Is There Such A Thing As Too Many Books?

 

 

At our house, we’re still in the midst of The Never-ending Remodel. The good news is that we finally have access to five renewed closets with actual shelves, rather than wire, shelf-like surfaces through which our belongings dangled for thirteen years. The other news is that the piles of unshelved belongings that remain are made up mostly of books. A lot of books.

Husband, also a writer, has never been sentimental about printed books. Without my, um, encouragement, we wouldn’t own more than two copies of any of his published books. (We long ago lost track of all the books in which his work is anthologized.) A frequent quote: “If I need a copy, I can get it off Ebay.” Did I say he was unsentimental? My mind is searching for another word that better expresses the gravity of his position. Maybe something in the blasphemy neighborhood. But he is also a creative writing professor who teaches his students how to tell compelling stories in arenas that didn’t exist a decade ago–from podcasting to virtual reality. And some of his third year graduate students already have (ironically enough) book deals and jobs in publishing awaiting them.

I love our books. I love the books I brought with me when we married, and the books we bought along the way. I love all the books with our writer friends’ names on their spines. I love having the books we’ve written. I love the books we read to our kids. I love the books we own that I’ve never read. I love the books I used to homeschool our kids. I love the books we received as gifts–even if they aren’t books we might have chosen. Together, that’s a lot of books.

We’ve given away many hundreds of books over the years. Mostly to libraries for book sales. Though the newer books we’ve donated from the many competitions we’ve judged often find new life on our local library’s underfunded shelves. It’s always a joy to hear when that happens.

Does the above establish me as a book lover? I hope so.

Publishing paper books is big business. In 2017, 675 million print books were sold in the U.S. alone. (I didn’t dig too deeply for this number. Your result may differ.) What about all those books that are printed by traditional publishers and never leave the warehouse? That’s a lot of books, a lot of paper.

Sometimes I feel guilty about all the paper we use for books. If you’re a person concerned with carbon footprints, this post has some interesting comparisons on the impact of ereaders vs. paper books, and even includes the surprising news that reading on a phone has considerably less environmental impact than reading on an ereader. It also mentions something I’ve long suspected: reading comprehension is notably higher with paper books than digital books. (FWIW, the post has a disturbing number of exclamation points, which, despite the piece’s footnotes, makes its conclusions seem suspect. Punctuation matters, kids.)

Book publishing creates jobs, beginning with the writer. Also: librarians, travel companies, snack food companies, coffee companies, agents, therapists, phone and data companies, office supplies, delivery companies, the postal service, bars, editors, receptionists, cover artists, layout artists, paper suppliers, printers, copy editors, publicity people, restaurants for meetings, carry-out food for exhausted writer/editor/publicity/production folks, book and warehouse-store employees…the list goes on.

You lose quite a few of these folks with ebooks–or even audiobooks.

If I see someone reading a paper book, I’m immediately interested. Doesn’t matter if it’s not my kind of book. I still feel a kind of kinship. Hey, you’re cool, reading that book there. I have a book, too. WE ARE BOTH COOL AND SPECIAL!” Mostly I see people reading on airplanes. Occasionally I’ll observe someone reading a book in a restaurant. Many, many people stare at phones, so I don’t know what they’re looking at. Could be WAR AND PEACE, could be porn. I guess it’s not my business, even though I still wonder.

No kidding that I’m sentimental about paper books. They were my closest friends when I was a kid. They never let me down, even when they weren’t great. Not only could I hide behind them–I could brandish them as weapons, or hold them out just far enough to read as I walked so that they would bump into things first. It’s easy to fetishize things that made a big difference for us as kids.

 

Yet sometimes, I can see Husband’s point. A story is a story no matter what format it’s in. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the presence of so much paper. I often feel guilty when I look at a book on the shelf that I know I’ll probably never read. That fantasy about how books might somehow disappear in the greater world, and we’ll be sitting pretty because we have enough books to last us years should we need them? Oh, yes. I’ve had that one. And also the one about how if I pass on too many of our books, and come to rely mostly on ebooks and audiobooks as Husband does (insert reminder that I listen to 4-5 audiobooks a week, myself), there will be a coincidental electronic disaster that will make all digital content disappear.

Apparently I’m not only sentimental about books, I’m superstitious.

When my first hardcover novel was finally remaindered, I bought 125 copies because I got them for $4 apiece. Do you know how many books that is? It’s 125! There are perhaps 15 or 20 left. I confess I felt a lightening with each one I gave away. 9 years of giving them away.

I’ve never been able to figure out how many of my own books I should keep. As I’m no legendary bestseller, it’s not like I’ll be leaving the to Harvard or Yale or even the University of Missouri-St. Louis for their archives. Paper rots eventually. I don’t want my legacy to my kids to be a dozen totes of decaying books with my name on them. To future generations, my career–such as it is–will only be a footnote in the family trivia trove. That idea is pretty humbling. Ashes to ashes, and all that.

In the end, we are all going to be the victims of rot. As with books, we will all get cracked and yellowed around the edges and probably smell old. Not unpleasantly, I hope. (Am reminded of the wi-fi network name OLD PEOPLE SMELL that comes up on my phone when we drive by a certain senior living community in our town.)

I won’t insist that this piece has had much of a point, except to say that I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by the number of books we own. It still remains to be seen how many of my own books I should keep. Who said it? Books furnish a room. Will my home be soulless if I give away a dozen too many?

Tell us about your relationship with your books. Is it complicated? And if it’s simple, tell us your secret.

 

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

20 thoughts on “Is There Such A Thing As Too Many Books?

  1. Books have been a treasure and a trap as long as I can remember ~ it’s always been hard to clear the shelves – even of disappointing ones. The library is typically where my gleanings wind up (and sometimes with donor’s remorse despite knowing they’re going to a good home).

    Mom is a “reader” for a neighbor who works at a small local bookstore, giving her “non-professional” take on pre-release titles in order to help them know what to stock when the time comes. Needless to say, her house has a stack of TBR volumes on the end table since queuing them on a bookcase would lose them forever (and they get returned with comments when finished).

    But like you, I have some books too good to release into the wild, or sentimentally valuable to put up for adoption — despite my bride’s penchant for purging (which must be yet another proof that she in fact loves me).

    • When it comes to those special books, hang tough in the face of purging. Some things we just need in our lives.

      Your mom not only has a dream “job,” but now has new author fans!

  2. When we moved across the country, I went through my bookshelves and divided them into “won’t miss them if they’re gone” and “can’t part with them” (for any of a number of reasons.)
    We brought at least 50 cartons of books with us, and I probably gave away that many as well.
    When we found our house, we bought bookshelves, built bookshelves, and filled bookshelves. I’ve reached the point where almost all my book purchases are e-books. There’s just no more room. For print, I use the library, with a few exceptions for authors I collect.

  3. Quick story. In our small rural town we have a trailer at the dump where folks can leave items for others to enjoy, anything from clothes and books to appliances and furniture. In the trailer they have bookshelves against two walls. We always peruse the shelves, searching for hidden treasures. Over the course of a few months we found quite a few Stephen King hardcovers in pristine condition. I’m not a huge King fan, but the books were obviously cherished by someone (maybe someone who passed away). So, I felt it was my duty to rescue these books and give them a good home. I cleared a special “King” shelf, and displayed them.

    Then one day, I walked past the bookshelf–and they were gone! My husband had brought them back to the dump. After we “discussed” why he shouldn’t have done that, he raced back down there. None of the books were there.

    Fast forward three months. We’re filling bottles at a natural spring in town, and we get chatting with this woman. Turns out, she had the books. As a huge King fan, she could not believe her luck when she went to the dump. And this woman read every single hardcover at least once.

    My point is, books have a way of landing with the right reader. If you did, say, donate the books that you won’t read, they’ll probably find their way to someone who’ll cherish them.

  4. Great post!

    There’s something calming about being surrounded by disembodied words. I love people, don’t get me wrong. Well, maybe I like people. I just don’t like being enclosed by them. With books, I can have the best of their minds and hearts. I can open them, invite words and phrases in, and meditate upon their themes and lessons. But I can also slam them shut and turn them away without being rude and snarky and hurting their feelings.

    Never too many books, Laura. But it’s probably a good thing that I don’t live in a mansion. There’s only so much space in my middle-sized home. I do need to leave room for the man and the dog to co-exist here with me.

    • Ah, yes. Room for the roomies. I hear you. Fortunately Husband has his own home office with a door and zero bookshelves lol.

      Love your thoughts about being surrounded by words and ideas.

  5. So many of you know my story as I relate to books: Dad was a librarian; I grew up in his library; etc. etc. etc.

    I had a discussion–fight, actually–with a guy who couldn’t understand my relationship to and with books. He said–I say this in the accusatory case–that books are simply items, and that items can be discarded when necessary.

    I replied that anyone who doesn’t understand books simply doesn’t . . . understand books, and that person is a big, fat, ugly–(here,I called him a Kiowa word, a word that probably killed demons on the other side of the world when I said it. I’ll have a lot of explaining to do to my Grandmother for saying it, one day).

    So, my simple response to the question in the title is:

    No.

  6. You’ve obviously never been involved with the creation of a digital only book. All the steps are the same up to the point where it gets sent to the printer. Editors, formatting, covers, etc. All are needed for a professional looking book. Then it’s sent straight to distributors instead of the printer. In most cases, that distributor can then create a paper copy if needed and as needed.

    The fight over paper vs. digital has been moot for over ten years. It’s a very rare publisher who doesn’t do digital, and the majority of successful self-pubs do paper.

    Be happy that you aren’t allergic to old paper or are reaching the age when you must downsize drastically. I am. Most of the paper books were donated to the public library book sales and various charities. It’s very freeing not to have shelves of books you will never read again that your survivors won’t have to deal with.

    • Oh, gosh, I didn’t mean to give the impression that I don’t understand the requirements of digital-only books. I’ve done a couple. I do agree that there isn’t really a fight between them. Digital books exist and will until some other form usurps them–or just comes up alongside. It is that overwhelmingly physical presence of paper books that is a bit of an issue to me. Like you, I never want to burden my survivors with unwanted goods they have to deal with!

  7. When I saw your pictures of books, I just smiled and smiled. And I’m still smiling now. Sitting here surrounded by similar piles and bookshelves. Thanks for posting.

  8. I was raised in a “book house”. There were several thousand books in the house growing up. I also had the pleasure of meeting several authors along the way.

    One of my father’s pleasures was giving you a book. Either something he thought you would enjoy, or one of his favorites he thought you would enjoy. Many couples received a copy of “THE ETERNAL BLISS MACHINE” as an engagement gift.

    Today I might give you a book. I have a few spares of A CASE OF NEED and UNDER THE INFLUENCE on the shelf waiting for their next home. If you are getting engaged, a copy of Elaine Viets’ How to Commit Monogamy might be on its way.

    Now my children live in a book house. We have a large collection of autographed books. The children love going to book talks and getting their own signed copies.

  9. I would rather have a wall lined with books on shelves than a wall covered with paintings … to me, each book represents a story far more interesting than any picture.

  10. One can never have too many books in any form. Since my two previous careers destroyed the cartilage in both thumbs and holding a paper book is agony, digital books have been a God-send. However, I still have a floor to ceiling book case of old friends I can never part with, a huge downsize from what I used to own. I had one room dedicated as a library, filled with floor to ceiling book cases and nothing else. My father encouraged the love of books and had accumulated a large collection by the time he passed away. Whenever I picture him, I see him sitting in his recliner reading (when not out in the woods teaching my sister and I about the flora and fauna).

    Happily, I married a man who loves books as much as me (along with the flora and fauna). He has a huge bookcase full of collector’s volumes to which he is continually adding. (He can hold books and I’m so jealous!)

    Thank goodness there is plenty of demand and room for all forms of books, audio, digital, and paper, something for everyone.

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