There are no Simple Tasks (Michael St. Amant, @MichaelStAmant)

My most recent experience in proving this statement has been an effort to reduce the number of books I have accumulated over several decades. I have walls with shelves of books and boxes of books that have been unopened since we arrived in Brantford. A rational person would approach the dealing with this situation very simply. They would determine what is imperative to keep, what they really enjoyed, and the balance would be up for grabs in the, “do I keep it, or do I get rid of it”, category.

With today’s technology, the decision should even be much simpler. What can I get on Kindle, and what can’t I get. But it seems that the getting is not really the issue. It’s the feel and smell of the paper, the turning of the page to find out what’s going to happen next, and the careful placing of the bookmark that drives my reading experience. Perhaps it’s not cool, but it’s who I am. If you understand that, then you can understand the complexity of my problem. The books that I own have had some value at some point in my life. So how do I separate memory from utility?

My plan of action was to divide them by category. Travel in one pile, geography, history, politics, economics, business, management, accounting, legal, cooking, technological, fiction English, and fiction French in others.  That part was easy.  Then came the prioritizing of categories. Clearly, cooking and travel were untouchable. Who knows when I would want to visit Antarctica, or to test a new barbeque recipe. All of those books went back up on the shelf and I was comforted knowing that I had the knowledge available to eat and travel at my pleasure. Of course, if I was going to travel, I needed to understand the geography of the regions I travelled. So up went the geography books. So far, this was easy!

The technological category was the easiest to deal with. I subdivided it into user type manuals, and dissertations on the value of technology or technological change. For the user manuals, I asked myself if I actually utilized the technology they explained or if they would be available online. Surprisingly, I discovered that I had abandoned many of the technologies years earlier and that the manuals were now redundant. Current technologies were now available online. Wow, I just reduced my pile by twenty-seven books. A small amount, but a beginning. Of course, all of the books related to technological value and change were keepers. Who knows when I would need to refer to them to address some argument or to write about technological impact. 

Economics, management, accounting, and legal were the next categories that I approached. This should have been easy. Management principles change. Economic theories constantly evolve. Accounting practices are updated regularly. The law is an evolving concept. Rational people would keep the latest concepts and abandon the outdated. Not me. I found excuses to keep almost every book. So a quarter of the way through my piles, my shelves were halfway full. This did not bode well in accomplishing my goal of reducing the number of books in my possession. In fact, the categories that I really cared about, history, politics, and fiction were yet to come. It was at this point that I realized that I am a hoarder of books and that I needed an intervention.

No one, however, was going to come and intervene. What I really needed was guts, the hard edge to make rational decisions rather than satisfy my whims. So it was back to basics and I began all over. If I wasn’t going to go to Antarctica, was there a practical reason for keeping the book when I could get it elsewhere if I changed my mind? If I didn’t barbeque, why keep a barbequing recipe book?  And so it went. The twenty-seven books became almost two hundred. It was a painful process because it began with the principle that I didn’t need any of these books, despite the fact that my heart said I did.

By the time I got to the fiction, history, and political categories, I found that I had sufficient space available that allowed me to keep some volume that might have been a luxury had I not taken a hard-nosed attitude in dealing with my inventory. At the end of the day, I reduced my library by over 400 books. Those that were of value, I sent to second-hand book dealers. The balance, I recycled.

For someone who loves books as much as I do and who takes pride of ownership, this was a tough experience. At the same time, it had to be done or the number of books in storage would only have increased because I will be buying other books.

In many respects, my personal experience is much like the challenges that face government. If we are to invoke change, we need the will to do it. Costs continue to rise. Services continue to decline. There is an absence of clear direction. We are passing the days of business as usual. 

None of us has a magic wand that will make things right overnight. But I do know that, like my books, if you don’t question the value and cost of services, nothing will change and the problem will continue to grow. This means more than applying lip service and playing smoke and mirror politics. It means rolling up your sleeves, getting your hands dirty, and getting the job done. It means making the tough decisions and carrying them out. To quote from one of the books I did keep, “These days no one challenges us,” he said. “And because there is no challenge, there is no reason to work hard. And with no reason to work hard, we have all become lazy.” (Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights)

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