Books are a service. Cars, phones, refrigerators, houses, and even currency are virtual goods, too. You can fondle them, treasure them, and pretend they are yours to cherish forever and ever. Those things are not yours alone. Others have claims on them, sometimes in unexpected ways.
I started thinking about ownership when my favorite fountain pen went on the fritz. I’ve cared for it well for two decades. I tried cleaning it, and various web sites didn’t help me fix the problem. The only way to repair was to send it in to a Montblanc Service Center.
This simple device, a fountain pen, is not mine. Montblanc has claims on it. Technicians fondled it, and perhaps cherished it, too. Maybe they don’t see a Meisterstuck Chopin every day. I’ve seen car mechanics swoon over cars. One time an emissions tester told me my car was really sweet. Yes, it is a green 1997 Legacy Wagon. Not much sweeter than that!
With my car mechanic, my little turtle would be as useless as a broken fountain pen. While one can appreciate the fine form of a Montblanc, my feelings for it would change if I could no longer use it. A broken thing is not as interesting to have as a thing that works. We disown broken things.
Perhaps the above is obvious. Things are temporary, love is forever. Not so. Marriages can be broken, and so can homes, sadly. More love would be lost without the help of couples and family therapists. If you have worked with a good therapist, you know they have claims on your mind. That’s both scary and reality. Better to stay away from therapists so that you can own your mind without outside influence, just like you should educate yourself without anybody’s input.
Our minds, bodies, community, and things are interdependent. Once you take that view, ownership becomes less important, and you start to think about stewardship. Things, people, even are owned virtually by all of us. Ownership matters less than your relationship to those things, people, and you.
No, I’m not going to cop out and say, live in the moment, forget the past and the future. We’re one big happy, altruistic collective. Virtual ownership is being responsible for all that is in your life, not just the things in your possession. It’s a slightly different approach to the common green.
To own virtually is about past, present, and future experiences. You care for your body today, because others have claims on it tomorrow. An obvious claim is that without proper care yesterday, germs will fester, and you will infect others and/or get sick yourself. Your body is in your possession, but doctors have a responsibility to care for it, too, and to teach you proper care.
Let’s go back to things. Here’s an even simpler device: a paper book. The copyright holder has claims on the words. You have claims to the paper and ink. You own them legally but not the words. The shippers have claims on how you get your books to and fro. One mover carried my hundreds of books up four flights of stairs. I’d say that gives him a claim on them. Your insurer may have claims on them if you have insured them in your homeowners policy. If any are extremely valuable, there will be pictures stored somewhere at the insurance company.
My hundreds of paper books had lots of claims on them. I have come to realize that like my pen, books are a service. I have no need to keep a library of every book I have read. I keep digitized clippings of the words, which I find interesting – as is my right under the fair use provision of copyright law. The hundreds of books themselves are gone. I no longer have claims on them. Others do. And, that’s fine with me. I own the words virtually through my clippings and memories.
But what about that all important book you read as a kid? You can’t give that away! My mom did, apparently. Harold on the Purple Crayon is not in my library, and wasn’t when I gave all my books away recently. I did read it to my kids, but it was a new copy, which was probably much nicer to read to my kids. (Howls erupt from the ritualists.)
A few years ago I happened on a book entitled, “How to Run a Bassoon Factory” by Mark Spade (aka. Nigel Balchin). I wanted to give copies to some friends, but the book was out of print. I went online, and I found several copies quite easily. One copy came from an ex-patriot womens’ library in Jakarta. How cool is that? Many people had claims on that book, but came into my possession at one point before it passed on to my friends. The words and ideas are still mine, theirs, the women in Jakarta, the author’s, and the world’s. The book is owned by all of us, virtually.
The next time you hear yourself saying, that’s mine. Think about the other people who have claims on it. You’ll see how much more valuable it is, and your stewardship will be all the more rewarding.