate school, however, I would acquire and read 3 to 4 books a week—for work, for pleasure, for class, for my full-time job as an editor. In the mail, I would receive dozens of review copies a month. The bookshelves grew fuller and fuller, and since many books were referred to in class, I had no excuse to get rid of them. It wasn't until a hurricane blew through town and flooded our townhouse's basement—destroying about a hundred of my books—that I felt heartbroken at having to recycle all those books. Giving away or selling books, even since then, has always been a struggle.
It wasn't until a few years ago that I realized my hoarding tendencies were part of a shenpa. To quote a lovely talk by Pema Chödrön:
"The usual translation of the word shenpa is attachment. If you were to look it up in a Tibetan dictionary, you would find that the definition was attachment. But the word "attachment" absolutely doesn't get at what it is… If I were translating shenpa it would be very hard to find a word, but I'm going to give you a few. One word might be hooked. How we get hooked.
Another synonym for shenpa might be that sticky feeling. In terms of last night's analogy about having scabies, that itch that goes along with that and scratching it, shenpa is the itch and it's the urge to scratch. So, urge is another word. The urge to smoke that cigarette, the urge to overeat, the urge to have one more drink, or whatever it is where your addiction is."
At first, I didn't see myself as attached to the notion of acquiring books. In most cases, I buy books to open up new areas of ignorance, whether essays or poetry or translated Scandianvian crime fiction as a relaxing beach read. It's very rare that I buy a book that isn't in some area I'm not familiar with. Usually I can't find them at the library.
But it's what happens after the reading that has been sticky. Keeping the book after I've read it ceases to be about the book, and more about reinforcing the ego around having read the book. This was the shenpa, and the point where I'd freak out a little. There was some kind of comfort in having the books around—even if at a certain point, the book was stored away and invisible to my eye—than it being completely gone. The idea of losing the book was worse than losing the book. To quote Pema again:
"There's this background static of slight unease, or maybe fidgetiness, or restlessness, or boredom. And so, we begin to use things to try to get some kind of relief from that unease… We never get at the root… The root in this case is that we have to really experience unease. We have to experience the itch. We have to experience the shenpa and then not act it out."
In talking with my wife about our book explosion, we knew we needed to tame the torrent and get rid of a few hundred books—just from sheer space demands, we were overwhelmed.
But I knew that the point of the exercise wasn't to say, Look! I can throw out three hundred books and not feel terrible about it. Pema says, "it's really not about trying to cast something out but about seeing clearly and fully experiencing the shenpa." We had to look at each book that we owned, feel and say clearly whether the book was absolutely necessary, and then put it in its appropriate place. Over and over again, sitting with the shenpa.
I'd like to say that this grew easier over the ten hours it took to fulfill the exercise, but it was exhausting.
Some designers find it easy to live with less, or at least the appearance thereof. We revel in delicious high-fidelity photographs of these places, as they are oft celebrated in the New York Times, Dwell, and blogs du jour. A critical feature of each photo shoot would be the meticulously curated tomes on the shelves. You know when the photographer leaves, they go up to their attic and bring back down the 200 other books they had just lying around. We needed a better system than that.
One of the few things that did make the process easier was an innovation that my wife engineered: creating inboxes for each of us, and an outbox. Each of us now has a shelf with 15 books that we'd recently acquired and wanted to read. When the mood strikes, we can reach up there and get access to the books we'd most wanted to read.
When we were done reading it, we could determine if the book was worth keeping. If it was a classic and we knew we would re-read it, the book went on the appropriate shelf (fiction, nonfiction, and so forth). If we weren't sure whether we'd keep it, the book went in the outbox. If anyone comes over to the house, they can take any book from the outbox. If it was dreadful, it went in a bag to be delivered to the local used bookstore or as a donation. Yes, there was a flow diagram and an information architecture to determine how this would work. We are that geeky.
Finishing this process has been a relief, and our bookshelves for the first time ever are completely organized. But doing this for just our books has opened my eyes to how the same shenpa has played out through almost every piece of media that I own, no matter whether it's physical or virtual.
I save things that I encounter in the world, often with the belief that I'll find a use for it in a future project. From the small cabinet under my work desk meant solely for paper samples, to the caches of magazines that I've kept for inspiration, I'd been hoarding materials for projects that had yet to materialize. And for every day I'd utilize that ultra-old atlas for a concert poster, or dig through my archive for a piece of parchment paper to run through the photo printer, there were probably three hundred more where those materials just collected dust. Much of this material now persists in our studio closet, awaiting the perfect design brief.
I'm nowhere near as bad as, say, Gail Anderson, whose recent presentation at the last HOW Conference gave us a peek into what a true collector looks like. At least in her design business and job, she utilizes that material on a regular basis—otherwise, there wouldn't be a really great reason to own thousands of bottle caps. She really uses this material regularly.
Beyond tangible things—it's fascinating how computers enable this shenpa by the design of their storage systems, with almost little to no impact to our physical space.
Cloud services are the grail of the computer industry, and yet they will not rid us of this desires, comforts, and traps of ownership. While I'm now breathing a little easier, now living in a space with a little less stuff, there's a burgeoning world of eBooks and iTV rentals and Rdio.com that continues to make me uncomfortable. My iTunes has reached a point where when I put it on shuffle, songs come up I rarely recognize. These tools are designed to provide me access to more of what I want, almost effortlessly. And yet I just don't trust myself with them.
We design interfaces to foster the mindset of ownership and retention. How easy is it for you to download a file from the iTunes store, then delete it forever without a backup? With regard to streaming: how comfortable are you with never really owning digital media—and are there artists and movies whose material you'll always want to own, no matter what the cost?
In this new world, our masters don't want us to own things. They want us to own the rights to accessing the thing, usually at a lower fidelity. While this seems to get around my shenpa—look, there's nothing to get rid of, because I never owned it in the first place!—I think it just creates a variant of the same problem. There are still visible reminders of having finished them. Netflix and Amazon have built businesses around reminding me of this fact, often at times when I am most desperate to scratch an itch. One last Pema quote, about pursuing comfort to the detriment of facing why comfort is required:
…how you are so habituated and the habitual pattern of imbuing poison with comfort. This is the same thing. It doesn't have to be substance abuse. It can be saying mean things. Maybe you never say mean things, but you think them all the time.
If we are to be truly effective at designing for behavior, we must have some measure of effectiveness at understanding our own behavior, and in what ways we fall into patterns of habit.
So for the next few months, I'm going to sit with what books and media I do own. I'm going to try and watch what I am thinking, and better understand that before I act: whether to get rid of a book, I'm reading it, or I'm acquiring a new one.
This sounds like a simple, everyday effort, but clearly I haven't been doing a good job of it, thousands of books into an already well-storied life. The classic Elizabeth Bishop poem "One Art" says it best, with pure irony: the art of losing is not hard to master... but learning to let go of the right things? An ongoing struggle.