The aspirational nature of books is undeniable. We display books we haven’t read because we believe the appearance of these unread books says something about us. (It does: our desire to present ourselves in a certain light). We leave certain books out where they are visible, while hiding others, which is much easier now that we can read electronically. We’re reluctant to cull books that have sat unopened on our shelves for years. We buy magazines, which mostly symbolize high-quality leisure time, and genuinely believe we’re going to read them one day. In my case, I tend to accumulate books of a similar type when I’m trying to get my head around something. The books symbolize an intention that may remain unfulfilled for years.
I keep digital records of books I’ve read. I started doing it ten years ago, and when I started, I put in a lot of mental effort to include everything I’d read up to that point. I don’t need physical or electronic copies of the books I’ve read to remind myself that I read them; I can check LibraryThing or Goodreads. I don’t re-read books as a general rule, because a second read almost always replaces my initial impression with a less favorable one. Most of my reading comes from library books. If physical books are hanging around my house, it’s because I felt a strong impulse to buy them, but haven’t read them yet. Since I read over 200 books a year, I have to assume that I had plenty of time to read everything in the house. Why haven’t I?
I have a two-volume novel, The Man Without Qualities, that I bought because I wanted to read it and the local library didn’t have it. It’s gone through five moves with me and it’s still sitting there. I had this idea that I’d save it for the plane when I finally went to Europe. When I did “finally go to Europe,” I was backpacking, and I didn’t really want to carry nearly four pounds of printed matter. When am I going to read this 1800-page epic? What am I trying to prove? The cover prices total $50 (probably not what I spent), so do I think I won’t have wasted money if I ever finally read the darn thing? If someone came over and was impressed by the fact that I own this unread book, it would mean nothing. If that person had read the book and enthusiastically wanted to discuss it with me, I’d be busted. Hopefully it’s just aspirational and not completely pretentious.
I have a couple of books on writing screenplays. I bought them when we first moved to Southern California. I can look out my window and see palm trees; I don’t need books to remind me that I am indeed near an entertainment wonderland. If I really did have solid intentions to write a screenplay, I’m sure I could have found some manuals at that time. Maybe they’d even be up to date.
I have a few dozen cookbooks, down from over a hundred a few years ago. Cookbooks used to be an impulse purchase for me. I was powerless in my desire for more. I bought and assembled an entire bookcase to house them. When I finally started to learn to cook, the pressure started to relax. I discovered that not all cookbooks were created equal. Gradually, I tried enough recipes in certain volumes that I was sure I didn’t want to try more! What happened after a couple of years was that I started confidently throwing things into pots and knowing it would work. I often found that what I called “Freezer Surprise” turned out better than other people’s recipes. I haven’t bought a new cookbook in about two years now. The books stood for an unformed desire. I wanted to eat delicious meals, but it took longer than it should have for me to realize that they wouldn’t spring out of the illustrations without a little help.
I have a stack of running manuals and fitness books. I ran a marathon and I am a pretty fit person, fit for a middle-aged suburbanite anyway. I bought them as a stand-in when I injured my ankle. Then I found that reading them upset me too much. It was like reading a romance novel after a bad breakup. I used to buy fitness books in the same way I bought cookbooks; I had no idea what I was doing, but being in that aisle of the bookstore would give me a fleeting burst of motivation that fled by morning.
I have a few German-language novels that I found at various used bookstores. I’m at A1 level in German, barely able to ask for a glass of water. Those were moments of FoMO and bargain hunting. I saw something I believed at the time to be scarce, I thought I was getting a deal, and I whipped out my wallet. Apparently I could have waited at least three years, because I can’t even read a child’s picture book yet.
We won’t talk about the various other foreign language dictionaries and textbooks I have hanging around.
There is a small folding bookshelf in our office. It’s full of textbooks. They’re not mine, as would be abundantly clear to you if you read the titles. They’re my husband’s books from engineering school. He actually uses them. Periodically, a few of them will disappear for a while, and eventually return. There are too many to keep near his desk at work, and he’s just as likely to refer to them here at the house. Once or twice a year, he’ll order a textbook or software manual online. Do you know what he does? I still have trouble believing it even though I’ve seen him do it. He opens the box, starts reading the book, goes through it cover to cover, and finishes it! He’s over there reading a robotics manual and I’m over here with my unread, cliché screenwriting manuals. He can demonstrably build a robot. Can I write a screenplay? Like every waiter in my region? Nobody knows. Nobody will ever know because evidently I’ve committed myself to read a two-volume, 1800-page novel first. Maybe I’ll adapt it.
I have a history of resolving certain intentions and letting go of the books. I’m down to maybe 20% of what I had ten years ago. I used to buy books of knitting and crochet patterns; I worked through many of them and gave the results away as gifts. I used to chain-read metric buttloads of true crime books, and now I rarely do because I figured out why I read them. If I get ahold of a mystery or thriller, especially by certain authors, I’ll read it right away. When I was in a book club (three times), I would actually read the book before we met. Occasionally, I’ll buy a book of poetry at an independent bookstore, because THAT IS WHAT I DO, SO SUE ME, and work through it a little at a time. I bought a couple of ukulele songbooks and spent hours learning a dozen or so simple songs. (Then I realized that my level of playing was designed to accompany singing, and that kind of fizzled out, but come on over if you like to sing the Everly Brothers). We read graphic novels as a family (Walking Dead, Scott Pilgrim), and those go like popcorn. Books go through our house at a significantly faster rate than loaves of bread. Why is it, then, that some go when they’re still fresh and others hang around when they’ve gone stale?
It’s different in every house. A lot of people hang on to old textbooks and academic notebooks. There are so many hundreds of thousands of collections of old National Geographic magazines that we could use them to decoupage the Statue of Liberty. A surprising number of people have every book from their childhood bookcase. I know I’m not the only person who buys novels and leaves them unread. What I don’t do is to put them back on the shelf only partially finished, though I think that is another common habit. Probably the most common unresolved intention is when people save every book they ever liked, believing they will go back and reread them all one day. The math on this is discouraging.
As much as I’ve always lived my life surrounded by books, my feelings about this have started to change. Moving 27 times in 20 years may have had something to do with this. When I want the comfort of walls of books around me, I can go to a bookstore or the public library. Being surrounded by books I haven’t read, despite a stated intention, is becoming stressful. I’ve started seeing them as one long centipede of a volume, thousands of pages long, that I’ll have to get through before I can bring home anything new. As a writer, I’ve started to feel dirty about buying used books, knowing the author doesn’t get any of the proceeds. As a reader, I’ve gotten sucked into the delight of buying books with my fingerprint and being able to read them 10 seconds later. My shelves have gradually diminished over the last few years. I’ve been reading through them and letting them go. I keep telling myself that “the next time I move, they’ll all be gone,” and maybe one day that will actually be true.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.