The Back Road: Enlightenment, finally

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By Andrew Malekoff

Every so often I browse through my bookshelves to see what I can discard to open up the space. More often than not, though, I have trouble letting go of any books – my small treasures.

Aside from flipping through a graphic novel, book of poetry or collection of short stories, it is unlikely that I will read any of them from cover to cover ever again, with rare exception.

I often wonder if the digital age will take us to a time when bookcases become obsolete, aside from using them for storage or to display personal artifacts like photos, pottery, glassware, sculptures and such. I hope not. It seems like every reporter on cable news poses before a bookcase while checking in remotely during the pandemic. Although there is one White House reporter from the Associated Press – Jonathan Lemire, who uses a brick wall as his backdrop. Nice!

I do use a Kindle for some reading, but not exclusively. As a writer who has written and edited several books, when one of them is published I want a hard copy. Digital is fine if that works for you. But, to me digital is like vapor. I want the aesthetic, the feel of a book in my hands.

Browsing my bookshelves brings back memories, as I have still have some books from my childhood, teenage and young adult years. I think it was when I was in my early twenties that I started underlining passages in books that I read for pleasure, which I do until this day.

A few weeks ago, I found a paperback that I purchased in the early 1970s when I was in my early twenties. At the time, I had recently graduated from college, joined VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and was assigned to live and work in Grand Island, Nebraska. The book was written by Alan Watts, a British writer who popularized Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism for Western audiences.

I was far from an intellectual or particularly spiritual. Although with my “jock” years behind me, my mind and my consciousness, were starting to open up just a bit more. I don’t recall why I chose Alan Watts’ book – Does it Matter?: Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality. It was tagged as a philosophy book. The chapter titles were intriguing.

In VISTA, the financial compensation was subsistence wages, to cover basic necessities. Maybe my electing to work a poorly paid job had something to do with the book I chose.

In any case, when I opened the book the other day I found lots of underlining and notes in the margins, especially in two chapters entitled Wealth versus Money, and Clothes – On and Off. The essence of the former, as I underlined on page 6 is that, “Money is a way of measuring wealth but it is not wealth in itself.”

In the latter chapter on clothes, I was especially drawn to a description of men’s neckties, which I have always abhorred wearing. On page 58 Watts wrote, “the necktie, even when colorful is a sacred cow. It is a noose facilitating instant strangulation and a symbol of servitude.”

All these many years later men have begun to wise up, as open collars have become more popular, as well as socially acceptable.

Other items of men’s clothing were similarly described and collectively summed up as follows: “conventional male clothing is trussing. It is tight, stiff and constricting and we are so habituated to it that many people feel vaguely guilty when, several hours after arising they are still clad in some loose-fitting robe.”

It should be noted that Watts’ book was published 30 years before the release of the cult classic The Great Lebowski, featuring “the Dude” grocery shopping in his iconic bathrobe.

I’m not sure how I benefitted specifically from Watts’ writing but here I am almost 50 years later, in the midst of a global pandemic, working remotely and realizing that hours after arising clad in a loose-fitting robe, that I don’t feel the least bit guilty.

Enlightenment, finally.

Andrew Malekoff

Andrew Malekoff is a New York State licensed clinical social worker.

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