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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