I have an incredible library. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, reference — I’ve got thousands of incredible books on my shelves. I’ve even read some of them!
But there are some problems with my having all of these books. For even collecting good books isn’t always a good thing.
1. Having grown up in a family where knowledge is king, books are dangerous for me. They represent power, since they contain knowledge. So, accumulating them is the accumulation of power. Their very presence makes me feel like I’ve got them on my side.
2. There is an identification between ourselves and the books on our shelves that takes place when we display them in our homes — even if we haven’t read the books. I have a row of first edition C.S. Lewis books that I prize and, believe me, I love being associated with him. Now, I have in fact read his books, as I have the rows of Wendell Berry, Frederick Buechner, and Eugene Peterson, but I display each of these authors not just because I loved their books, but because I like being associated with them. And this is true, too, of the many others that I keep and display which I haven’t read.
3. I falsely believe that having a book is the same thing as having read it. OK. I don’t actually believe it. But I feel like I have. There are so many books on my shelves that I want to have read but never will get around to reading. And even though I know I won’t ever read them, I refuse to get rid of them, because as long as they’re on my shelf it’s almost as if I’ve read them, since at least the possibility of reading them remains.
4. The more books on my shelves that I have which I haven’t read, the less likely I am to ever read them. They simply get lost in the crowd of the unread. I can look at my shelves, see an unread book, and say to myself, “I should read that.” But then my eye will catch another unread book and then another and another. And soon, I’m overwhelmed with books I haven’t read and I end up reading none of them. When the list is short, we actually go through it.
5. I’ve spent a lot of money on these books, money which could be used for other purposes, money which can’t be restored since the monetary value of books keeps going down. I’ve sold several books on Amazon that I had to end up canceling the order for, since the combined cost of shipping and Amazon’s fee was greater than the amount I’d get from the buyer through Amazon. (I don’t get how Amazon can justify charging a fee on their established shipping cost and not just on the cost of the book so that the so-called “shipping cost” doesn’t cover the actual shipping cost.)
6. They sure take up a lot of space! My Dad and I have combined our libraries and it is both impressive and eats up some significant square footage. And when we moved to our next-door homes a few years ago, the friends who helped move all of those boxes of books weren’t happy movers. Sure, they stack up nicely. But they do strain the back.
7. They give a false and too-tidy sense of completeness. When you put some ideas inside of a cover, give it orderly chapters, and sell it, there’s a sense of completeness to those ideas. It’s as if the author really knows the subject contained within it and that this subject has been dealt with completely and absolutely. Disclaimers to the contrary, while true, belie the wholeness and unity that a single volume conveys. A conversation, on the other hand, never gives the impression of summed up truth, even if those talking think they have it all neatly tied up.
Of course, there are lots and lots of good reasons why I have the books I have. Many of them have changed my life, expanding my view and experience of God and others and this great earth. Many of them have immersed me in worlds I’d never known before, giving me a sense of a larger Story and a more expansive Reality than my small self-story and squeezed-down self-reality. Not only that, I’ve been able to share them with others so that they too can learn and be shaped and expanded as well.
I won’t be giving them up any time soon, but I do know that my books and I, well, we’ve got problems.