About books

The great dilemma for dwellers of small or tiny houses is what to do with books. (Here, of course, we are not referring to electronic formats, which are sometimes a reluctant necessity; enlarging fonts for old eyes is a boon, but reading them is an aseptic experience without spatial-temporal marker, aesthetically and tactically empty, a kind of defeat.)

One rule of some simplicity advocates is that for every new book, an existing one must go. This is a hard rule when one’s collection is already considered essential, and especially after experiencing regret over a favorite or needed book long discarded. Nor does “discarding” seem a harsh word for this mechanical treadmill or quota system. Besides, who can say that what was good won’t become essential, that what was redundant and disposable becomes a much needed and now lacking insight or contained an important point overlooked or underappreciated at the time. It can be argued that giving books to a library is a good and charitable use, but having spent a career in libraries it must be said that few donations are deemed useful by the powers that judge. Let us admit, too, that a book sale or even an arrangement like Book Crossing is poor treatment of a treasured tome that is being booted from the collection based on draconian numbers. Seems as heartless as abandoning a puppy, or worse.

Ancient Chinese poet-recluses have all mentioned the limits of their book collections, sometimes rather few books at that. We only hear of Tao Chien’s books when he sits at night to browse the “Classic of Mountains and Seas” (Shan hai jing), probably his only book. Han-shan, recently reclused from court service, tells us of daily life, that

with his son he picks wild fruit
with his wife he hoes between rocks
what does he have at home
a shelf full of nothing but books.

But that was before he became a hermit, some sources suggesting that poverty and starvation killed his family.

Po Chu-i built a two-room house for his wife, daughter, and his own anticipated retirement from court. He describes the cottage in loving detail, mentioning dimensions, windows, bamboo and hemp, beams and rafters, wooden benches, two screen partitions, favorite objects: a ch’in, or lute– and books, Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist.

Stonehouse built a tiny house or hut about ten feet wide. From the outside the hut looks cramped, he admits, but he does not mind because he owns so little: a grass mattress, a slab of wood for a pillow, a gilt statue of the Buddha (and three clay ones fashioned by his own hand). Stonehouse tells us that at night he moves a “book stand to read sutras by moonlight,” but doesn’t mention any other books.

The Japanese hermit Kamo no-Chomei described his hut in detail, including his images of the Buddha. He tells us that “on the wall that faces the north I have built a little shelf on which I keep three or four black leather baskets that contain books of poetry and music and extracts from the sacred writings. Beside them stand a folding koto and lute.”

The eccentric Japanese recluse-monk Kenko, whose “Essays in Idleness” reflects a somewhat Epicurean angle to solitary living, notes (not unlike Tao Chien), that “The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known.” Among his preferred reading, Kenko includes Po Chu-i and the Taoist classics of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu.

Lastly, for now, is the Japanese poet-hermit-monk Ryokan.

Ryokan describes his hut in one poem as a “three-mat hut,” but in another passage as “four-mat.” He refers to the same hut, of course, not necessarily to the number of tatami mats as flooring but to the relative size of his “little grass hut,” what he sees as “little more than four bare walls.” He mentions his one window. There is no apparent niche or divider; Ryokan speaks of “sitting along in my empty room.” On a wall several poems are written. On the bed and strewn on the floor are books of poetry. His possessions include one robe (probably two sewn as one but thin nevertheless), and a walking stick. He employed a “solitary lamp” and a hearth that burned firewood or charcoal. Ryokan mentions a kettle and a rice steamer, plus his ubiquitous bowl.

Skipping a few centuries we come to Michel de Montaigne, the French Renaissance writer of “Essays,” including a favorite titled “On Solitude.” He tells us he had plenty of room for books (being also a lawyer and civil servant) but took a different tact. He disagrees with Pliny’s advice to use solitude to devote oneself to study, for even books and learning, says Montaigne, are a tyranny. “Books are pleasant; but if by associating with them we end by losing gaiety and health, the best parts of us, let us leave them.” Further, “I like only pleasant and easy books which entertain me,” he declares, “or those that console me and counsel me to regulate my life and my death.”

Montaigne does not contradict the Chinese or Japanese hermits. Everyone values books, and if more are helpful, why not keep them, wherever in the house or hut one must find a place for them. Whenever one comes across a used book in a shop or library that is quite valuable, the surprise and delight of discovery is always refreshing. But, more glumly, its owner may have parted reluctantly with the book, or not understood it, or was forced by wrong-headed advocates of simplicity. Or perhaps its owner is no longer with us. Long life to that one who has passed, to one who loved good books as much as we do.