"…ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting." -Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library"
Last weekend, I found myself killing a Saturday afternoon at one of my favorite bookstores, McNally Jackson. I didn't go with any specific book in mind. I walked out with four books: Stoner, A Meaningful Life, A Fan's Notes, and The Intuitionist.
This past weekend, I found myself killing a Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn, at what's becoming one of my favorite bookstores, Book Thug Nation. I didn't go with any specific book in mind. But they had this Dell edition of The Circus in the Attic, complete with green gilding, for $1 and they had this edition of Wise Blood, which you can't find anywhere and is far prettier than this ugly thing. I walked out with those two books, as well as Knockemstiff and The Castle in the Forest.
Depending on how you feel about books, you could call this either a habit of mine or a problem of mine. Either way, one thing it is is a pattern, something that repeats itself, that exists in its very repetition, that manifests itself on the bookshelf in my apartment and, because it's a long-lived pattern, in piles seven and eight tall on the floor of my bedroom.
If book buying addiction wasn't a real thing, articles like this and this wouldn't exist, and searching for "book clutter" on Google wouldn't turn up 20 million results. Most of the articles are about a book lover, searching for obstructed light switches and tripping over wobbly stacks, finally saying "enough" and resolving to trim the fat, the fat here being, more often than not, the library's duplicates and never-will-reads or already-read-and-didn't-really-likes.
My library has received its fair share of criticism. I gingerly proposed adding another shelf near the doorway of my roommate's bedroom door, and I received a pretty impassioned response as a result. When my friend Matt comes over, he likes to engage in a favorite pastime called "You're Never Going to Read That," which involves him standing in front of the bookshelves with his chin haughtily tilted up and suddenly pointing at books that he thinks are stupid and that, for the life of him, he can not imagine why I have. "I think I have too many books," I said once, and he said, "Okay I'll help you out," and quickly reached for House of Leaves.
But despite the fact that I probably have too many books, despite the fact that I am running out of room, I'm not sold on the notion of purging my library. The reason is this: most of the library consists of books I haven't read (I did inventory for this article: I've read 85 out of the 371 books sitting on my shelves). In "Unpacking My Library," Walter Benjamin shares this anecdote:
And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of all collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, "And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?" "Not one-tenth of them. I don't suppose you use your Sevres china every day?"
There are just too many books to read. And while one might make the very good point that you could just wait to buy them when you have more room, there's something about putting them in a row with other books, read and unread, that creates the cumulative impression of your reading self. Because, when it comes to reading, there will always be more books that you haven't read than books that you have, and your reading ambition will always be more important than your reading accomplishments. "The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them," wrote Benjamin. "Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property."
A library of mostly unread books is far more inspiring than a library of books already read. There's nothing more exciting than finishing a book, and walking over to your shelves to figure out what you're going to read next.
So, the solution here is to just slow down on the buying, not cut it out entirely, which means things like limiting myself to one book per bookstore visit. As I start to chip away at the huge list of Books I Want To Read, I'm sure that list will deepen and broaden in ways I can't predict, so eventually the library may be more balanced and not so skewed toward books I haven't read, but it will never be fixed row of read books. Libraries aren't meant to be intractable, they're meant to change, and they change by buying books. As long as I don't trip over those piles of books on my floor and break my leg, it seems to me that having too many books on your hands is a pretty wonderful problem to have.
This article originally appeared as a post on our PWxyz blog, which is no longer online.