I used to never buy a book I hadn’t read. That was what libraries were for – I didn’t want to buy something that might be garbage. Only after I knew the quality of the book would I buy a copy for myself. However, I have started seeing the error of my ways.
Two recent blog posts brought this to my attention. The first – ‘The Virtue of Unread Books’ – argues that unread books are not merely pages on a shelf, but collectively they express an idea. When you stockpile books you’ve already read, Scott James argues, you’re basically making a monument to your accomplishment. Especially if you never re-read them. Look at what a well-rounded reader I am, you might be saying.
In contrast, he argues, a shelf of unread books hints at more than past triumphs – it symbolizes possibility. A well-selected library opens the mind to what could be read and learned. And so, hopefully, you might actually go on to read and learn.
The second post, ‘Busting a Book-Buying Myth,’ is directed at why you should buy books you may not read, rather than about owning them, but it comes down to the same thing in the end. Here, Ian Carmichael argues that even if you buy books you never finish, but you did get something useful out of them, it might be worth it. If it’s a useful book, at a reasonable price, why not buy it, even if it’s on an impulse? Also, if your owning of the book allows the book to give pleasure or information to someone who is not you – someone who borrows it, or happens to read it at your house – then it is worthwhile to own it as well. I really enjoyed this post, because it gave me a different perspective on my book-buying habits.
Now, for my opinion:
Absolutely, a library should be more than a monument to what you have read in your life. It could be what you should read, or books you know would give pleasure to others (visitors to your home, or people you lend your books to).
However, just because I own a book and intend to read it, doesn’t mean I will. In fact, it makes it a bit more likely I won’t. I’ll procrastinate because I know I’ll always have it, right there on my bookshelf for when I have ‘more time.’ But books I don’t own, well, those I better read quick.
This, however, is not an excuse for me not to buy and own books I should read – their collective spines on my shelf may someday shame me into picking them up. After all, I do get immeasurable joy from sitting in front of shelves of excellent books, even if I haven’t read them yet, because I know there are so many treasures for me yet to discover. This joy alone gives well-selected libraries a reason to exist.
Secondly, I think that using your library as a source of information – well, that works better for some things than others. It works great for classics. If I want to know what Herodotus said about the Persian wars, I can flip through it and look it up. Or if I forget a certain quotation from Jane Austen – same deal. But when it comes down to information more often classified as ‘facts’ or ‘non fiction,’ I’d consult the internet before my library. First, it’s faster. It’s more likely the internet has addressed that topic, rather than the off-chance I bought a book on the topic once. I can get multiple points of view on that ‘fact’ and try to determine if it should be called a fact. And, lastly but not least important, it is far easier to find info that includes the most recent updates online than in the encyclopedia you bought a decade ago.
Of course, for real, in-depth research the internet often falls short of a book, but in the case you need an excellent, well-researched and written source on something, the library is the place to look. After all, if you owned a library of your own on the most recent, up to date info on every topic you cared about, you might just be constructing a monument to your own interests after all.
So, readers, what do you think? Have you read every book that sits on your shelves, or must you admit there are a couple you haven’t cracked open? Is it worth owning them anyway?