Servetus comments:

But I am not sure the only significance of writing things down for your kids lies in its practical utility.

I’ve been reflecting lately on the urge to write, at least my own urge, and how these days it only erratically leads to actual writing.

My richest, most intriguing pre-writing happens not while reading, or even while lost in contemplation, but when some thought catches my interest as something I might write about. It’s then that I start to trace out the implications, piece together the arguments for and against, look for helpful metaphors and analogies, craft phrasings that might get my point across cleanly and clearly. Often this happens in the shower, sometimes on a walk (though I discourage myself from that), occasionally while driving or just when idle.

It’s not the only kind of thinking I’ll do in those times. Sometimes I’ll review incidents in my life that are hard to let go of, or ponder situations that loved ones and acquaintances find themselves in, or just wonder over some marvelous example of human behavior. But those tend to be static, observational, not pushing my thinking forward in any way. It’s the desire to explain something I believe that leads me to do the actual work of thinking.

And I do mean explain, rather than only defending my beliefs or justifying them. Ever more as I get older, the only thing I value about my beliefs is how they enable me to live, not what others think of them or how they measure up against some external standard. But it is important to me that they be explainable, since I see that as one of the fundamental tests of a useful belief — if I don’t understand it well enough to convey its content to someone, I can’t confidently operate according to it.

In The Poetic Image Cecil Day-Lewis writes:

I do not sit down at my desk to put into verse something that is already clear in my mind. If it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it [….] We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.

Or, better for my case, in order to test my understanding. Many of my “promising” thoughts fall by the wayside as I try to construct a case for them, not passing the test of explainability because I’m unable to support them with concrete evidence, or come across inconsistent realities, or find that I’ve deluded myself into thinking that an impression or feeling or emotion qualifies as a thought. The act of putting things in writing is the final, rigorous test there, since I’d rather abandon a line of thinking than resort to rhetorical tricks to push it over the line of being worth writing about. But I also put some trust in the belief that my pre-writing ruminations will filter out unworthy thoughts, that they will just fade and be forgotten, while worthy ones will stick around and resurface from time to time, gaining strength, eventually becoming prominent enough to urge me to actually write about them (at which time they’ll undergo that final rigorous test).

Yesterday I started reading Louis Menand’s American Studies, a collection of essays he wrote for the New Yorker and similar publications. The ones I’ve read so far (on William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, T.S. Eliot, Richard Wright, James B Conant, and William Paley) I really liked, being in the vein of intellectual biography rather than just historical profile. And, because they are relatively short, they focus on just one or two aspect’s of the subject’s thinking.

I like thinking, I like thinking about thinking, and I particularly enjoy writers who are good at digging into how their subjects think, even when the subject is themselves. Probably that’s why I enjoyed Menand’s The Metaphysical Club so much, since there he explores at length the thinking of many people, four in particular, who devoted themselves to figuring out a new way of thinking about the world.

I wish Menand had published more books. Aside from The Metaphysical Club and American Studies there is only Discovering Modernism: T. S. Eliot and His Context (which I might read eventually), The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War (another possibility, though I’ve read my fill of that period artistically and socially), and The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (not at all interested).

I just finished reading Philip Yancey’s memoir Where the Light Falls. I love memoirs, and this is a good one, though not indispensable. I only recommend it if you are especially interested in southern Fundamentalist culture, or perhaps the racist mindset of the 1960s South. The racism part does not get heavy emphasis, but still valuable since even erstwhile insiders rarely address this objectively — all I’ve ever read about this before comes from writers with an explicit, fiery agenda to condemn it rather than explain or understand it. I should add that to understand you don’t need to excuse, or even concede anything, I certainly don’t. Being one myself, I want to be familiar with the vast variety of how persons think, how they construct their mindsets, and especially what enables them to maintain them in the face of realities that conflict with their beliefs.

Yancey is a well known, well loved Christian writer, smack in the middle of the Christianity Today tradition, which skirts the liberal fringes of conservative evangelical thought. He has written movingly about grace in the context of the surprisingly ungracious attitudes exhibited by evangelicals, as well as a book about the person of Jesus who brought him alive for me when I first read it, early in my journey through Christendom, a welcome change from the mostly doctrinal writings about the faith I had been devouring. So it is both shocking and not at all shocking to learn about Yancey’s fundamentalist, racist upbringing in 1960s Atlanta — shocking that someone who writes so sensitively and generously could have been raised in such a strict, judgmental setting, not at all shocking that he rejected his upbringing and the faith it embodied in his college years, both shocking and not that he was able to find a different path forward through Christian belief.

Given Yancey’s history and stature as a Christian writer, it’s remarkable that he tells the story as sociology, with very little reference to the content of evangelical belief, only enough to explain some peculiar outworkings. E.g. his mother was an adherent of what is sometimes called Victorian Christian Living, about which Yancey states only that it teaches that a believer can reach a state of sinlessness — it doesn’t matter why or how that can happen, only that his mother believed she had achieved that state by her late teens, despite the subsequent evidence of years and years of horribly and severely ungracious behavior towards her two sons. So if you want to know some of the practicalities of how southern Fundamentalists think without wading through the doctrinal apparatus it is (supposedly) built upon, this memoir is a good place to learn.

Reading the book started me thinking about many things, but rather than try to cram them into one blog post I’ll end this one here and write individually about those, after I’m done stewing about them, if it turns out they’re actually worth writing about.

“What have I got in my pocket?” — Bilbo

My vest has inside pockets as well as outside, top left and right, bottom left and right. The bottom pockets are pretty roomy, though also right behind the lower set of outside pockets so I can’t bulk them out too much. So I’ve dedicated the bottom right inside pocket to my favorite large, flat object, my Kindle Paperwhite.

Someday e-readers will be even thinner and lighter, and I’ll be happier. But it turns out I love having the Paperwhite with me at all times. Like the Coda EDC flute, having constant easy access to an e-reader leads me to use it more often, filling in odd moments, which often turn into fifteen or thirty minute sessions.

I’m also in awe of the fact that I can carry an entire library in my pocket. Sometimes rather than reading I will just sit and flip through the contents, currently about 1500 books and a few hundred articles from the internet. Sometimes it makes me sad how pathetic the state of e-reader software remains for managing and searching through the contents — I often stumble across very good stuff I’ve forgotten I had. But at least the stuff is there, right there in my pocket, instantly accessible, ready when I’m ready. Amazing.

And for the record, having the flute in a pocket really has insured that I keep working at it. I pluck it out when it occurs to me and play a few scales, practice some tunes I’ve been working on, pick out new tunes as I think of them, learn and practice less common note fingers, practice tunes that make me switch between the two chambers because of the range of notes, play with different sorts of ornaments, try to add some expression. Not all in one session, certainly, and not very systematically. I start out thinking I’ll just play for a minute or two, then often find myself spending fifteen or thirty minutes. Not quite a discipline yet, but at least a healthy pastime that has held my interest.

The down comforter worked even better than I hoped.

Almost no weight on my legs and feet, which eased cramping quite a bit and allowed me to spend more time sleeping on my back (with my toes pointed up, which I kept to a minimum with the quilt due to tightness from its weight).

And I was much warmer, not only from the down, but because the comforter seemed to not touch most of my body, making for a cozy air pocket which heated nicely (maybe this is how sleeping bags work?). The quilt conforms to my body, which leads to heat being sucked out, I think.

Only one night in, but I look forward to many more nights of the same — about 400 weeks of them, by my count. Is it such an improvement that I should have done this earlier? Maybe. But I didn’t know that it would work. The one thing I did know was that Debbie was happy with the old arrangement — it was hers, after all. And if I had suggested the change and we made it, unless she had absolutely hated I wouldn’t have known whether she was happy with the new arrangement. So, better to leave it alone.

Was it a conscious decision on my part? Not really. Over the years I’ve worked to incline myself toward automatically deferring to the other person. If doing that gives rise to inconvenience or irritation, I start by welcoming the opportunity to wrestle that reaction to the ground — is it really so irritating? is having things my way so important here? Sometimes the irritation or inconvenience is significant, and I will look for a way to resolve it. But mostly it’s something I can overlook, happy that I can do so for the sake of the other person.

Am I overthinking this? Perhaps, but only in this blog post, because I’m trying to surface things deep in my character that lead me to respond as I do in such circumstances. I don’t think this response is particularly admirable or virtuous — there are surely other, better possibilities — but it does strike me as different than usual, as well as a sort of automatic response that has increased the peaceableness of my everyday existence.

Do I think my behavior should be emulated? Not at all. It probably wouldn’t be helpful for people in far different circumstances (mine are unusual) or who have a far different history (again, mine is unusual). But it’s one way of behaving, and one that has worked well for me. Much of what I’ve pieced together for myself about how to live started with observing how others did it, and seeing how well or badly things worked out for them. I’d like to add to that repository of wisdom, not in hopes of coming up with a generally applicable rule of life, but just some bits and pieces that someone somewhere might stumble across and find helpful.

Now that I’m in charge of the household I have a renewed admiration for all the work Debbie did to craft it. There just isn’t much I would change, and being newly responsible for it all I’m in awe at how well the pieces fit together. Mostly I just keep on doing the things I had long ago learned to do, and the tasks she used to handle I manage pretty well, having learned by closely observing her. And it doesn’t hurt that I was a bachelor until I turned thirty-one — whether I did it well or badly back then, I was at least well used to the idea of taking care of myself.

But now and then I’ve noticed something that is how it is mostly because Debbie decided to have it that way, a choice that was either her prerogative as homemaker or just a choice that needed to be made where she had a preference and I didn’t. Whenever alternatives occurred to me back then, usually it was more loving or more respectful to just leave it alone, to reinforce the sense that the house was her domain and I was very happy with the way she was running it. Now, though, there is room to tune things a bit more to my own taste without needing to justify it in any way.

We’ve had various bed covers over the years, but for the past few we’ve had a quilt, nice enough, but heavy and not all that warm. I like warm. And the heavy part had become an issue for me physically — my legs and feet have become very prone to cramping at night (I gobble magnesium supplements, which helps a bit) and any weight on them seems to make it worse. So it wasn’t great that recently I’ve needed to add a blanket on top of the quilt to get the warmth I wanted — even more weight.

This morning I thought: you know, I could actually replace that quilt with something lighter and warmer. So I did a bit of research, found a decent quality down comforter for a good price at Target, and went and bought it this afternoon. I expect to sleep better and enjoy it more, night after night, making it a wise choice.

Another example is our kitchen sink faucet, which none of us were happy with, even Debbie. It had old-fashioned separate hot and cold controls, and the spout was short and didn’t extend far enough over the sink Plus it had started to leak. She had grumbled about it occasionally over the past couple of years, and each time I said she was welcome to replace it with something she liked better. But it never happened, a mixture I suppose of inertia and frugality — it still more or less worked, after all, it would be a waste to replace it.

Just before I went to fetch the boys the leaking problem got worse, and it occurred to me: you know, I could decide to replace it. So I did a bit of research (i.e. looked on Wirecutter), found a suitable modern faucet, and ordered it. This afternoon it came, and Benjamin installed it. The spigot is much taller than the old one, so it bumps into the window sill behind the sink … oops. But most modern faucets seem to be this way, and since it’s our windowsill there’s nothing preventing us from cutting an appropriate sized semicircle out of the window sill so it will fit. That’ll happen this weekend, probably, once we get the necessary drill bit from Chris. But for now it’s installed with a bit of a tilt, and the single-control water and the built in sprayer hose made doing the dishes more pleasant. Another daily pleasure.

Probably the surprising thing is how few other things I’ve been inclined to change. As I said, these two changes are just fine tuning, towards my own preferences. Both things were fine as they were, and could have easily been left that way. There are other small things I might have done differently if I had been doing the choosing, but are fine as they are, not worth the bother of changing. And there are many, many other choices I’m either unqualified to make or am uninterested in making. I’m grateful she made them, and made them well.

My two weeks of solitude are done. Sunday I drove to southwest Virginia, had lunch, said goodbye to Maggie and Elizabeth (for now) while bringing Jerry, Benjamin, and Peter home. It’s not as quiet now as it was — but it’s still pretty quiet, for most of the day we each retire to our own area of the house (Benjamin to the apartment over the garage) and convene for meals, or when there are chores to be done.

It’s pretty certain that Benjamin and Jerry will be returning to southwest Virginia sometime in March, to work for an old friend who has a business doing store fixture installations regionally. Usually a crew will go out for a week to some store, install or rearrange shelving or some similar task (amazing how much of this work needs to be done), then come back to home base for the weekend. Fortunately the boys can stay at the farm over the weekend, so as long as they pack their own food they can keep out-of-pocket expenses to a minimum. The work is seasonal, starting up in early spring and running to maybe mid-October. Chris did this for a couple of years just before getting married, and saved up a down payment for his 80 acre homestead.

So if it happens they’ll be here for about six weeks, then gone for six or seven months, leaving me and Peter on our own. Which will be fine. We knew this would be a transitional period, and I’m glad that pieces are falling into place so that the older boys can launch while Peter and I figure out what will work best for us.

I’m already thinking about how to manage meals — I don’t expect him to eat reheated meat like I do, but I also don’t plan to cook anywhere near the variety or complexity of meals that Debbie prepared, so I’ll come up with a streamlined rotation of one-person meals that he likes and are simple to make and then serve again as leftovers — hamburgers, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, tuna cakes, beans and rice. Lunches will probably be sandwiches and chips. Breakfast has been Cheerios with a sliced banana for several years now.

Companionship should mostly take care of itself. He’s amazingly good at entertaining himself for hours at a stretch, with Legos or listening to audiobooks or reading Tintin or Calvin & Hobbes (and lately the Narnia and Harry Potter books — really!), but I’ve depended on his brothers to supplement that time with occasional activities they do together. Debbie had a regular school curriculum worked out for him, on which they spent an hour or two each morning. I’ll resume that, though probably with a different balance of material, leaning heavily on him reading, reading to him, and maybe nature studies — stuff that will keep us talking.

Long-time reader Servetus graced my latest burst of blog posts with some thoughtful comments, always welcome. I have a bad habit of always taking the last word, so I’ll refrain from replying to most of them. But there were some I wanted to respond to, and I thought I’d keep them visible by responding in the form of a roundup.

re: the specific question of a traditional funeral in the church sense in your situation — iirc you guys stopped going to church regularly or aren’t members of a congregation any more? [source]

Correct, we haven’t attended a church as a family in seven years. I’m done with it, and none of the kids have shown any interest in returning. Jerry asked me last week why we had stopped going. I replied with too many reasons, but my main reason was that I had lost the point of it well before we stopped, inertia was all that was left for many years. Finally I was in the middle of rethinking (once again) what we were doing and why, thought about church, recognized that going would never stop unless I took the initiative, suggested that we stop (at a good moment, the church was about to change pastors and we didn’t like the new guy), and got agreement. I had no interest in finding a new church, neither did anyone else.

there were upwards of 300 people at my mother’s funeral; she was a pillar of the congregation, her death was perceived to be unjust and “too soon” and she had a forty+ year history in that congregation including heavy participation in the Ladies’ Aid which took care of all the post-funeral meals (a standard around here). It would have seemed weird not to have a church funeral for her. [source]

My mom’s funeral in 2012 was similar, for similar reasons (except the “too soon” part, she was 84 and had had severe Alzheimer’s for the last two years). My dad’s funeral in 2017 — same church, same pillar status — was disturbingly different, in ways that suggested to me that the church was running out of gas. The form was there, but much of the substance had been hollowed out, people seemed to be going through the motions. The most telling part was that what one of them referred to as the “church fairies”, the ladies who assembled out of nowhere to make church events run smoothly, didn’t turn out.

There was a meal after the church service, maybe a couple of hundred people there. I was talking to various well-wishers, of course, and didn’t get into the line for food until near the end. When I got to the head of the line I saw there was almost no food, just one portion of enchiladas, no beans, the dregs of a couple of other sides — and the enchilada portion was only there because the woman serving, a family member, had deliberately saved it for me.

Later I found out that the only food available had been brought by members of my dad’s side of the family, an extended Mexican family who still knew what you did at a time like this. And the rest of the event was only as organized as it was due to last-second efforts by staff and core church members who had arrived only to find that the church fairies hadn’t shown up this time.

I think as I read your comments on this ongoing over several posts, I noticed some slippage between the ideas of “ritual,” “traditional funeral,” and “visitation / funeral home.” [source]

Slippage is probably due to my reluctance to speak bluntly about my personal lack of respect for the traditions, both religious and cultural, that have grown up around death, together with a recognition that within our family not everyone’s views are as settled or extreme as mine. The miracle to me was that, even though I was willing to completely defer to the others in how we handled things, the handling ended up very much in line with how I would have approached it on my own.

The only concession, which was not really a concession, was using the burial rite from the Book of Common Prayer. The matter needed to be addressed, I proposed it not because it held meaning for me but because it was a thing to do and doing nothing would be too jarring to the rest. I officiated, and looking back it the ritual itself meant nothing to me (I can’t speak for the others). But I did appreciate the fact that we had gathered as a family to do something to commemorate Debbie’s passing. There may be other, more satisfactory ways we could have handled it, but I haven’t yet thought of any and don’t expect to be called on again in such a way. (My own “wishes” are known, but also that they aren’t true wishes, just opinions, and that I want my loved ones to handle my passing — or any other life event, for that matter — as they see fit at the time. My approval of how things are actually handled shouldn’t be considered, since I won’t be around to express it.)

Thinking about this some more, I also wonder again about the context of the bureaucracy where you are, i.e., do more people there diverge from the “usual” practice involving a funeral home? […] So: the issue for us was mostly about asking the hospital to do “extra” things as opposed to things that were not in the norm. [source]

Burying someone on family land is apparently not unusual. Cutting the funeral home out of the process is close to unheard of. From the hospital’s point of view, all they were concerned about was that they were releasing the body to someone legally entitled to receive it. The provisional death certificate designates the recipient, but it asks which funeral home will be picking up the body (or which designated agent will be transporting it to a funeral home elsewhere). Other recipients are rare enough that no one at the morgue had ever dealt with one and a supervisor needed to be called in to assure everyone it was OK (fortunately we had called ahead several times to let them know what we planned, so she was prepared).

We collected term sheets from several local funeral homes, which all said that if they were involved at all there would be a base charge of $2500-3000, even before the cost of actual services such as embalming, visitation, casket, transportation, or whatever. I’ll bet that folks who regularly hold traditional services not involving funeral homes have some sort of side arrangement with a funeral home to get the body transported at a reasonable cost, but it’s not something that’s talked about publicly.

In retrospect, although it doesn’t paint me in a good light, while I didn’t enjoy the suffering my parents experienced as they died, I definitely appreciated not having to make any decisions, only reaction to situations. I know you disagree with me about decision fatigue being a thing, but I felt like in the acute phases I was excused from certain kinds of executive responsibility. [source]

If I can ever get to it, my reading about pragmatism has changed my understanding of things like decisions, reactions, responses, and executive responsibility. For now I can only offer that teaser!

(when I touched on how Debbie and I divided up home/family responsibilities)

So this post falls in the category of “things I’ve learned that I’d like my posterity to know about”? (One of your earlier blogging goals, to work on some of that stuff.) [source]

Correct. Probably what prompts me most often to write (certainly, to think about writing) is when I’m pondering something where I have fairly settled beliefs and some part of me challenge me to explain myself. Happens all the time! And I usually rise to the bait, but then find myself discouraged when I try to do that in written words. mostly because of the second-order effects those words can have — I might be misunderstood, or not be clear enough to avoid unnecessary offense, or say things that turn out to be indefensible. I’m trying to clear away some of those concerns by writing for posterity — for just the few folks who might want to hear what I have to say because they know me well and love me, who are also the folks for I’m willing to risk the downsides of writing because I love them, think they might understand me, and I want them to benefit from any wisdom I might have to pass on. Others are welcome to listen in as they see fit, but I need to trust that they will move on or otherwise disregard what I write if it isn’t to their taste.

This was a thing that I never understood (admittedly, as an outsider to the whole thing) about the Christian circles I observed so avidly 20-ish years ago now: the focus on extreme gender-based authority / obedience (I found it interesting that you raised that topic a few posts down). I felt like people could have a complementarian marriage without having to resort to female subordination. [source]

Debbie and I first encountered that sort of thinking in the Bristol community we joined in 2001, but by then we’d been married sixteen years and had long settled on our own authority dynamic — roughly, we operated by consensus, neither had authority over the other, “authority” was strictly a matter of one placing their trust in the other to perform competently and lovingly and considerately in a given responsibility. Is it strange that we didn’t see any conflict between that and the patriachal teachings of our church? I guess we only saw extreme male authority as one option for running your household — a stupid one in many cases we observed — but not a requirement, maybe at most a tie-breaker, i.e. if you can’t resolve things by consensus then the man gets the vote, but we never found ourselves in such a situation, partly because I valued peace much more highly than getting my own way.

And for the record, I don’t think the man should get his way, and that any church teaching that is just plain wrong. Did I think differently in Bristol? I don’t think so, I think that I just didn’t think about it at all, it wasn’t a live issue in our family life.

So of course establishing meaning is an act of power that is carried out by institutions. It’s a problem when churches or other institutional bodies try to establish this as more certain than it is, because if you insist that you are bearing the true, literal meaning of the text and you can’t admit how uncertain the text is, you are asking people to fall away when they start to look at that edifice more closely.

A concise statement of where I eventually found myself. Since this is something I’ll probably write about a lot if and when I get around to writing about my journey through Christendom, I’ll say no more for now.

As I’m in danger of running out of words for today, I’ll say more about this tomorrow but this also jives with what Burkeman had to say in his email this week. [source]

I love Oliver Burkeman, and so I’m looking forward to what you have to say. Highlights from Four Thousand Weeks show up frequently in my inbox, but they just make me want to re-read it.

At one point I was getting ready to put up a personal website, and one thing I wanted on the front page was a battery gauge icon which did a real-time countdown of my four thousand weeks. By my count I’ve now been around for 3593 weeks, with 407 to go — just over 10% juice remaining.

The post I wrote earlier about Ecclesiastes originally began like this: Impermanence gets a bad rap. And since one of my unwritten writing guidelines is to back up a claim with concrete examples, Ecclesiastes 1:2 came to mind, regarding Qoheleth’s negative assessment of life’s fleeting nature. And then I remembered that Richard Beck had written about this recently (which is why it was on my mind), and going there took me down a different path from the one I started on, and I wiped the first sentence.

But I don’t want to lose that initial thought. Impermanence is an inescapable quality of life, many have despaired as a result, but I don’t think it’s an inevitable or even reasonable reaction. For one thing, I suspect the connection is well known and widely accepted mostly because the ones who experience it deeply have been very noisy about their despair, particularly in modern times. I know some good people and some who are content, and I don’t think they somehow confronted this despair and conquered it, I think what discontent they experienced (something I do think is inevitable) never led them to contemplate the vanity and meaninglessness of life. I put myself in that category, both the not contemplating and the good and content.

I think a good part of the reason my path has been an easy one is that I never had a strong attachment to the way things were at the moment — the bad things were endurable, the good things were never good enough that I was desperate to hold onto them. And I noticed early enough that pain never lasted, that it went away on its own or was replaced by something pleasant, either through circumstances or by my efforts to change things. And though good things never lasted, I rarely suffered by their departure, and something else good often came along to fill the space. Not that there wasn’t an opportunity to suffer, but it would have been entirely a matter of my attitude toward the pain or the loss, and my attitude was detached enough to keep the suffering minimal.

So my encounter with eastern thought about impermanence was more a clarification than a revelation. There was a lot of misunderstanding to clear away, and life got better in specific, concrete ways as my mind cleared — I’ve tried to write about those changes here, even the mundane ones. But it wasn’t a conversion experience for me, more a matter of feeling dissonance with God’s economy fall away as I understood better how things work and got more comfortable with that.

So I’ve come to see impermanence as a blessing. Pain won’t last. Good things may pass away, but often that just makes room for new good things that will take their place. I enjoy the good stuff while it’s here, let it go when the time comes, appreciate the new good things that come along. I do what I can to eliminate the pain, by affecting external circumstances or adjusting my attitude toward them or simply enduring in the knowledge that change will inevitably come. I may not have control over my circumstances but I can steer my way through them, and it’s the steering that is the stuff of life for me — the journey is the reward. Or as Oliver Burkeman writes in Four Thousand Weeks:

Once you give up on the unattainable goal of eradicating all your problems, it becomes possible to develop an appreciation for the fact that life just is a process of engaging with problem after problem, giving each one the time it requires—that the presence of problems in your life, in other words, isn’t an impediment to a meaningful existence but the very substance of one.

One task I’m chipping away at in my solitude is rearranging the bookshelves. We have lots of them, but they were mostly full, and when that happens organization tends to give way to sheer storage. But during last weekend’s decluttering a number of shelves opened up, in particular because I decided to get rid of all my doctrinal and devotional Christian books — nothing against them, really, but I’ll never read them again or even need to reference them, and can no longer recommend them to anyone. (I did keep a few that I think are particularly good, three by Dallas Willard and some Christian-fringe writers like Jacques Ellul.)

And when shelves open up, I can play a fifteen-puzzle game of organizing books roughly by topic: agrarianism, 19th and early 20th century American history, simple living, slavery and white supremacy, writing, cultural issues, mindfulness, computers, Jacques Ellul (an entire shelf!), bluegrass and early country music, Wendell Berry (an entire shelf!), woodworking, homekeeping, growing and preserving food … and so on.

One of the shelves next to the bedroom recliner holds Wendell Berry. Another two hold books I want to get to in the near future, a random assortment, right now heavily weighted toward race and the South because of last year’s reading project, not quite completed.

I don’t know if there is much practical benefit to doing this. But it is enjoyable, and I’ve stumbled across books I’d forgotten I had, sometimes a second copy because I’d forgotten I had the first. And it’s a good way of reminding myself what I’ve learned so far, what has lost interest for me, and what might be worth looking into a bit further.

In earlier days my guideline would have been: will I ever read (or re-read) this? But now I ask: do I think this book is important? In that way I leave open the possibility of reading the books I keep without any sort of commitment. And I let the rest go more easily, knowing that even if I never read the book I’ve decided there was no reason for me to do it.

So in some way my book collection will become a statement regarding what I think is wise. But I also remind myself that I’m only talking to myself. I would never say to children or grandchildren, you need to read these. No one needs to be burdened with that. I do vaguely hope that someone might browse my shelves and stumble across some obscure book that holds an unexpected value for them — those books played that role for me often enough. But I’m content that they go to the landfill when I do. As with so many other things, how I found the books in the first place was a key part of their value to me. The journey was the reward.