If you looked at the bookshelves in the apartment where I live, you’d probably think I’m fairly well read, or that I at least read more than most people. But for a writer, you might think,
There should be more books here…
Most Books I’ve Bought…
Most books I’ve bought over the years are on other people’s shelves. I’ve given away boxes of books: to friends, to libraries, and once — to a friend opening a book store selling new and used books.
(Speaking of libraries…many books I’ve read have come from libraries, so those books never saw more than brief visitations with other books on my shelves. In fact — having worked at a library — I can say the most well-read couple I’ve met probably didn’t have many books of their own because they consumed books almost exclusively from libraries.)
I’ve given away shelves’ worth of books. I’ve done this because I like sharing, but also because I live in a one-bedroom apartment and there’s just not that much room.
The Books I Buy
It’s rare these days that I buy a physical work of fiction. I read fiction more than non-fiction, but most fiction I buy today is digital. In a short time since buying digital books, I probably have almost as many digital books on my smart phone and Kindle as physical books in my three cases and tucked away wherever I can find room for them. If a work of fiction stands out as a favorite work, I will eventually buy a physical copy, but I limit even that to the top couple books of the year. (Example: I will eventually have a physical copy of my favorite book of 2014: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. And probably Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X collection.)
But since I typically give away most books I buy to share and save space, I don’t need to save more than a couple books a year that really hit me. When I do buy a physical book, it’s usually a book that is more than just words, something that relies on the physical thing to be special. (Either a special printing/collection or a book that plays with layout, typography, and content — like the latest Seth Godin book or Alastair Humphreys’s Microadventures and Ten Lessons from the Road.)
There Was a Time
There was a time, when I was younger, that it seemed important to have every book I read on display. It was meant to say,
“I read some of the books you read — and many more books you never knew existed. Take a look at my shelves and you will probably see more books you didn’t know existed. See how well read I am?“
Sure, I wanted to share what I read with others who love reading and who looked at the shelves (I love looking at what others have on their shelves), but part of the display was to show off books only the most serious of my book-reading friends even knew existed.
Today, I don’t care what the books I have say about me. (You can’t even see most of the books I’ve bought in the past several years because they are digital.) I no longer feel that need to say — through my collection — “Look at all these books, many of them deemed difficult reads that prove how deeply I read…”
That mattered in my 20s, but in my mid 40s, you could take all my books and I wouldn’t care if a visitor thought, “I didn’t see one book in that household; they must be very ignorant people…”
I Sometimes Wonder
If I had more room, I sometimes wonder if I would go back and buy many of the books I’ve given away. I wonder if I would pack a room full of shelves, and on those shelves, place all my favorite, long-gone books.
There’s nothing wrong with shelves full of books. I grew up in a house full of books, and if I had the space and time, I would die in a house full of books. I’ve made videos about books I have on shelves:
But outside of good cover art and something physical I can flip through, I no longer feel [as much] a burning need to possess and shelve every book I’ve read.
I don’t know if it’s a matter of space, or if I just don’t feel as much a need to possess physical proof of the books I’ve read anymore. (I tend to think it’s more a matter of space because I like being around physical books. But it’s not essential.)
The Important Thing is Reading
While I don’t feel a need to have the books I’ve read tell others, “Christopher reads, and what he reads is wide, varied, and good!” I would not turn away an office full of rich wood bookcases on every wall — the kind of office or personal library that even merits a sliding ladder among the shelves. But what matters much more to me is the act of reading.
If I read a book and then get rid of it, the physical thing is no longer part of my life, but the memories of that book are still there.
With digital books, I do consider the future of formats one day becoming obsolete, but since I usually get rid of books anyway, that’s not as much of a concern with me. Digital books have changed the way I read: I love highlighting passages and making notes without marking up a physical copy of a book. But even if current formatting goes away, the books are still read.
These days, that’s all that matters to me.
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Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bevgoodwin/