The OF Blog: I mock your To Be Read piles! I snort at your complaints of time! And I think you are missing the point!

Friday, September 10, 2010

I mock your To Be Read piles! I snort at your complaints of time! And I think you are missing the point!

There, catchy enough title for ya?  Over a week ago, I ran a poll here asking people if they would prefer to have a library full of thousands of books read or thousands of books unread?  Distressingly for me, nearly 90% of people polled chose the former option.  When I posted that question, I had recently re-read a commentary by Umberto Eco about the "anti-library" (which in turn is part of a larger book on books):

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and non dull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates 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. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight read-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

Too often I read blog posts of people "complaining" about their "to be read piles" of books.  So many moanings of "how will I ever finish all these books?" or "I don't think I could finish them if they were the only books I would read in a year!"  Many pictures are taken of these books, as if having unread books is some sort of shame that must be admitted in public.  Sometimes numbers are tossed about:  12, 50, 100, 250, 600!  The books are reduced to numbers and not possibilities.

I do not know with any certainty how many unread books I own.  I would guess maybe a hundred or two.  I don't keep them in a separate area; several are shelved besides some nice edition, while others are scattered here and yon.  I don't ever worry about "catching up," for that is not the purpose of acquiring books, at least not for me.  I wrote a post several weeks ago about "book consumers" and what I left unstated (but implied) there is that reading/acquiring books is not a zero-sum game; there is no "winner" or "loser" in that.  Rather, there are possibilities found in books to be read and in those read some time ago.

I suspect part of the issue involves the receiving of promotional materials.  Like several others, I receive several dozen (if not a few hundred) books a year from publishers.  I read maybe 10% of those books and review only another half or so.  There is no shame in this; I receive books from a mailing list and not because (except in a very, very few cases) I directly solicit a work.  I don't have to catch them all, right away; I can thumb through them at my leisure and cover the ones that seem to hold something of interest to me.  Books are not ersatz monetary exchanges here; if there is something I find interesting, I'll read/review it.  Otherwise, maybe another will enjoy it in the near future when I do my periodic cleansing of shelves full of perused books.

Beyond this, however, is the issue of purchases.  I don't purchase books just to rush through and say "I finished it!"  (Yes, I know I read very fast, but that's just a natural gift and not intrinsic to who I am as a reader).  I purchase items to be browsed through over years; such as St. Thomas of Aquinas' Summa Theologica or St. Augustine's Confessions.  Or I purchase them for another time and place; two unread volumes of Thomas Wolfe's work awaits me even now; I feel the time is fast approaching for further exploration of that magnificently flawed writer.  I have decades of time left, I hope.  No need to feel pressure just because I have a lot of unread books.  Just only means there are future possibilities awaiting me.

And that, I think, lies at the heart of this concept of an "anti-library."  My personal library is somewhat modest at around 2200 copies.  I winnow out several hundred each year and replace them with several hundred more.  I give dozens of books away to two friends of mine who live overseas, since it is very difficult for them to get some of the English-language books that I've enjoyed.  A book is more than just a binding of words to be consumed; it is a codification of ideas that are best when shared and considered at various points in one's life.  So instead of talking about acquisitions as some sort of double-edged sword (more unread books, gah!), why not just think of what you possess as possibilities that might be best considered as which ones are your literary one-night stands and which are going to be shacking up with you for a long time to come?  After all, sometimes there are some surprises to be found in those until-now unread books...


Unknown said...
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Mihai A. said...

Your post is interesting and refereshing. I admit I look over my library and often my mind sees a pile of unread books. At times I wonder when I'll read all those books, but not because it is a competition, but because I want to know what all those books are about. But these moments as often as they seem to be are equally as passing. Because I will always know that my library will constantly grow, I receive and buy many books and therefore I will always have books in there that I didn't read. And as long as I will be able to open an unread book from my library or an already read one and enjoy it I will always be happy with my library. I will still complain a bit about my to be read books, but maybe because I would like to praise my library a bit ;)

annie said...

love this post! My personal library consists only of the books I currently use or want my daughters to read. It'a a few hundred (small apartment limits me). I love giving books away & have a Kindle coming for books I want to read but not keep.

Unknown said...

I am guilty of this. But I would say, and I have done, that when on occasion I'm caught in the act of complaining about how many books I've received this week or that week and how little time I'm likey to have to indulge them all, I've often tempered my moaning with the sentiment that that has to be one of the nicest problems I can ever recall having.

Jamie said...

I appreciate what you are saying, but with respect I would submit that it is a little different for one, like yourself, who is capable of reading hundreds of books a year. I myself, while not being particularly slow, rarely manage more than about 25 books a year, whilst possessing far more than that as yet unread. But I agree that a personal library that possessed no new possibilities to me would be utterly pointless.

redhead said...

I knew I loved Umberto Eco. When it comes to non-fiction, I completely agree - they are for reference, research, I thumb through them looking for specific things.

and like Annie, space constraints in a small apartment limit my personal library to about 500.

but fiction? my compulsion to purchase far outweighs my compulsion to read, but if I've gone through the trouble of aquiring some work of fiction, I do feel obligated to read it. eventually.

but yes, I am totally guilty of complaining that i have too much to read, not enough time, whine whine whine.

Simeon said...

Can't say that I see exactly what the problem is. How does moaning about unread books equal competition or viewing books as "ersatz monetary exchanges"? Perhaps it is exactly that feeling of possibilities that makes people feel frustrated with all the titles - especially in an extensive library - they haven't read. And it is true that for someone who can't read a few hundred titles every year, there is this nagging fear that you might never have the chance to experience a lot of things that you want to.

Personally, I've never had this problem, but it is because I am fickle and spontaneous when it comes to reading. I can't stay in the same "place" for long, and that means long-term plans are pointless for me, as I change my mind about what I want to read on a weekly basis. I finish a book, and then I start the book that I feel like starting, and that's that.

James said...

My collection is rather small, perhaps two hundred books... maybe a bit over that. Half of those are unread and though I have not been buying books over the last year--a matter of budget concerns--the amount read and unread do not change because I have taken to using my public library system more. I like having unread books, I like being able to look at this giant pile of books that has taken over my nightstand and having a wealth of different books to choose from--be it Zivkovic, Ajvaz, and Borges or Daniel Abraham, Richard Morgan, and Steven Erikson.

But then, I have always considered reading to be a journey or an adventure and what is the point of only being able to go where you have been before? Sure, it is nice to revisit the books you've read and you can learn a lot you may have missed, but, for me, reading new things is vastly more enjoyable. And really, having the ability to look at your unread collection and say, "Hmm, do I want to read this surreal Lovecraftian/Kerouac pastiche or maybe some Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser or, hell, why not read some Faulkner?" just leaves me with an unbeatable feeling of happiness.

Pablo Ortega said...

Oh my god!, I do now realize the point and posibilities of an e-book reader with 4 Gb of internal memory and with even a memory card reader expansion port. Like Mp3 or photo cameras the advert them as "hold up to 2.000 e-books with you..." and so on.
I always thought what's the point of that... now I do, I see the possibilities, no more winnow books..
thank u

Gabriele Campbell said...

I have a bit of an antilibrary. For one, I do have a nice - not so - litte research library (though I envy Eco his 30,000 books, I'm not even close, lol), but I also buy books because I like to have them in case I feel like reading something from that collection.

A library of unread books gives me the freedom to pick what I feel like.

I also started collecting several series when the first 1-2 books were out but will probably only read them when they're complete (JV Jones, Friedman's Magister trilogy, Tad Williams' Shadowmarch, to name a few); that way I can be sure there won't be a book out of print when the series is finished. Though there are some like ASOIAF and Malazan which I read when they come out.

Aishwarya said...

I've just dug out (at considerable personal risk) Eco's essay "How to Justify a Private Library", which is where, or one of the places where, he describes a library as a "working tool". I've always used that phrase as a justification for owning books - I love the idea of my personal library as a sort of giant interconnected thought machine.

But then the thing about looking at it that way is that it makes the distinction between read and unread books largely irrelevant. Every new book (if it's the sort of new book that makes my brain happy) makes me want to reread a bunch of the old ones in the context of the ideas this new book has brought in. And so I'm not sure that unread books are more valuable than read books (though I agree with you that the reverse is not true) because I'm not sure what a "read" book even is.

(My own read:unread ratio is about 50:50, I think. I'm happy to keep if that way).

Jason said...

I wouldn't read too much into the poll results. I for one found the question strangely worded. You asked what's more impressive (not what would you rather have), a library full of unread books or a library full of read books. I'm not at all sure why a library of unread books is "impressive", unless the point is to show restraint.

I would have commented on the confusing poll question, but I didn't see anywhere to do so, so I let it go.

Harry Markov said...

I am with Jason on that one. The way you phrased the question was not to express a personal preference, but say what was more impressive.

And, yes having a library of read books is impressive, because it shows a high level of erudition. To me this has its charm, because it means to be able to lead that many more conversations.

Apart from this I agree that having so many unread books and unexplored possibilities at your finger tips is exciting as well. I believe that all the bookaholics experience this. And it's as you said partially because of the promo materials.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

2200 books? And I thought my library of 1000 was large. I rarely get rid of books and yes there's a few that I've never read. When the urge hits, they will be on the shelf waiting.

Terry Weyna said...

Gosh, I love living in the middle of a library of mostly unread books; it's like living in a candy store for someone with a sweet tooth, only healthier. And our library has about 12,000 volumes.

Sarah said...

How strange. Whenever I've been asked if I've read all my books, my first instinct (usually suppressed) is to say, "Well, of course! Why would I go out and buy a book if I weren't about to read it?" But then I remember that most people aren't like me, and probably discard books the way they'd turn off a television after the show's over.

Exceptions include some non-fiction books I've purchased to use for research but have not read in entirety, and "classics", which are part of my ongoing education -- though, now that I have a Kindle, I can read most of the latter (for free!) without further taxing my shelves.

Emily said...

I love this post! I feel the same way. I don't worry about the number of books I haven't read (although I do wish I had the time to read even more than I do). If I'm at all concerned about the number of books I buy each month (currently averaging 10-20), it's only because I live in NYC and space in my apartment is limited, despite my books having their own room.

Some of my favorite books that I own are books that I'll probably never read in their entirety. They are collections of letters, short stories, essays, quotations, etc - things that I'll pick up and dip into now and then, and then put back on the shelves. I purge books I've read and don't intend to read or flip through again. I keep books I've read that I loved or want to have for reference, to lend, or to re-read.

Being surrounded by my books, both read and unread, makes me happy. I love the potential that the unread ones hold.

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