In Defense Of Owning Too Many Books
One night years ago, I was so excited over the books I would someday read that I couldn't sleep. As a child the happiest moment of my week was driving home from the public library with enough armfuls of books to last the weekend. Then in early high school my grandmother encouraged me to keep a reading log, providing the motivation to finish a volume. My senior high curriculum introduced me to the classics, which I enjoyed so much that I decided to study English in college. Shortly before high school graduation, I imagined the rows of well worn books my library would one day proudly possess and the vast reading log I could eventually boast in. Would the shelves of literature and fiction be stored in the living room and the bookcases of theology in my study? The possibilities became so tantalizing that I could barely wind myself down to rest.
Six years later and my dream of a perfect library has been tempered by reality. This includes the choices of life, like how I ended up working for years instead of immediately entering school. It also includes the limitations of shelf space, the missing books lent to friends, and the holes on my ideal shelf left by the many ebooks I consumed. But more than all this, my excitement faded when I was confronted by the growing mountain of books I would never read.
There is no shortage of books I ought to read: the books recommended in interviews with my favorite writers. The books passed on to me by friends, generous in their intent but unaware of the ways they are only making things worse. The books I really should reread. Nevermind the annual slew of best-of-the-year blogs; every week the New York Times publishes a list of new books worth pursuing. I chip away faithfully, averaging six books a month. But finishing a book does nothing to alleviate the problem. If it's non-fiction, the bibliography is bursting with fascinating titles. If it's fiction, I'm bound to want to chase down the rest of that author's work.
So my desk overflows with growing stacks of volumes. They are at least somewhat organized: the books I can't wait to read, the books I'd like to read someday, the books I really should be reading, the books I know I'll probably never get to, and—towering over them all—a tottering stack of the books I've finished. (At least it's the largest stack.) The Japanese have a word for this situation: tsundoku. It means "leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books." That word's creator must have wandered into my bedroom.
I found hope when I read of the Italian scholar and novelist Umberto Eco's 30,000 volume library. It is said that he separated his visitors into two categories: “those who react with ‘Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?’ and the others—a very small minority—who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool." The first reaction treats bookshelves as a showcase of achievement, an attitude I was in danger of adapting.
The second reaction takes a different approach. Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whom I just quoted, described Eco’s perspective as recognizing that potential is not in the books you’ve consumed but in those which remain unread. Therefore expand the rows of what you do not know as much as your resources allow, and expect them to keep growing as you get older and accumulate more knowledge. To Eco and Taleb, those menacing shelves (or in my case, stacks) of unread books are both a humbling reminder of how much we don't know and a tantalizing promise of further ideas to explore.
So I can relax. The volumes of books I continue to bring home are not reminders of guilt or inadequacy, but rather accepted invitations to the vast world of ideas and stories worth exploring. My attitude has become more like that of a traveler and less of a conqueror. To approach every experience—every meal, sunset, and natural wonder in the world—as an acquisition is foolish. It spoils the beauty in front of you. Instead, enjoy the good gifts you are able to receive. Dig deep into the history and culture of the corner of the world you happen to find yourself in.
Tolkien claimed that his stories of Middle-earth sprang from the "leaf mould" of his mind. If you want to produce rich loam, you'll have to put in your compost not garbage but good food scraps. Over time and with some cultivation, the egg shells, apple cores, and coffee grounds become unrecognizable, transformed into dark, moist, nutrient rich earth. With good soil, there's a better chance you will produce good fruit. Tolkien immersed himself in Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the etymology of early English. Their ideas stewed in his mind as he raised his family, graded his exams, and smoked his pipe. Eventually the marvelous stories of hobbits, dwarves, and wizards emerged. I don’t imagine that I will create a classic of fantasy literature, but I am expecting that the material I surround myself with will feed my life and output in unseen ways. The rows of volumes I collect are an account of my influences, but their real impact may take decades to be fully revealed.
I'll continue to seek out good books and live my life, quite literally, amongst them. I'll read with eagerness, following veins of gold deep into the mountain. I'll trust that the material I'm consuming is shaping my life and my writing in ways that can't be measured by lists of accomplishments or shelves of dog-eared, annotated trophies. And perhaps I'll also buy more bookshelves so my desk has room to breathe.