Monday, May 30, 2011

On the Self as a Collection

            I’ve been reading some biology that reminds me that my body is a collection of things that once existed on their own— mostly bacteria, but also various cells that, before they became specialized, could themselves be thought of as individuals, rather than as parts. So I am forced to recognize that what I call “I” is also something that a group of life-forms could be calling “We,” if they had a voice—which they don’t. I have a voice and I can say “I,” but it doesn’t change the fact that I am just as much a location of symbiosis as I am an individual in my own standing.
            Thinking about myself as a conglomeration compels me to consider my own mortality, to consider what death will do to me as an individual. As I have said a few times before, I see death as a severe withering of the personality. At death, the truth about myself as a temporary gathering-place of smaller life-forms is revealed. After “I” am gone, they slowly dissipate. And that’s that.
            To be honest, I am bringing this topic up not because I am concerned at all about my own fate, but rather, this question: What will become of my books?
After a recent trip to Maryland, my entire book collection is under one roof for the first time since high school. My entire library, which I would estimate at about 500 or so books, is with me. As a bibliophile, who I am is intensely tied up with this library. I have lovingly organized them into their sections: fiction, profound fiction, philosophy, philosophical theology, Judaism, Christianity, non-Judeo-Christianity, politics, environmentalism, psychology, and fan literature (Simpsons, Grateful Dead, Marx Brothers). I have read a lot of these books, but I would still venture to guess that I have not read around half of the pages I own. I probably own 10x more Heidegger or Buber than I have ever read. I collect books at a faster rate than I read them. Looking at my collection, one can see who I am, but this “I” is both what I’ve read and also what I would like to have read. My book collection is a curious symbol, composed of 500 or so signs that, individually and collectively, speak about me as their owner.
            I hope that the analogy is clear by now. These books are a part of me. But, when I die, what will become of my books? Since I plan to continue reading throughout my life, I like to imagine that they will serve as a partial record of the intellectual content I have consumed. But, I wonder, what is the meaning of all this intellectual consumption? I read a lot of books, which means that some make a profound impression, some leave traces, and some leave nothing. A lot of book-reading is more like an experience than like gaining possession—once I’m done reading, I do not “have” these books any more than I “have” a concert after it’s over (for more, see my upcoming piece, “What will become of my ticket stubs?”). Even if I utterly absorb the contents of a book, what then? What does it mean? What difference does it make?
            I find explanation (though I’m not sure how much solace) in Richard Dawkins’ account of the meme, the intellectual equivalent of the gene. What I call “I” is just as much a gathering-place of memes as it is a gathering-place of genes. Perhaps “intersection” is a better word, as it signifies that I am a location at which things both gather and dissipate. My reading of my books lives on as far as the bits of conversation (and pieces of writing) I pass on about them are themselves passed on.
            And what about the books themselves—what is their life after my death? Looking at my library, I am struck by a creeping realization that they will outlive me. They existed before they were mine, and they will exist after they are mine. They are ultimately not my library; they are just books. The only remaining meaning in my having possessed them is that their new owners are likely to be people geographically close to me, and who very well might be my descendants (or their cousins). I think of how I picked through my late grandfather’s books after my grandmother finally moved out of their large house in New City into a smaller apartment in New Jersey. His collection of memes, like his collection of genes, became a part of me, became a part of my experiences and my identity. It’s a beautiful thing—although, at the same time, I have to recognize that I received his books by picking through them, rather than receiving them as a library. My books will last and might be passed on meaningfully through me. My library, my beloved collection that speaks volumes about who I am, is as temporary as “I” am.
P.S. Jesper Hoffmeyer’s “Signs of Meaning in the Universe” was the immediate inspiration for this piece.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing! The first thing that comes to my mind after reading this post is the question of whether your analogy can be extended such that just as your "I" is a gathering place of genes and memes, so too are larger groups--community, humanity, whatever you want to call it--a collection of multiple selves. In that context, your particular collection of books has a much broader impact than the bits of conversation or writing you pass on--your very being, your very self, is shaped by that particular collection of books, and that uniquely shaped self in turn shapes the broader community, whether you want to think about that on a local or global scale. It's not just the knowledge from the books that you pass on explicitly, it's also the very way you live in the world and relate to others that is inextricably tied up with your books. Even if your books may be meaningfully passed on through you in bits and pieces, I don't think it stops there. I think your library--and your "I"--might not be very temporary at all, in the sense that your particular collection of memes and genes shapes the broader collective of community/humanity in a way that doesn't pass.

    What do you think? Too grandiose and idealistic? Relevant?