HAVE YOU READ ALL THESE BOOKS?
My walls are lined with books. Many families around here keep only a dozen or so paperbacks floating around the house. Their first reaction is “have you read all those books?” and “if you’ve read them all, why do you keep them?” Implied is the accusation that the books are merely hoarded, like stacks of old newspapers. Sometimes people are more direct, so if I say I haven’t read them all, they ask, “If you don’t read them, why do you keep them?”
I’m coming to an age when not only is there not enough time left for me to read all my books, over the decades my interests have changed enough that some are irrelevant. I remain fascinated by what is called anthropology.
Anthropology is suggesting new enlightening concepts. One is the idea of “storage” which is closely linked to agriculture, esp. grain agriculture which is deeply entwined with storage. It is possible to preserve meat and fruits if you dry, can or freeze them, but these strategies are more problematic than simply piling up wheat or barley. This changes society. It can be deeply corrupting in terms of group dynamics, encouraging raids. Crops, storage and sedentary living go together, but then it’s harder to just move away from problems.
This link above is to a beginning of thought about storage, in a book that expands the ideas. “Thought in a Hostile World” by Kim Sterelny is very expensive unless you acquire it as an ebook, which is a different form of storage that crowds my hard drive. The basics are in the article.
Storing food and other desirable commodities gives rise to pride, protectiveness, and secrecy. It makes one vulnerable to theft and raids, jealousy and classes. Long ago I took the advice of the Bible:
Matthew 6:20: “But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth … Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the … where neither moth nor rust does corrupt, and where thieves do not break in … the unseen world (Revelation 14:13), and are subject to no process of decay.”
They meant virtue, but I mean knowledge. How does this relate to my books, my ordination as clergy, and my theory of what is valuable in life, which is now under attack in much of the dominant culture?
Here’s the list:
1. I’m not storing the books but rather the information that is in them because I want to go back for reference, because I want to eventually read them to develop ideas, and because of nostalgia — books I’ve loved. I don’t save first editions or valuable bindings or even new-bought books. Those are too vulnerable to rot and moth, fire and flood.
2. It IS a little disconcerting to try to save ebooks or audible books because that means dependence on a computer, which costs money and requires electricity. Mysterious things (magnets?) can make them disappear.
3. What I’m really saving is ideas in my head. Also I store them externally on paper in binders and files, which mean I have to maintain a shelter, but I have to do that anyway. It doesn’t have to be fancy and I neglect the community standards of appearance, partly because of poverty. Ideas don’t necessarily make money.
4. Ordination and the education that earned it is mysterious to many people. (Even more inscrutable is becoming clergy simply by inspiration, maybe from reading the New Testament but that’s not my way.) The “learned ministry” was the origin of professions and universities, systems of storing knowledge. Today’s ministries of therapy betray that, mixing it with a low-level version of medicine.
5. People are hostile to those who have “more” even if it is more education (ways of thinking as well as information) unless they are constrained by providing welfare/therapy to the group. This is related to keeping secrets, hoarding wealth, forming elites.
“For mobile foragers, sharing is insurance. Hunting especially is very chancy, requiring both luck and skill, so it’s adaptive to share if you succeed today, on condition that others share with you when you fail.”
This is why churches are supposed to be open to everyone, to protect them from the accusation of hoarding or “fencing the communion,” a phrase that comes from the early development of Christianity when taking communion was thought to be a form of salvation that was only for believers. Therapy and church are both mechanisms for persuading people into conformity, joining the larger group.
Religious institutions store their information in their clergy, but they are not necessarily a unified body and schisms may arise among them that are — at their heart though maybe abstractly — issues of storage and ownership. A key lesson is the story of the early separation between parts of congregations having to resort to the law to settle who gets to keep the valuable communion silver.
Something similar pertains to higher education, which the uneducated think is a matter of a piece of paper that gives access to wealth, that a diploma is a kind of passport to a privileged country. This is why they don’t learn while in college, because they see it as only access to money or sports. This is why a diploma or even a transcript is later a poor guide to someone’s functional ability. To “hoard” education means doing the hunting and gathering necessary to have something to hoard.
Both elitist and middle-classes fall into hoarding physical manifestations. Museums and collections are examples of hoarding that is justified by status. Religious bodies do this with relics and so do ordinary people who accumulate things like salt-and-pepper sets or model cars. Value in the larger world might or might not exist, but people tend to admire collections of bric-a-brac.
Nevalny points out several requirements for effective storage. First is the concept of personal “ownership” which does not exist in some cultures but dominates the arrangements of capitalism. Troublesome issues include the question of what belongs to a separate group or person, what belongs to the whole community, and what belongs to itself (world order or species existence).
Besides sustaining ideas of “class” according to what people own, the idea of inheritance or even gifting can cause trouble, but particularly inheritance based on biological succession or fantasies about it (adoption, conception outside marriage). These feed a whole complex about governance, like the recording of birth, marriage and death, and sorting out in trials any conflicting claims.
Part of the hysterical panic on the part of people who have committed to past assumptions of science and religion is the feeling that all change is loss. Their knowledge is now worthless. They do not know how to acquire the new knowledge. Maybe moths and rust are irrelevant, but time affects even ideas.