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.
* * *
Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bevgoodwin/
you know, I’m so VERY happy you wrote this. I have sentimental value attached to many of my books, and I always think that giving them away to schools/libraries/bookstores means that I’m turning my back on the book. I wish I were more well-read, but I’m happy that I don’t need to “look bookish” in order to BE bookish. 🙂
CM Stewart says
I’ve moved so much in my life that I’ve had to give away most of my physical books. And lately, I’m buying way more digital books than physical books. In this past year, I’ve “purchased” (most were free) well over 100 digital books. Part of that has to do with a reading / reviewing challenge, and part of it is I foolishly signed up for several “Free or $1 eBook Alert” newsletters.
Every once in a while, I will choose a paper copy over a digital copy of a book. Stephen King’s books are good examples. I’ve read, heard, and seen (thanks to youtube) so much of King, that I believe I am privy to a part of his personality – the part that would say, “Curl up with one of my books, savor the feel of the paper, and smell the dust and ink on the pages as you read.”
Christopher Gronlund says
Thanks for replying, Tammy. It was hard the first time I gave away two full shelves of books. In those shelves were some fave books, and a few…I’d buy again if I had room. But it was kind of liberating in a way getting rid of so many books. I always gave away certain books that I liked, but wasn’t incredibly attached to. Some books…you’d have to pry from my cold, dead fingers! But I’ve given away some of my fave books and still lived, so I know I can let go when I run out of room.
To some, I’m big and scary looking, but…I’m generally quiet and kind. To some, if someone doesn’t have a lot of books they see that person as backwards. But, at least in my case, I read a wide variety of books and don’t feel a burning need to prove that to anyone. I’m confident in what I’ve read and the person those books have helped create 🙂
Christopher Gronlund says
CMS: As many books as you’re reading and reviewing…I can’t imagine having limited space and not buy digital books.
Like you, there are still some books that I want as a physical thing. I need to read the next two VanderMeer Southern Reach books, so I will get the collection of the trilogy. I want some old books that mean a lot to me, and one of those is King’s Different Seasons — because it’s one of the books that made me really want to write. When it comes to older books, like Sherlock Holmes stories, it seems only right to curl up with a physical copy on a nice evening.
But I must say: I love digital copies of huge books. Something that’s 1000 pages and a hardback…it becomes unwieldy to read in ways. Having it on a Kindle or something is much easier. Even with comic books, I like digital copies. When I read all of Y: The Last Man a couple years ago, it was nice not having to dig through comic book boxes and have stacks of comics on the nightstand just waiting to slide off and to the floor.
Paul Lamb says
Like you, I’ve given away loads of books, mostly to libraries, though some were trade ins at used bookstores. Hundreds easily. Occasionally, I regret it. I’m now trying to rebuild my collection of Iris Murdoch novels, but I’ve kept all of my Philip Roth novels and a few others I’m actively collecting.
I can’t say that I do much with digital books. I’ve read a half dozen or so on my Kindle, but now that I have a smart phone, I can’t imagine reading an entire book on that tiny screen.
Christopher Gronlund says
Like you, Paul — I sometimes regret giving some favorite books away. (I gave away all my Philip Roth books.) But in other ways, it’s fun to occasionally seek out one of those long-gone books and see it back on the shelf.