Do you like to read? Books, I mean. Do you like to read books?
I could be wrong, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the answer is probably yes. I’m basing this on my assumption that there’s a fairly sizable overlap in the Venn diagram of people who read blogs for fun and people who read books for fun.
Okay, next question: Do you currently, or have you ever in your life, owned a large book collection?
Again, I could be totally wrong about this, but I’m going to bet that the answer to this question is likely also yes. I’m thinking that you currently have, or used to have, or aspire to have, multiple full bookcases. Maybe you were even one of those kids (or adults) who thinks it’s fun to spend their Saturday afternoons carefully arranging and rearranging the volumes on their shelves.
And if you did indeed answer yes to both of these questions, as I myself did, then this post might be relevant to you. (And if you didn’t: I’m still super happy you’re reading, and there’s a note about you at the end of this post!)
I’ve spent most of my life strongly identifying as A Person Who Loves To Read. For many years I owned several bookcases full of books and was extremely stubborn about keeping ALL of them, no matter what. The main reason I finally got rid of about 80% of them a couple of years ago was because I had spent my twenties repeatedly packing them into multiple small boxes and lugging them from one apartment to the next, and I simply decided that enough was enough. (By the way, if you want some inspiration for downsizing your book collection, definitely check out Maggie’s post on purging and organizing books.)
I find passionate book ownership to be a truly fascinating phenomenon. Fascinating because it is so widespread and also because for many adults it is highly impractical. Take me, for instance: did I enjoy packing hundreds of books into boxes and lugging them up and down flights of stairs every eight to twelve months for nearly a decade? Definitely not. Did I really think I was going to read most of them again? Hardly. Did I have hoarding tendencies in general? Nope—in fact, when I was younger I used to tell my parents that when I grew up the only objects I wanted to own were a bowl, a spoon, and a blanket.
A bowl, a spoon, a blanket…and all my books, that is.
I’m reminded of something that Professor Bhaer, the somewhat poor immigrant academic in Little Women says (okay, fine, I’m reminded of something that Gabriel Byrne says in the 1994 film version of Little Women; I don’t even know if the line appears in the actual book or not):
“I sold everything that I owned to buy my passage to come here. But my books—never.”
I can’t tell you how many other people, including myself, I’ve heard utter some version of this. “I don’t care about any of this stuff—except my books.” “I’ll get rid of anything—but not my books.” “Never my books!”
What is up with this?
Okay, I mean, I get it. A book is not the same as a vase or a coffee table. It has entertainment value. And maybe, unlike me, you truly plan to read all of your books again sometime in the future. But I actually have another theory about book ownership that I want to throw out there so I can get your opinion on it. The theory has to do with lists.
We all love lists, right? They’re so nice and neat and organized—and so complete. It’s so satisfying to read through a list of items with their matching bullet points or numbers and think, yesiree, all the information on this topic is compiled right here, with nothing omitted. This is a list of the available apartments that fit your criteria. This is a list of the seven secrets to a healthy relationship. This is a list of the ten best restaurants in New York. This is a list of the twenty most beautiful places in the world.
We also love to make lists about ourselves, or at least I do. I find that it can honestly be kind of difficult as a human being to definitively answer questions like Who am I? and What makes me unique?, and lists can function as a sort of external aid in attempting to answer these questions. This is a list of my hobbies. This is a list of my core values. This is a list of people I would invite to my birthday party. This is a list of the places I want to visit before I die…
…And this is a list of books that mean something to me.
My theory about books on bookshelves is that they’re basically lists. Comforting, self-defining, identity-reinforcing lists, transformed into physical objects and rotated ninety degrees, like this:
The more I think about this, the more it rings true for me: throughout my life, I really have viewed my book collection as a physical list of ideas and stories that have helped to define me—almost like a catalogue of my soul. And there’s something about a list of favorite books that feels a lot more profound than some of the other methods we sometimes use to try to define ourselves. I may take a personality test and find out that I’m INFJ or ENTP, but so are lots of other people. Whereas if I say, my three favorite books are X, Y, and Z—and here they are on my shelf to prove it!—that somehow feels far more meaningful.
I have no criticism of owning lots of books. I still own two shelves’ worth myself and have no plans to get rid of them. But I do think it’s important, at least for me, to acknowledge that I choose to hang on to these books because of a subconscious belief that if I love something, or if it is important to my identity in some way, then I need to own it and put it on a shelf alongside the other components of my identity, as a way to tie myself together and remind me who I am.
(If that resonates with you at all, definitely also check out Des’s post “Killing My ‘Sacred Cow’ Spending: Books“.)
Interestingly though, a bookshelf is not always perfectly reflective of what we actually read or love. As we all know, when we create a profile on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram (or on a blog, ahem), we make choices about how we want to be perceived, both by ourselves and by others. And I think that can often be true for bookshelves too, especially since book collections are easily visible to visitors and houseguests. I spent tons of time reading and thoroughly enjoying People magazine in my early 20s, but did any of those magazines make it onto my bookshelves alongside my classic British novels? No way.
I’ll close by noting that I’m very intrigued by my friends who, despite being highly intellectually curious and caring a great deal about ideas, are not obsessive about collecting books for their bookshelves. My in-real-life friend C., for example, hands most of the books she reads off to friends when she’s done with them. “I just finished this book,” she’ll say. “It was really good. Here, do you want it?”
Maybe those people have just figured out that if you give something away, it doesn’t mean you love it any less. You don’t have to own something for it to be a part of who you are.
What’s your book philosophy? Does my shelf theory resonate with you at all? By the way, I forgot to write about the personal finance element of book-buying and book-owning, but we can totally talk about it in the comments section!
Also, want to hear a secret? I’ve actually read very few books in the past year. I think I’ve read maybe two, tops. Eek, my identity is crumbling away!
And finally: if you have books you want to get rid of, please consider donating them to prisoners. Here’s a list of organizations in the U.S. and a list of organizations in Canada that will gladly take your books and send them to people in prison who would very much like to read them.