Reading is valuable. But the cult of book ownership can be smug and bourgeois
I had, or rather accumulated, many books. I think it still does, at least by average home standards, but I’m doing my best to get rid of it. Over the past two years, I’ve donated hundreds. If the thought of this fills you with horror, then maybe look away from this next part, where I confess that sometimes I even put them in the recycling. Only the most objectionable ones, which I feel I save the reader by removing from circulation.
The Great Purge of Books began when I decided to rummage through the shelves and throw out any book that I was vaguely embarrassed to have in the house, for quality, subject, policy, or author reasons ( look at your shelves and you probably have your own equivalents). Since then, I’ve ditched them every few months with no regrets. Only twice did I need to look up something in a book I had thrown away and bought a cheap used copy.
Some people treat books as totemic and magical objects. I know, I was one. About 10 years ago my (divorced) parents moved out around the same time and gave me a number of books that they assumed I might feel sentimental about, but which have become kind of a albatross in my relationship. When I moved in with my husband, he had very few books, not because he’s not a reader, but because he grew up in a Buddhist home, prefers an uncluttered environment, and places little value to physical objects. Once he’s read a book, he just gives it away or gives it away, and only retains those he’s sure to read again. Extreme book fetishists may say I should leave him, but why should he be forced to live longer with my hoarding?
I was thinking of him the other day when I saw a discussion on the Internet about a man who told a bookstore employee that he only owned one book at a time, buying a new when he had read the last one and got rid of it. “The horror! How could it? I just couldn’t! people wrote, which caused me to reflect once again on this contemporary tendency to treat having books as a kind of identity.
This phenomenon is best summed up by a poster that followed me for a while on the Internet as an advertisement, under the misunderstanding than because I like cats and read books – and, in fact, I wrote a book on a cat – he had my taste in pinned interior decor. The poster depicts a cat and bears the slogan: “THIS IS WHAT I DO, I READ BOOKS, I DRINK TEA AND I KNOW THINGS”.
Apologies if you own this poster, but to me it sums up everything smug and middle class about the cult of book ownership. I’m not talking about reading – provided you’re lucky enough to still have a local library, it’s a pastime accessible to almost anyone. No, I mean specifically having lots of books and bragging about them, treating having lots of books as a proxy for your personality, or believing that just having lots of books allows you to “know things”. .
I understand that some books may seem vital and precious. I grew up in a family where there were lots of books on the shelves, although we couldn’t always afford new ones. I’ve never forgotten the privilege of that, nor the position I’m in right now, where I’m sometimes sent books for free. Maybe that’s why I find the idea of hoarding them rather sad – there’s even a Japanese word, tsundoku, for letting unread books accumulate. Instead, I choose to give mine to places where there are people who can benefit from it the most, or leave it on the wall outside my house, where it always disappears.
I found my own copy of George Eliot’s Middlemarch through similar means. Inside, someone had written “READ ME!”, and that turned out to be the impetus I needed to tackle this great novel. Why keep it on my shelves when I’m done, when someone else might enjoy it like me? My husband looks like I’m still recovering, and I definitely have more to get rid of, but frankly, I can’t wait.
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