Every time I have to move house or, disgusted by all the earthly ‘stuff’ we have gathered, once again contemplate moving to a small cabin in the woods, I am brought to a halt by the burden of books. While I could undoubtedly squeeze my clothes into one large suitcase, books occupy ten or twenty times the space.
The Tiny House movement is commendable and enviable for its minimalist approach, fitting big lives into small spaces without making it seem crowded. A book (!) on small eco houses has me drooling with envy for their stripped-down simplicity. But romantic notions of living in a shelter no bigger than a chicken coop go flying out the door when I contemplate my lexical menagerie. They tug at my apron strings like a band of hungry children and with a sigh I have to resume responsibility.
Besides the essential books, both fiction and non-fiction, that fill the shelves in the house, there are the stacks of textbooks from two or three university degrees, many which are almost certainly outdated and will never be consulted again, but which I cannot bring myself to chuck out. Add to that two crates of photo albums, the same of diaries, countless sketchbooks, and files full of the various documents that keeps modern life ticking. (Where are the dreams of a paperless office now?)
Except for the documents, textbooks and the occasional research tome, going digital is not an option for me. I am incapable of reading anything longer than a (short) email on a screen, one of the reasons I have been unable to follow any blogger, columnist or otherwise digitally occupied writer with more than a nominal fidelity. Photos and diaries can and probably should be scanned as a backup, but you don’t expect me to throw away the originals, do you? Good.
Even more than the boxes full of books that have travelled halfway round the world with me, there is the collection of paintings that now officially occupy one whole bedroom in our house. To the original legacy of seventy plus paintings (not to mention more than five hundred watercolour sketches and forty years’ worth of sketchbooks) from my dear departed mother, I have been steadily adding my own paintings, with no hope of ever selling anything.
In a recent computer scare Someone was in danger of losing twenty years of digital data, much of it (like the books) irrelevant and of purely nostalgic value. Even as I secretly chided him for crying over “treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal”, I knew that I was equally guilty as charged.
Is it then wrong to love beautiful things? Is it immoral to crave an environment that feeds your soul with words, music, or art? Should we live Spartan lives and spurn even the accumulation and preservation of cultural arts and artefacts? Of course not. Call me biased or blasphemous, but beauty is surely a drop of the essence of God and therefore essential to spiritual survival. Living without beauty kills the soul.
This does not solve my dilemma of living a simple life without getting rid of loads of books and art. It is the existence that my dear mother, her of the many paintings and the many-splendored life, somehow managed to achieve in her last years. But not without cheating, I might add, as her one-bedroom house-cum-gallery was extended with an annexed guestroom, a painting studio and a storeroom.
So here is my wish for the new year (or some near future before I die) – a small hut in the wood with a large library stacked to the rafters with books and walls covered with lovely paintings. Heaven, no?