The Wonderful and Terrible Habit of Buying Too Many Books

Gabe Habash -- February 16th, 2012

Not pictured: annoyed roommate

“…ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.” -Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”

Last weekend, I found myself killing a Saturday afternoon at one of my favorite bookstores, McNally Jackson. I didn’t go with any specific book in mind. I walked out with four books: Stoner, A Meaningful Life, A Fan’s Notes, and The Intuitionist.

This past weekend, I found myself killing a Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn, at what’s becoming one of my favorite bookstores, Book Thug Nation (extra points for the gentleman working the desk, for his great conversation on horror books and films). I didn’t go with any specific book in mind. But they had this handsome Dell edition of The Circus in the Attic, complete with green gilding, for $1 and they had this edition of Wise Blood, which you can’t find anywhere and is far prettier than this ugly thing. I walked out with those two books, as well as Knockemstiff and The Castle in the Forest.

Depending on how you feel about books, you could call this either a habit of mine or a problem of mine. Either way, one thing it is is a pattern, something that repeats itself, that exists in its very repetition, that manifests itself on the bookshelf in my apartment and, because it’s a long-lived pattern, in piles seven and eight tall on the floor of my bedroom.

If book buying addiction wasn’t a real thing, articles like this and this wouldn’t exist, and searching for “book clutter” on Google wouldn’t turn up 18 million results. Most of the articles are about a book lover, searching for obstructed light switches and tripping over wobbly stacks, finally saying “enough” and resolving to trim the fat, the fat here being, more often than not, the library’s duplicates and never-will-reads or already-read-and-didn’t-really-likes.

My library has received its fair share of criticism. I gingerly proposed adding another shelf near the doorway of my roommate’s bedroom door, and I received a pretty impassioned response as a result. When my friend Matt comes over, he likes to engage in a favorite pastime called “You’re Never Going to Read That,” which involves him standing in front of the bookshelves with his chin haughtily tilted up and suddenly pointing at books that he thinks are stupid and that, for the life of him, he can not imagine why I have. “I think I have too many books,” I said once, and he said, “Okay I’ll help you out,” and quickly reached for House of Leaves.

But despite the fact that I probably have too many books, despite the fact that I am running out of room, I’m not sold on the notion of purging my library. The reason is this: most of the library consists of books I haven’t read (I did inventory for this article: I’ve read 85 out of the 371 books sitting on my shelves). In “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin shares this anecdote:

And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of all collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?” “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?”

There are just too many books to read. And while one might make the very good point that you could just wait to buy them when you have more room, there’s something about putting them in a row with other books, read and unread, that creates the cumulative impression of your reading self. Because, when it comes to reading, there will always be more books that you haven’t read than books that you have, and your reading ambition will always be more important than your reading accomplishments. “The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them,” wrote Benjamin. “Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property.”

A library of mostly unread books is far more inspiring than a library of books already read. There’s nothing more exciting than finishing a book, and walking over to your shelves to figure out what you’re going to read next.

So, the solution here is to just slow down on the buying, not cut it out entirely, which means things like limiting myself to one book per bookstore visit. As I start to chip away at the huge list of Books I Want To Read, I’m sure that list will deepen and broaden in ways I can’t predict, so eventually the library may be more balanced and not so skewed toward books I haven’t read, but it will never be fixed row of read books. Libraries aren’t meant to be intractable, they’re meant to change, and they change by buying books. As long as I don’t trip over those piles of books on my floor and break my leg, it seems to me that having too many books on your hands is a pretty wonderful problem to have.

70 thoughts on “The Wonderful and Terrible Habit of Buying Too Many Books

  1. Elizabeth Tai

    Oh my. How this post resonates with me! I recently pared down my 1000-book library to a few measly hundred because I was downsizing, moving from my own place to my brother’s aparment. As I sifted through the books and placed them into “to sell, to give away, to keep” pile, I realised I have only read 50% of my collection! And the 50% was just collecting dust. It didn’t seem right to have such awesome books sit there unread. So, I gave them to friends who would appreciate them and was quite chuffed when I did so.

    In the future, my library – the one holding print books, that is – will be a small one. Just 100-200 books. I’ve moved to ebooks, liking how little space they take and how I don’t have to dust them every few months!

    It’s lovely to stare at a wall of books, but after collecting 1000 over of them, they quickly became a mental burden – maybe cos I feel so guilty for not reading them!

  2. Michael

    Bibliomane. Not sure where I saw it, but I like it. Not bibliophile, not bibliomaniac and not bibliolater. It was Dr. Philim Murray who noted (I think) that it is only one of two compulsions to acquire that has a medical name. I did like his book on collecting, but just can’t remember the name at the minute and can’t get to it. We suffer the gentle madness. I do find some of my time taken up with the care of books once purchased. I do have to maintain focus (with the odd slip, e.g. – “How to drive a steam train”) and previously compiled lists.
    Control is the best we can hope for. Sometimes I bring books with me on trips so it is more difficult to browse in shops. I try not to worry about it, reading helps.

  3. Margaret Kell Virany

    Bravo! I’ve bought a Kindle reader, since I’m 78 and it’s a practical way of carrying 1400 books with me into the old people’s home in the not-to-distant future. So what did I do? Went to the annual January Spaghetti & Used Book Sale in the basement of old Aylmer United Church and bought a 5 lb gem.
    Just couldn’t resist Harry Price’s handscripted The Royal Tour 1901, with 163 exquisite hand drawings, plus title pages and authentic charts. This book found me because we have so much in common. He was an ordinary seaman in tropic dress uniform, as was my Dad in WWI. The HMS Ophir sailed out of Portsmouth, UK, my mother’s home. He survived 14 hours in a raft at sea during that war because, he says, he was born in a caul and would never drown. That is true of my sister too. Also, I’m writing an ebook travelogue about my husband’s and my tour all over America in a Prius and I need to study other travel writers to figure out how. Price must have known his royal subjects were boring, in spite of this being an accolade to them and the Empire. So he includes his incredible climb up to the top of Mt Hobart in Tasmania and back in a day. He planted a French flag! Union Jacks were all sold out because of the Tour!

  4. Dave

    I go to book stores with my journal. Not only does my journal contain notes and quotes from current books but also lists of my current serial authors. I wander about some then seriously hunt for the books I still “need” on my lists. I have filled two homes with books, don’t know how I’ll combine them if the house for sale actually sells. I am thinking of different ways to decorate with my books, thinking of making a border book shelf around the top of the walls. I love my hobby/passion/breath – call it what you will. Even some books I know I’ll never reread – to see them on the shelf brings the story alive for a bit and I walk by with a smile.

  5. Julie

    My love of books from a very early age (still have all my childhood books) out grew my house. So the next best thing was open a second hand book shop Pingvin booksellers where I have over 80,000 books and no I haven’t even read 1/4 of them.

  6. Luis

    I think i own about 500 books (We moved one year ago an i guess i had to give my friends another 500), which i’ve read more or less 100. Yep, there’s a lot of unpacked stuff, and most of the books i’ve ripped the plastic bag cover off, is to show my wife that i´m reading that book. I live in an 1000 sq ft apartament, and i’m only permitted to use 1 room as my books “warehouse”, so there are piles of books floor to ceiling, piles behind piles, so the back ones are impossible to see unless you look for something specific. But the pleasure of opening a new one, smell the ink, pass the edges of the leaves, is something that i don´t know how kindle and nook can defy. i´m 46, and i think that if i stop buying books today, i would take more or less 20 years (one book each two weeks, this time i don’t have much time) to read the stock.

  7. Bec

    Yep i too can’t walk past a bookshop (or shop that happens to also sell books) with at least stopping to look (and more often just buying one or two) and then i discovered online shops with free postage – oh the joy of seeing the packages arrive in the mail. I have a spreadsheet on my phone – one page is a list of books i own (yes i haven’t read them all either) and one is a list of books i want to buy – sometimes its a book i saw but didn’t have money to buy that day, or something i read a review on but haven’t been able to find yet or isn’t out yet. The list is great to stop the doubling up problem. I do occassionally sell books – usually if i don’t like them or i have two copies but this is rare and i usually come out of second hand book shops with more than i came in with. I too have ran out of room for my bookshelves and will soon have to re-arrange my bookshelves so i can but the books two deep on the shelves. I’m trying to get a job in a library and i think my family hope it will cure my additiction but i think they are kidding themselves!

  8. Stephanie

    I have double whammy of an addiction. I love to read mysteries & some general fiction. I think I counted 60-something authors a couple of years ago, which I’m sure has grown by 20? 40? Maybe. The good thing is I donate/give away 99.9% of the paperbacks that I buy & read. The bad thing is I have about 75 I am working through. I am also constantly in my local B & N because I don’t want to miss anything that is new & the latest of one of my favorite authors (that 60 or 80 mentioned previously). I also love coffee table books in a wide range of subjects, different types of atlases & maps, textbooks in subjects I thought interesting enough to buy. Books on the history of Scotland & American history, music artist biographies are also prominent on my bookshelf. I have always dreamed of having my own library. I really do love to read what I have, but not near enough time to read them. And, because of the books/authors that I love & read, what I like is basically an extention of my personality. It is this feeling that is behind why I love being in the midst of my books.

  9. Prati

    Added to this common characteristic I borrow more books from library than I can read at a given time. Again the rule for library books those which I think I would not like to read more than 1 time. Having around 2/3 of unread books in your personal collection gives one a secure feeling, it is having a long term reading plan :-)

  10. sharon

    Harlan Ellison has the perfect reply to everyone who asks, “Have you read all these books?”

    “Hell, no. Who wants a library full of books you’ve already read?”

  11. Kate

    My kryptonite is matching sets. There’s a lovely boxed set of everything by Dickens and another set of Sherlock Holmes…and I don’t even want to read them. They just look really good.

    I’m never going to be one of those people who buys paintings. I’m going to have maps, and 12 different versions of LotR, 10 of which I’ve never even opened. That, to me, is loving books (which is different from loving reading).

  12. Octavia

    Ha! Are those two bookcases the best you could do? Some of those shelves aren’t even full. I have eight of those — and the books are double-shelved. I loan books out, give them away, donate them to libraries, and trade them in but not as fast as I buy them or “rescue” them. Yes, I have had my husband hold my feet so that I could fish in a dumpster for science fiction, not even my favorite genre.

  13. Alex P.

    Gabe, I found your post fascinating and spot on. As someone who also collects books (read and unread) I relate to your “addiction.” There is definitely something to be said about obtaining and owning books. The simple act of having them on one’s shelf has its own sense of fulfillment separate from that of actually reading them.
    I, too, have books upon books that I purchased over the years that I have never touched, although the intention to is constant. At some point I will pick up the book I found so intriguing at the store three years ago and enjoy it as if it were brand new. Along with that, I find that I cannot go to a bookstore and only purchase one book, unless I am buying a present. It is almost impossible that I could browse the stacks at Barnes and Noble and come away with only one book that caught my interest. It is usually three at time, and I will purchase them all, knowing full well I will only read one, and the other two will be put away on the shelf. The thought of not purchasing them, and not owning a written work that I feel attached to seems absurd to me. And afterall, I will eventually get around to reading the other two.
    I like to collect information. I like to surrond my desk and my room with books that I love, want to read at some point, or simply look nice. I’m serious about the last one. I know one shouldn’t judge a book by it’s a cover, unless of course it only desires it for its cover. This may seem shallow, but having an interior decorator as a mother has taught me that nothing makes a room brighter and better than books. My mother will buy books if they are beautifully bound or have a gorgeous spine. Although the content could be just as grand as the cover, the point is mute. She will stack them in the corner of the living room, or on a shelf in the office and it makes all the difference. Being a huge reader, I tend to make purchases based on content, but occasionally, at book sales and such, I will throw a gorgeous copy of Vanity Fair in my bag.
    So, even books that I never have an intention to read can be aesthically pleasing to my environment. I’m with you. I do not feel ashamed of my addiction. I like to surround myself with knowledge, even if it has yet to be absorbed. I agree with your point that a library of books waiting to be read far out beats one that has already been devoured.
    Lately, my “collection” has been more focused on coffee table books. The large, heavy, beautiful books filled with photographs that are just fun to look at. They’re also quite expensive. Nonetheless I find myself addicted to them. I love putting them on my shelf and pulling them down just to flip through.
    Even more peculiar than my collection of books is my collection of journals. Blank journals. I write of course, and many of them are in use, but that does not prevent me from purchasing another one at the store. I like to have them, just in case. It’s the same concept as buying books, really. It is far better to have a blank journal on hand, ready to go, then to have to scuttle around with a brillant thought in my head that I cannot find a home for. Journals also look very lovely on shelves and on desks, regardless if they are blank or full. In my room at school alone, I currently have four blank journals. To be honest, they serve no purpose other than comfort, because when I do have the inkling to write for fun I turn to my blog. Or one of the three journals I have that are already in use. Yet, without fail I also venture over to the journal section at bookstores. I like putting them on my shelf, knowing that one day they could all be filled with thoughts. The anticipation or hope of filling them is enough for me to justify spending $19.95 on a blank journal as a broke college student.
    Speaking of being a broke college student, I’ve noticed how a lot of my “miscellaneous” books have come to be permanent dwellers on my shelves. It is all thanks to the misconception that textbook buyback is a terrific thing. Why on earth would I sell back a book (specifically novels/memoirs for my English classes) that I spent at least 20 dollars on to just get three back in return? When the cashier offered my one dollar for my copy of Robinson Crusoe, I was halfway through taking the cash when I realized that Robin Crusoe is a classic. Sure, I hated it, but why one earth would I lose money when I could just keep the book—forever?! And who knows, maybe someday I will reread it and find that my taste in literature has evolved. Doubtful, but how could I part with a book that is a necessity for any home library?
    So, I have accumulated a mini library, if you will, at college. It consists of about twenty books, all of which I refuse to purge myself of, because they are great books and could come in handy one day. I will not lose out on excellent editions to my growing personal library just because it will cost around $30 to ship them all home when I graduate. I agree with you, how could anyone throw away their books? Trust me, I know I have far too many, but I don’t have the heart, or the intelligence to discard little bundles of entertainment and comfort.
    You’re absolutely right. If the worst problem I have is that I have too many books then my life is looking pretty good. Libraries should be changing all the time. Afterall, change is the only constant, and my library likes to grow.

  14. Sara

    Though not a Christian, every year I give up buying books for Lent. Every year it hurts. But it gives me a small breathing space, a little catching-up time.

    (I do not allow myself a Mardi-Gras of book-buying)

  15. Rosemary

    After my husband found 27 banker’s boxes of books in the basement that I “was going to read after I retired”, he suggested that I open a used bookstore. I did and am now surrounded by 3 floors of books and can talk with other people who love books as much as I do every day!! Before any of you run out and do the same, those boxes are still in the basement. Those are MY books! I’m working my way through them – very slowly, since I see new ones every day. I wake up with a smile each day knowing I’m going to see my “friends”.

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