ON BOOKS: Power of unread books — a mountain I aspire to climb

Years ago, a photographer visited our house to take pictures of our dogs for some purpose I’ve completely forgotten.

But I do remember her reaction when she walked into our living room and saw our overflowing and sagging shelves.

“Who’s the reader?” she deadpanned.

We have a lot of books. And that was only our fiction collection. Every room in our house had bookcases. My office was stuffed with nonfiction books on history and art and essays on cultural criticism. In another room were books on music. Books on wine and cooking and travel were in the kitchen. The part of our sunroom I used as a recording studio held books on music and film. Karen’s office was largely reference books; our bedroom took the overflow and what we were currently reading.

It wasn’t a mess—in fact, when the Miami Herald’s online book section (sadly now defunct) held a “beautiful bookcase” contest, I snapped a photo of our living room. We won first place, although I declined the prize, which was a copy of a novel we already had.

No one would have mistaken us for hoarders, and the books were arranged precisely, by subject and alphabetically by author and finally chronologically. But it was a lot: more than 40 books on Hitler; a five-volume biography of 19th-century baseball player Cap Anson; all seven volumes of Proust’s “A la recherche du temps perdu,” even though my French is pretty rudimentary.

So when we built our smaller house, we had to downsize. Over the course of a couple of years I sold, donated and gave away about 80% of our books. It was not easy, but a little bit thrilling.

I was sad to discover that books are a terrible financial investment — a kindly book dealer took only a few of the more esoteric items (including the Anson bio), explaining that these were the kind of hard-to-find items for which internet scourers Were willing to pay premiums. A used book store owner explained that many of his customers were more interested in paperbacks than hardcover novels, and that a lot of them considered books recyclable if not disposable. There were times when I felt guilty unloading yet another box of books at the Central Arkansas Library’s Bookstore at Library Square.


But I won the books down. I’m guessing we have only about 2,000 books now, and I have a strict policy. For every new book that comes into the house, one has to go. I stock a nearby Free Little Library. I drop them off on our office’s free table. I give some away.

It’s my nature to want to insulate myself with books and CDs and vinyl records and other vessels that deliver intellectual content. I’m sure some of this is rooted in insecurity; My books feel like wealth, and on some level they say something about me. (If you leave me alone in your house, I am going to look at your bookshelves, and while I like to think I’m not too judgy, I will make use of whatever intelligence I glean.)

But I also feel a little guilty about having them, especially in an age when the internet has made a lot of reference material redundant and where it’s often more efficient to check Google Books when I’m looking for a specific site than it is to pull out a physical volume from my shelves.

A few years ago Marie Kondo, a Japanese organizing consultant, riled up bibliophiles when a meme attached to her name, suggesting limiting one’s personal library to “30 books,” circulated on the internet. That’s not what she said at all. In her book of hers, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” she wrote: “I now keep my collection of books to about 30 volumes at any one time.”

That’s her number; it’s not prescriptive. Have as many books as you want, just don’t — and I’d endorse this idea — keep the bland and dead ones around to take up space. If you love books, you should have books — lots of books if that’s what you want.


The Japanese word “tsundoku” describes the habit of the aspirational acquisition of books, of stacking up unread books one intends to get to in the future. It’s a subtle concept that originated in 19th-century Japan as a jibe at academics who built up substantial libraries while not reading any of their books.

Over time, the word has lost its stigma and is primarily used to describe a practice distinct from bibliomania — the obsessive collecting of books for the sake of the collection, not reading. Those who engage in tsundoku mean to get around to reading their books.

I practiced tsundoku even before I started reading books professionally—my nightstand is usually stacked with books I intend to delve into the next few weeks. Statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his in his 2007 book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” dubs these unread books “antilibraries” and argues that their existence isn’t a symptom of intellectual overreach and failure (as my seven volumes of Proust in the original French came to represent to me).

Taleb begins by discussing the personal library of author Umberto Eco, who has a famously large collection of more than 30,000 books. (The library, like Kondo’s “quote,” also became the subject of inaccurate internet memes; usually the attached photos were not of Eco’s library but of some impossibly messy scholar’s space or the shelves of a great public library.)


While at first glance a visitor to Eco’s library might assume the shelves were a testament to Eco’s prodigious knowledge, the real reason they were so voluminous was because Eco was hungry to read so much more.

“Read books are far less valuable than unread ones,” Taleb writes. ” [Your] Library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books.”

Eco hadn’t read most of the books in his library, and a lot of the books in my library remind me of all I don’t know. The painful process of culling books caused me to focus on why I wanted to keep a book. I now have very few I’d have difficulty defending; I can tell why I need—or might need—just about every one of them. But instead of being a monument to what I think I know, my library is more a mountain I aspire to someday climb.

It’s something that inspires intellectual humility. Who’s the reader? Someday, I hope, me.

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