The False Sentiment of Material Things

I am a librarian, and so I read a lot about libraries, books, literacy and the Internet. Ironically, I do most of this reading on the Internet via blog posts, forums/groups, industry news outlets, and, yes, mainstream media. Even more ironically, such news is often filled with people who are not librarians crying about "the death of books."

They mean, specifically, printed books. Anyone who is a librarian or works in the publishing industry knows that a book is far, far more than the paper it is printed on, but hard copy paper-printed bound volumes are usually what most people mean when they say "book." It's understandable, the codex format is what a "book" has been in Western civilization for nearly 2000 years. Believe me, I have a soft spot for them too, and I own my fair share.

Hard-copy books inspire great passion, especially in this era of digital texts, and one pro-hard copy book argument I recently read stated, "I can leave my library to my kids; leaving them a kindle just isn't the same thing."

There is a romantic pull to that concept, the idea of shifting off this mortal coil with some remnant of ourselves left behind for our loved ones to cherish. Even atheists have a longing for the immortal reach. For us, of course, there is no "afterlife" to pine for and place our hopes. This life is what we get, so what we do with it and how we live it and, yes, the material things we collect as we go matters.

While I'm talking about books specifically, feel free to replace that with your hoard: vinyl records, jewelry, comic books, dolls, furniture, shoes, pez dispensers, art, even houses and cars. We collect, we own, and in the owning, become part of our collection. For those of us with kids, we think about leaving them our treasures as a way to extend our reach past our death to the following generations.

And there we go: there is that lovely sepia-tinted nostalgia coming into play. Who doesn't want to imagine our heirs lovingly caressing one of our treasured tomes, remembering those special moments where we shared our love of the written word?

Or, maybe, selling them off to the highest bidder.

No one wants to think about that, of course. My father, who was a tinkerer and a wood-worker, owned possibly tens of thousands of dollars worth of tools. Some were antiques, some were cheap, and most were top-of-the-line. I have fewer than a dozen left. It's odd to be sentimental about a paint-splattered rubber mallet but that's grief for you.

In my mother's case, it was definitely books. I nearly hyperventilated when, after a major move, I could not find her copy of The Riverside Shakespeare. I never actually sit down and read it, it's hardly "light" reading and it's also big and heavy and, to be honest, I'm not much into Shakespeare. But it was hers and she read it and that's what matters to me.

Those moments will happen with the things left behind by a mortal life.

But don't bet on it.

That Riverside Shakespeare is one of maybe 10 books of my mother's I have left. As with my father's tools, they were too bulky and too rarely used by me to lug around for 20+ years after their deaths. Both collections were initially ransacked in the estate sale I held about a month after my father's death, then whittled down via moving, marriage, life.

Here is where sentimentality ends: the bills I had to pay, like my father's cremation and his outstanding dentist bill. And your kids will have that too, they will need to sell off part or all of your collection to pay for college, for that big wedding, for their own child's medical or school bills. Unless you are one of the fortunate who is bequeathing a trust fund and an estate where your heirs can store all of that crap? It's going to go.

I'm not arguing for nihilism, obviously – I still have the rubber mallet (still useful and it's older than I am), and I still have that Riverside Shakespeare. I still treasure the children's literature (Heidi, The Secret Garden) I read to Mother after her chemo sessions wiped her out. But if I were to bet, I'm sure the things I have are not the ones my parents expected me to hold on to. Those were not the things they expected to pass down as memory keepers for their daughter.

The items a person used and, possibly, treasured are imbued with traces of that person, not mystically so but simply through use. Wear and tear and markers as real as any other. Anyone who has grieved a loved one knows that is true. It settles my mind to occasionally pick up the knick-knacks mother had stashed by her bed (a bronze turtle? Why? I have no idea), to gaze on the plaques my father was gifted by the USAF. I still have his old, ragged eyeglasses for absolutely zero rational purpose.

But the idea that some things are better to be passed down – a collection of hard copy books, versus a kindle, for instance – is misleading. There is a false sentiment in those things, sometimes, a promise we keep close but is ours alone, not our heirs. I imagine that there will indeed be people who inherit a loved one's kindle and treasure it, both as the object they held in their hands and for the contents of it. Who are we to judge?

Things will be lost, sold, damaged, given away, put into storage. What is important is to be the person you want others to remember when they chance upon your memory.

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