“A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs” — Epicurus.
I have moved country a few times in my life. This is not a particularly easy thing to do, since it means giving up not only routines, seeing friends in that part of the world, and so on, but giving up possessions. I am not a particularly materialistic person, and have given away paintings that I have painted, books — in what had seemed to be an ever-expanding library — and so on.
One of the many great things about researching (as I do whenever I am writing a book) is that if you push far enough, and do actual research rather than just ego-massaging, you have a different worldview at the end as you did at the beginning. It is, perhaps, a bit like leaving one country for another.
We treat knowledge as a possession — as something, that, like our clothing, car, smart phone, etc., shows who we are. But it is, in fact, a discipline. It is getting ready for war — an internal war with our self. It is getting ready to battle knowledge that has become stuck and has been transformed into the ego.
Umberto Eco had the idea of the “antilibrary.” He collected tens of thousands of books, and considered those he had not read to be the most valuable — since they reminded him, it seems, that his knowledge was limited.
I must admit, although I want to like the idea, I am skeptical.
In my experience, books you give away — thinking you have no need of now — you end up buying again, not because it contained some valuable information at the time that you had forgotten, but because researching and learning is a kind of meditation. You circle back on things. New information makes you look again at old information. A phrase that puzzled you once, in the light of a new piece of information, now makes sense. A sentence that once made sense in one way, makes sense in another.
This, of course, is why theologians are able to study the holy book or few holy books of their religion over the course of their lifetime. They do not need an antilibrary since they have (to paraphrase Eco) an antibook. Such a book is one that when returning to it, always seems unread. It reveals new insights, and appears to grow and evolve with the individual himself, unveiling new layers, new initiations, new levels of the Mystery to the reader, and proving false any beliefs that the ego clings to.
Today, of course, we all have access to the world’s biggest antilibrary — the internet. Yet, what so many people do not have is an antibook or a handful of antibooks.
To have few possessions means freedom from the mob, and freedom from false, external authorities, as Epicurus says, because it means to choose carefully, and to choose quality over quantity. But in regard to knowledge, it means, especially, to choose to go into something deeply — beyond the shallow venturing of those less than us, or those watching and commenting from the sidelines — and to go into something that appears much deeper than us.
Perhaps you have a large library of books, or perhaps you surf the net each day. If so, now might be the time to ask if you have a few antibooks or even just one antibook.
The first time I moved country, I was able only to take about a dozen books. I chose only the most important to me, of course. They reflected my then current practices, which have remained with me, and, perhaps more surprisingly, unveiled the path of research and writing that I would take years later.
Think of your few antibooks, and you will almost certainly know what you should be practicing and cultivating in your life, perhaps for years or decades to come.
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