I’ve spent some time this afternoon going through my bookshelves and making a list of old (mostly fiction) books to give away. I e-mailed this list round a group of friends who might like them, and pleasingly a lot have already gone to places where they will be read, and I’ve also had offers from three (!) university science fiction/fantasy libraries which will be happy to take a lot of the leftovers.

My motivation for doing this is threefold: (1) better that these books benefit others when I’m confident I’m not going to read them again (non-electronically, anyway); (2) space-saving in the sense of having less stuff to move out of my mothers’ house when I eventually do so (don’t actually need space any time soon); (3) as an exercise in detachment.

For a long time I thought that I wanted to keep the books because I saw them as part of my life; I didn’t want to leave them behind. But this doesn’t make sense if there is no reasonable prospect of me reading them again, and if there is, I should get hold of an electronic copy (which I have now done for some of those I am giving away). And: another thing that is part of my life is my enthusiasm for sharing the content of these books with others, so it’s good to allow that to happen. For purposes of keeping my memories of the books alive, I’ve made a list of all the ones I’m giving away. I think that, plus having copies of some in my ebook library, is enough.

So as far as books are concerned I am down to half an average bookcase or so of academic books, literary fiction, and a very small number of ordinary fiction books that I’ve kept back, mainly because I think they might be valuable (for example I think I might have a first edition Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, not sure). I like the idea of having a utility-based collection: this is something that will change as time goes by and books become or stop being useful to me to keep around. For example I have three layman’s philosophy books that I still might refer to for a few years yet, before they are more use to other people (and if the right person came along I think I’d give them away now).

A lot of people like books themselves as objects and also there’s a massive element of vanity involved in bookshelves, oh just look at how intellectual I am etc. I like books but I’m mostly over caring about them that much now. And as for vanity, I’m aware that it affects me—I like the fact that now my bookshelf looks cleverer now as it’s dominated by classics and academic books—but it’s definitely to be avoided if at all possible. Some of the books I am giving away I would want to keep for vanity so I’m pleased not to be. Only possible upside? Realising someone else likes the same books that you do when visiting a friend’s home/them visiting you, having conversations about things you read a long time ago. Willing to lose this in favour of talking about current books on utility-based shelf.

Only other issue is that electronic copies may be in the wrong format in years to come. Hopefully Calibre will get good enough to do more effective conversions than it does now, though. And in any case: this is just text. If the worst comes to the worst I can extract the text, and manually add chapter headings in whatever format is necessary, I’m sure that will always be possible.

As far as detachment is concerned, what about the other things I have stored up in my bedrooms at my mother’s and father’s houses? The most frustrating things are things I’ve produced: a stack of full/mostly full notebooks, and around eight lever-arch files filled with A-level and university work. I want to keep the latter because, in a much stronger way, these really do track my life. Ideally I would like to buy one of those super-scanners that can just churn through and convert all your paper into massive PDFs, which I can then safely store away (more on that later). So I’ll keep these around for now. That doesn’t help with the notebooks though. Then I have a small pile of CDs; aside from one which is rather rare, these could all go at any point really since they are ripped to my music library (I believe getting rid of the CDs themselves would then mean I was breaking copyright by keeping a copy, though?). Then I have a small number of DVDs and VHSs, which I could only really get rid of when computers instead of DVD players are connected to TVs commonly, at which point I could rip them all to my library and sell/give away. Next is computer and video games; I’ve got rather too many of these. Honestly I don’t know which I’m likely to play again (aside from one which is dead certain). Don’t know what to do about those. And then very finally I have three or four genuinely irreplacable items with sentimental value: such as my sixth form lab coat covered in people’s signatures from when I left school, and a pile of snail mail letters (though this could be made electronic I guess? not sure if it would be the same).

The thought with all of this is not “get rid of everything” in a minimalist sense. It’s that I don’t want to be attached to things: this is the Eastern thought that attachment is suffering, and while I’m not sure I agree so much with that (e.g. attachment to institutions, people), I certainly agree w.r.t. personal possessions. The clutter in my room, decorations and bits and pieces such as a pile of three puzzle cubes for example, are things I am not attached to, but have no reason to get rid of: if the building burnt down and they went, I’d be okay, but I’ve no reason to go and throw them out. As an exception I’m getting rid of all these books, above, for the benefit of others and because I know that I am attached to them, and this is one way to genuinely break that attachment.

I have this ideal that the only thing I’d be attached to is the contents of my home directory. I have a backup system worked out that makes it really very hard for me to lose stuff permanently. There’d have to be fires in a bunch of different physical locations, or the secret service would have to perform a co-ordinated set of hacks and raids (including, for very important data, encrypted backups in Amazon datacentres spread across Europe). The one exception is a large number of writable DVDs sitting in my room with data on them that isn’t duplicated anywhere else. This is because I have run out of space. Ideally I would like a large portable storage drive that I could have these stored on, and this could easily be incorporated with the rest of my setup, via the magic git-annex. As far as paper in concerned (and I tend to print everything off), I’d like to be able to use folders as I presently do, but when something is finished with (end of a project, course, whatever) I could run it through a super-scanner as mentioned above and store the PDF away safely.

I don’t know if this is actually detachment, though. Perhaps instead: it’s attachment so strong that I want to protect the information super-carefully even though it only matters to little old me. I ought perhaps to be far more willing to delete stuff. In any case this dream situation is a long way in the future (I do not have the money for a super-scanner) and for now I will continue to think about my material attachments.