The best improvement we made to our house was the addition of built-in wooden floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Not only do they make me feel like I’m sitting in my own miniature library, but it’s a library overflowing with books and authors I (mostly) love.
Sure, we could have put that money toward a new roof or fixing the driveway or renovating the old bathroom, but then I wouldn’t have such an awesome background for Zoom meetings. I purr every time someone compliments me on the rows of books spread out behind me. Those bright, broad bookshelves are like a peacock’s tail, and my ego swells whenever I get the chance to show them off.
And then someone asks the dreaded question: “Have you read them all?”
I imagine in this infinite universe there are people who have read all their books. I’m not one of them. But I can honestly answer that I’ve read most of the books on those shelves.
The reason I can say that is because the bulk of my To Be Read pile is on a completely different set of bookshelves in the bedroom.
And stacked on the bedside table.
And scattered around my kid’s room, since I keep meaning to read some of their MG and YA stuff.
And queued up on the various e-book apps on my phone…
Perhaps a better question to ask would be, “Am I ever going to read them all?”
That’s a hard no. There are simply too many books and too few years in the human lifespan. To make matters worse, authors keep writing more books I want to read. It’s like they’re deliberately feeding the addiction. And like a sucker, I keep going back for another hit, buying more and more books from these cruel enablers.
This leads to a dangerous question: When do I cross the line from avid reader to hoarder?
I have a house full of books. I’ve admitted I’ll never read them all, yet I keep buying more. How is that in any way sane or rational?
At least I’m not alone in my irrational obsession. It’s been more than a century since Japan coined the word “tsundoku,” a punny term for letting books pile up unread. English has “bibliomania,” first used in 1809 in a poem by John Ferriar to describe a similar “book disease” and popularized in 19th century writings about obsessive book collectors.
Happily, neither of those terms appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, the standard for diagnosing mental disorders. The DSM-V does, however, include an entry for Hoarding Disorder. The diagnostic criteria include:
“…possessions that congest and clutter active living areas and substantially compromises their intended use.”
“…clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”
In other words, simply owning more books than you can ever hope to read doesn’t mean you need a referral to a book shrink. As long as your books aren’t destroying your relationships and rendering your home unlivable, you’re probably not a hoarder.
Which is a huge relief to me. I’ve got enough to manage with my diabetes and my depression. I don’t think I could handle another disorder right now.
But what about all those unread books? Is it time to Marie Kondo those suckers? (In her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo suggests, that books you bought but haven’t read, and books you started but never finished, should be discarded. “[I]f you haven’t read it by now, the book’s purpose was to teach you that you didn’t need it.”)
This approach might work for some people, and that’s great. I’m not here for Kondo-bashing. But I disagree with the implication that a book’s sole value and purpose is to be read.
For one thing, books are cool!1 A full bookshelf is a gorgeous thing. Remember those compliments I keep getting on Zoom for my book-heavy background? Nobody on the other end of those calls can actually read the titles behind me. Nor do they wait to admire them until they know how many I’ve read. They’re simply appreciating the beauty of those colorful spines arranged on their wooden shelves.
There are people who buy and show books purely for decoration, with no intention of ever reading them. There’s nothing wrong with that. Books are awesome, and far more tasteful than certain other decorating choices.
Occasionally, folks online come across someone who (gasp) physically cuts up books to make them fit more neatly on their display shelves. Oh, the howling and outrage that erupt. It’s like they discovered Mr. Rogers was a serial killer.
I may get pushback for this, but a physical book is not an inherently sacred object. Millions of books are pulped each year. Personally, I’d rather see books recycled as art and decoration than trashed or sent to the landfill.2
But I suspect most of us reading this piece love books not just for their looks, but for what’s inside. For these people—myself included—having more books than we can read isn’t a problem. It’s a necessity! Because books aren’t one-size-fits-all. They aren’t even one-size-fits-one.
I’ve spent the past few years working through grief and the mess COVID has made of the world. For a while, I simply didn’t have the brainpower to enjoy novel-length work. I found myself turning to other parts of my shelves, like old Peanuts collections and graphic novels and anthologies of short, humorous nonfiction. As I slowly got my groove back, I transitioned into reading some of those middle grade books, which tended to be shorter and often more fun—exactly what I needed.
Having more books means more options, which means you’re more likely to find the right book at the right time.
These days, I think my brain is mostly working again3, but that means I can appreciate a broader menu, not that I’m going to want the exact same thing every day. Tonight I might feel like diving into the poetic genius of Ursula K. Le Guin’s essays in Dancing at the Edge of the World. Then I might reread something fun and fast-paced, like Greg van Eekhout’s Voyage of the Dogs. From there, maybe I’m in the space to appreciate the intensity of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death.
The point is, if you want a varied and balanced diet, you’ve got to keep the pantry well stocked.
And then we have the political power of book collecting. Consider that attempts to ban books in the United States hit a 20-year-high in 2021, according to the ALA.4 Most of the targeted books were by and/or about LGBTQIA+ people and people of color.
It’s not always active, explicit censorship, either. A 2020 study of diversity in publishing found that most of the industry is set up to cater to white, middle-class readers, and “minority ethnic [and] working-class audiences are undervalued.” This inequity affects acquisition, promotion, and sales.5
Buying books is great.6 Buying books and supporting marginalized authors and pushing back against inequity and flipping off the school boards and politicians who want to ban books? That’s exponentially greater, even if you don’t get around to reading every single one.
Though I recommend you prioritize those books. As Levar Burton said, “Read the books they don’t want you to—that’s where the good stuff is!”
Read them and share them with friends! All those books you’ve gathered give you a sliver of librarian power. One of the most rewarding feelings is putting a new book into a friend’s hand and knowing it’s going to blow their mind, or even change their life.
Reading is an amazing and transformative act. It’s true we may never read all the books we’ve collected over the years, but we’ll read some of them. And we’ll never read the books we don’t collect (or borrow).
But books are beautiful, powerful, sexy things whether you read them or not. So let go of the guilt over buying yet another stack of books from your local bookstore, and give yourself permission to simply enjoy them.
1 For certain values of cool.
2 Unless we’re talking about old autographed first editions or something like that. Then we’re gonna have words.
3 My children might disagree.
6 So is requesting and checking out books from your local library, for that matter!
© 2022 Jim C. Hines