My Measures of Wealth

What does your bookcase look like?

It’s important to make lists, and I don’t mean the kind you can check off.

Sometimes a list is best used as a collection of thoughts, unattainable in nature. A way to codify your aims. A tool you can use to make sure when times get tough—or just as dangerously, when times get good—you don’t lose your bearings. This kind of list is a set of instructions to make sure you’re always heading true north.

I’ve created several of these lists over the past few years. Lists like My Rules for Life, or How to Write Well. I’ll add maybe one meaningful contribution to these every year; otherwise, they’re prone to bloat with superfluous inclusions. The idea is to make them as robust and relevant today, as they will be in 40 years.

Yesterday, I created a new one. This time it’s called My Measures of Wealth, and it starts off with a question: What does your bookcase look like?

When I was growing up, we had a long cherrywood bookcase in our living room, filled with vintage books in perfect condition. Dozens of beautiful bindings that had never been cracked, books that had never been read. Their purpose was to tie the room together, and they did so splendidly.

Both of my parents were born and raised on the Jersey shore, which is to say that books—and the knowledge gleaned within their bindings—were never considered currency in our household. Street smarts, as they would say, were all that really mattered.

So maybe that’s why I didn’t read much growing up. It wasn’t until I was 24, during my final year of college, that I actually started picking up books. Until then, I had cheated on every single summer reading assignment that required me to spend more than 10 minutes with a piece of text. To this day, I’m not sure if I’ve ever read The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, or The Odyssey (although, I can tell you quite a bit about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s relationship with the bourgeoisie, the blind poetry of Homer, and the untamed masculinity of Hemingway. So maybe all is not lost.)

All that’s to say, my childhood bookcase was a prop.

Today, the bookcase in my home spans two rooms. But it’s still a bit more about status, than it is about knowledge.

Good looking books, by famous authors go in the living room. While mismatched, odd, and off-colored books go in the bedroom—and that’s just the aesthetics. The far more embarrassing notion is that, the books in my collection have largely been influenced by—influencers.

Many of the titles I’ve read in the past decade, have been New York Times bestsellers. The vanilla, airport bookstore, common knowledge trash, that appeals to everyone. Blockbuster books like Atomic Habits, Thinking Fast and Slow, Outliers, Sapiens, all books you’ve undoubtedly read, or been told to read, in the past few years.

What I’ve come to realize is that this type of bookcase is indicative of a shallow intellectual currency. The type of book smarts my parents had warned me against.

The mobster logic follows: If you’re reading the same thing as everyone else, and listening to the same thing as everyone else, then you’re feeding your brain the same raw ingredients as everyone else. Meaning, you don’t really know anything unique, and would be better off getting some street smarts instead.

In this way, my bookcase isn’t a tool of enrichment, but a tool of status.

When someone walks into my apartment, my bookcase politely reminds them: That book you saw on that list but never got around to reading, I have it, and I read it. What it’s also saying—but not as loudly—is that all I know is what everyone else already knows. That I’m loyally following the pack, doing what I’m supposed to be doing, and reading what I’m supposed to be reading.

My bookcase has no identity.

So what does this have to do with wealth? Before I get to that, I think it’s best to distinguish the difference between two things: Riches and wealth.

Riches is your brother-in-law Tony, with the big house, and the fancy car. It’s a bottle of 2001 Chateau Latour. It’s the new iPhone every year. It’s what an MBA gets you. It’s a number on a page.

Wealth, on the other hand, is what your great-aunt Beth has. It’s the eclectic home she’s lived in for forty years. The one your parents got married in. The one where your brother puked on the carpet on Christmas Eve. It’s the one filled floor to ceiling with crooked pictures of all your cousins, and parents, and weird people you’ve never met before. Wealth is when your kids visit you on the holidays. It’s the friends who show up to grab a box on moving day.

Wealth is everything that riches can’t buy.

So what would the bookcase of a wealthy person look like? What kind of bookcase am I striving for?

I recently saw it, in a cozy little home, owned by a man named Ron in the Southern Alps of New Zealand.

It’s smaller than you’d think in stature, but overflowing with books of all shapes and sizes. Nearly two hundred titles are bursting from the six-foot wide case. Each in a varying state of decay. Despite this, they’re organized with a clear structure: The top left is a section on regional terrain, followed by a dozen titles on mountains and trekking near Lake Wānaka, then a section on the history of rock climbing. On the far right, six books on Edmund Hillary and his conquest of Everest. Then, a section on the social history of New Zealand. A section on Māori history. Then dozens of old vintage books, satirizing Kiwi culture. This is just the top row.

It looks very different from my flavor-of-the-month collection at home. A collection designed, now that I think about it, to stroke my ego. My bookcase has no focus, no identity, no self knowledge or curiosity. Just bestseller after bestseller.

Ron’s bookcase is the exact opposite. It’s a deep exploration into just a handful of topics. Mostly centered around New Zealand, alpine climbing, and outdoorsmanship. His bookcase—a wealthy bookcase—is like a slingshot. A means to catapult himself from the world of stories and facts, into the real mountains right outside his door.

Books, in this way, are instruction manuals for living.

A wealthy bookcase, is one that tells a story. It illustrates your personal ascension from ignorance—to less ignorance. In no uncertain terms, it is a physical representation of your journey through life.

This type of wealth is wealth of the soul, and of the spirit. The bookcase, simply, it’s physical manifestation. You can’t buy a lifetime of hobbies and interests. You can’t fake this type of obsession—and if you could, would you really want to?

A wealthy, lived-in, bookcase requires something more valuable than money. Something that can’t be inherited, or sent to you on your birthday. It requires— time. A lifetime’s worth, to be precise.

It takes time to develop passion. It takes time to read, and practice, and screw-up, and recover, and read some more. It takes time to get lost in the labyrinth of knowledge, and to find the right obscure books to get you out.

A wealthy bookcase, as with a wealthy life, is the byproduct of time well spent.

A vintage postcard that Ron has hanging on his wall

I took a look around Ron’s house, and found old vintage photographs—at least four decades old—of a group of men who summited the snowcapped peaks of the Southern Alps. They were wearing nothing more than denim shorts and flannel shirts. Ron, now in his sixties, is no doubt among them. He is a real deal explorer, as his bookcase can corroborate.

I continued walking around the house. Old fly fishing rods adorned the walls. Crampons in the corner for scaling glaciers. Cross country skis, clung upside-down to the roof. Then the coup de grâce: a 10-pound, sixteen-inch-long pinecone that must have been retrieved from the age of the dinosaurs.

Ron’s bookcase spilled over from its borders, and touched everything in his life. The true mark of wealth, and a life well lived.

What does your bookcase look like?

—Zac

PS. If you’ve made it all the way down here and don’t feel that you’ve just wasted five minutes, consider hitting the like button on this essay.

It helps others find it. And it makes me happy.

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