The Other Columbus: Don’t be shamed by your unread books

It’s best to think of the books you haven’t cracked open yet as potential sources of joy

Scott Woods
A stack of books at the Nashville Public Library system's Main Library

I recently read a Financial Times article about home libraries. The gist of the piece (“Why is it so hard to get rid of our books?”) was that people who keep books in their house that they haven’t read do so for the purposes of ego. And not just books they haven’t read yet, but more books than they could hope to finish in their lifetime. 

The article’s author, Julian Baggini, makes a case that we do not keep clothes we can no longer wear, along with other assorted parallels and distinctions, but the bottom line remains the same: large collections of books that we do not “use” are markers of ego and identity. And not in a “walk through the mind” of an estate such as, say, novelist and Renaissance man Umberto Eco, but in a “look how smart I am” kind of way.

As a) someone who has worked in public libraries for several decades, b) a collector of books and c) a writer, I took slight umbrage at the conclusion. I promise that this isn’t a case of a hit dog hollering. I did not take Baggini’s conclusion personally. He wasn’t talking about a collector like me, nor did I opt for the back door of “it’s research” to preserve my pride or my personal library. But he didn’t entirely discount that, if he saw my many shelves of books in the background of a Zoom meeting, he wouldn’t assume I wasn’t the kind of book owner he was writing about either. 

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I feel the need to counter the suggestion, not because I disagree that there are people who keep books for show, but because I don’t think having more books than one can read is a bad thing. Baggini conflates (at least) owning a collection of unread books with signing up for a reading contest, and then further recommends that we should get rid of (or damage!) books to balance out the scale of what reading time one may have left in this world. I can think of no worse advice. 

I have not put a number to it, but I have a minimum of 1,700 books in my writing room, or my “laboratory.” That doesn’t count the small bookcases in my living room or the random stack by each of my couches or the constantly remarked upon boxes of books still in my mother’s basement or any of the other places I have secreted books in case of an emergency. I have read roughly 70 percent of those books. The ones I haven’t read do not represent a failure of will or Zoom flexing. They are books I think I can get something from when I get to them, and I want them ready to go when I am. Or I want to pick them out like grapes in a vineyard, opening one at random to see if what attracted me to collect it in the first place is valid, testing the vintage. Or to be surprised by a flawless line. We love saying that books are adventures, but we rarely treat them that way.  

French writer Marguerite Yourcenar once wrote, "A book may lie dormant for fifty years or for two thousand years in a forgotten corner of a library, only to reveal, upon being opened, the marvels or the abysses that it contains, or the line that seems to have been written for me alone." To that I say, “Exactement, mon amour!” 

When it comes to books, I am neo-Kondo: assume that an unread book that found its way into your home has the potential for joy. As a librarian, reader and writer, I promise you that it’s OK to keep a little wonder in your life.