Taxing Times

Tax time! Sigh. Every year my wife hounds me about paying better attention to what I do with my money. But it’s just not in my blood. My parents never had enough--my father was a low-level steelworker-- and I grew up in a world of intense frugality. No Wall Street wizard ever paid closer attention to money than my poor parents to my Dad’s weekly pay envelope. All the financial anxiety of my childhood eventually led me to hate money, took me into my youthful socialist-anarchist phase--”Come the revolution, all this will go”--and eventually determined my resolve to find a job where I would never have to think much about money. By this I meant that I didn’t want to spend a moment studying stocks and bonds and the market or learn how to invest in real estate, or anything else for that matter, nor, at the same time, did I want to be so bohemian and poor that I didn’t have enough cash to support my family and occasionally buy a few books. Okay a lot of books. I wanted to work hard and earn enough to cover the bills. Period.

It’s not so much that mine is a poetic soul--though it is, it is. But the keeping of close accounts--in life as well as in financial matters--is boring and repugnant to me. I maintain my calendar largely in my head, lurch from one project to the next as due dates loom, and generally provide a poor model of fiscal and socially responsiblity. I do work as hard as I can for long hours every day, nearly always meet my professional obligations, and hope to keep doing so for another 20 years. That’s what life means to me--that and wanting my children to be healthy and find satisfying lives of their own. My saving grace is that I was lucky enough to discover work that I enjoy and am reasonably good at and that my vices are relatively cheap.

But tax time is a difficult time. Every year I think: I should maintain a ledger, keep better records, find a better place for my cash than this old sock under the mattress. And from then I start to think that I should pay attention to other unhappy things: Isn’t it time for my annual physical? Shouldn’t I be hitting the gym more regularly? The bathroom clearly needs fixing up and I ought to do something about all these boxes of books or maybe paint the dining room and we really need a new air conditioner and . . . ? So one spirals down, down, down, sinking beneath the weight of all this stupid but necessary stuff. If I were in a John Cheever story, which alas I’m not, I’d start drinking or run off with the babysitter. As it is, I think fondly of my scapegrace uncle who lived in a trailer and told stories.

I know that my gripes must sound terribly middle-class. But there you are. It’s a sunny, beautiful day and my wife wants me to make appointments with doctors and financial planners. Bleh. Or is it meh?

I can hear the Reading Roomers murmuring: Our host has taken leave of his senses. What, pray tell, has this to do with books? I’m coming to that.

Thinking in this depressed way about taxes and planning and the future, I do sometimes fall into reverie--my preferred mental state-- over what I should do with all these books. Should I have them appraised? Should I start giving more of them away to friends, schools, or librariies? Or ought I to keep them all and let my heirs worry about their final disposition? It seems pretty clear to me that I will never have the big library I used to dream about--largely because I figure I can’t afford to build such a room onto this or any other house I’m likely to own. Of course, if I had a better grasp of financial matters, I might be able to see how I could do this--or if I’d been wiser in what I did with my money, I might simply be rich enough to build such an addition. But then I would have spent even less of my life prowling through used bookstores and thrift shops and reading old novels and writing about books for The Post and several dozen other publications. I’ve been as good an Aristotelian as I could have been, trying to steer a middle passage between the two extremes of dutiful responsiblity and bohemian fecklessness. My soul has never been what you’d call serene.

Well, enough of this tax-time rant. How does tax time affect other Reading Roomers? Do you have plans afoot for your book collections after your death? Do you find it easy to balance your working life with your passion for reading? How would you live if you were as free as the existentialists claim we are? Please share your thoughts.

- Michael Dirda

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