It will take me at least five years to read all the unread books on my shelves. More likely, 10. Probably even longer.
That’s what I figured after doing a rough count. What prompted me was an essay in the New York Times called “All Those Books You’ve Bought but Haven’t Read? There’s a Word for That”.
The author, Kevin Mims, works in a book store. He says his personal library keeps expanding at a rate that outpaces his ability to read its entire contents.
Mine too. From a quick look I calculated that right now at least 25% of the 1,000 or so books on my shelves, and stored in boxes, remain unread. So that’s approximately 250 books. If I read one a week, I can get through them by spring 2024. That’s doubtful. Read one every two weeks, and I’m caught up by 2029.
Now, that’s assuming I keep up the pace month after month (doubtful), and don’t add any more books along the way (impossible). There are always new releases to tack on to the stack, plus whatever I pick up at used bookstores and garage sales.
So if I start with 250 books and read two a month, but add three books a month…I can’t do the algebra but it’s a challenge.
Who know when, or if, I’ll ever catch up. Odds are high that many books on my shelves are destined to never be opened. Like some of the used paperback classics I bought as a university student. They’ve survived seven moves since then. Without a page being cracked.
With so many holdovers, why do I keep increasing my to-be-read-one-day collection?
In the Times essay, Mims writes about the concept of tsundoku. That’s a Japanese slang term. It means acquiring read materials but letting them accumulate in your home without reading them. Tsundoku combines the characters for “pile up” and “read”.
There are good reasons to keep that pile going. Mims writes that your personal library is often a symbolic representation of your mind. People who’ve quit building their library, he suggests, may have reached the point where they think they know it all. Those with an ever-expanding library “understand the importance of remaining curious, open to new ideas and voices.”
“The sight of a book you’ve read can remind you of the many things you’ve already learned. The sight of a book you haven’t read can remind you that there are many things you’ve yet to learn,” says Mims.
The Wikipedia entry for tsundoku includes a quote from A. Edward Newton. He was an author, publisher and avid book collector. “Even when reading is impossible,” wrote Newton, “the presence of books acquired produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity. Their mere presence exudes comfort; their ready access, reassurance.
Newton died with a library of about 10,000 books. Author Umberto Eco topped that. At his death, he had a collection of 30,000 books. Author Larry McMurtry made both look like amateurs. He amassed 450,000 books over 55 years, and opened four bookstores just to house and offload them.
I’ve done my own purging, donating or trading many hundreds of books over the years. I ditch some of the old to make way for the new, so the percentage of unread on the shelves only grows.
That’s okay. A blog on Publishers Weekly noted that one thing more important than your reading accomplishments is your reading ambition. You can view a library of unread books as intimidating or inspiring: “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.”
Feeling that there will always be something next is maybe a big reason to keep that collection growing. The late musician Warren Zevon got at that when he described his passion to build his own library.
“We love to buy books,” said Zevon, “because we believe we’re buying the time to read them.”
Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.
April 24, 2019