Bookshelf guilt

A number of people have linked to Scott McLemee’s interesting article on bookshelves and what they say about us. McLemee writes:

For there are, it seems, people who feel stress about owning volumes they haven’t read. Evidently some of them believe a kind of statute of limitations is in effect. If you don’t expect to read something in, say, the next year, then, it is wrong to own it. And in many cases, their superegos have taken on the qualities of a really stern accountant — coming up with estimates of what percentage of the books on their shelves they have, or haven’t, gotten around to reading. Guilt and anxiety reinforce one another.

Ah, if only it were easy to be sensible and avoid this cycle of guilt and anxiety. I’m not proud of it, but I do feel stress about owning volumes I haven’t read. I would prefer not to feel this stress, I think it makes more sense not to feel it, it’s much more sophisticated and intelligent not to feel it. But what can I do? Those books sometimes feel like a burden, and I don’t even own a lot of unread books compared to some other bloggers out there.

But for most of my life I’ve bought books in order to read them right away; I would buy them with the intention of heading home that very evening to read them — or rather, I should say I would buy a book with the intention of heading home that evening to read it, singular. So my newly-developed habit of buying books, sometimes stacks of books, with the intention of reading them at some point in the near but unspecified future doesn’t yet feel right to me.

Of course I could go back to my old habits and slowly work my way through the books I’ve already accumulated until the stack is gone, but then I wouldn’t be able to buy those stacks of books. No more library sales for me, no snatching books from used bookstore shelves whenever they look appealing, no more impulse orders from Amazon, etc.

So, I’ll simply have to find a way to deal with my guilt, or to magically make it go away.  Any advice on how to deal with my stupid “stern accountant” superego that feels owning unread books is wasteful and wrong?

20 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading

20 responses to “Bookshelf guilt

  1. No guilt! The unread books on your bookshelf are in a delightful state of waiting; in readiness for the moment in which you decide to read them. While they wait, they are being decorative, making your shelves look lovely.

  2. I get anxious if I don’t have a cushion of about 100 books or so in waiting. After all, you don’t often feel in the mood for a particular type of book, and what an insult to the author, and a waste of money, to be reading something out of obligation when the time is not right. Also, books are great at insulating walls, so they are environmentally friendly too. Shall I go on….?

  3. Don’t worry, Dorothy, the longer you go on the better you will get at ignoring your inner “stern accountant.” And eventually she’ll just keep her mouth shut, or better yet, go live somewhere else. Like Litlove says, books make great insulation. And as Charlotte says, they make great decoration too. I find shelves of books to also be very comforting and relaxing, better than an aquarium at bringing down the blood pressure and when you have friends over they always provide topics for good conversation :)

  4. I suppose a proper attitude would be anything that isn’t going to be read (or re-read) within a year, should be passed on to another friend. However, it doesn’t seem to work out that way.

    I was told to apply a similar approach to clothes. Sometimes I review this situation and it helps to clear things out. I have to be on top of this since I am paying for a storage unit in America while I am living in Japan. From now on, the motivation is moderate to low, since I am in the smallest possible storage locker.

  5. If I gave way to this guilt I would be swamped in moments, but then like Litlove, I need that cushion of unread books to feel comfortable that there will always be something suitable ready and waiting to read. The stress that the possibility of not having just the right book to hand gives rise to is far stronger than any guilt I might feel about amassing new books.

  6. I tend to feel a tiny tinge of guilt when I come home with a stack of new books, but it never stops me or makes me feel bad for long. Later when I am sifting through piles looking for something or just looking, I’m always so happy to see what good reads I have in store.

  7. I feel guiltier if I don’t have books available in reserve! I agree, it’s nice to have a good number (100 sounds about right!) to choose from so that you’re always able to read by mood.

  8. Oh no advice from me as I have way too many unread books sitting on my shelves. I was making room on the shelves for the recent book buys and it was amazing to me to find books that I really wasn’t interested in anymore. That tells you how long some books have been sitting there waiting to be read – yikes!

  9. LK

    I have a retired friend with thousands of books (not much of an exaggeration, either), who says she is glad she bought them when she did. Sort of like saving for a rainy day. She now has lots to read, and no guilt about spending her small pension on books…

  10. ‘Any advice on how to deal with my stupid “stern accountant” superego that feels owning unread books is wasteful and wrong?’

    I think the only treatment is to go out and buy more books. Then leave them in plain sight — unread for the next year or so.:)

  11. LK, that’s brilliant! If anyone asks we can just say we’re saving for retirement! :D

  12. Oooh, sounds like you’re in desperate need of a visit to Lancaster County, PA to the house of thousands of guilt-free unread books who are sure their sole purpose is a decorative one, and are quite surprised when they find themselves plucked from the shelves to be read.

  13. verbivore

    I also need a pretty big stack of books in reserve. I keep two shelves full of unread books and switch them out as soon as I read them. At least I know where to go when I need to try something new!

  14. Maybe it’s wrong, but I don’t feel guilty about owning so many books that I haven’t read. It is a little overwhelming at times. I want to read them all. I intend to read them all. I’m just not sure I’ll live long enough to read them all! I can’t seem to keep from buying them because I feel like I’ll forget about a particular book if I don’t get it when I see it. I know there are many ways to keep wishlists going, and I do have several. I think I’d rather buy some along even if I can’t read them right away than have my wishlists become unwieldy.

  15. I’ve always been the opposite; I feel guilty when I read a book straight away, as I feel I have rushed into it instead of savouring the book when it felt right to do so. But this attitude has led to hundreds of unread books and a husband who keeps complaining at the ridiculously high piles of books filling the house, so possibly not the best person to give advice!

  16. I not only have the stack of books, but love to linger in the bookstore, love to keep my lists of ideas of books to read… Where to cut off the list, where to stop the pile, which book to pick up next.

    Gee, couldn’t we bibliophiles obsess ad nauseum with our passion for this?

  17. Oh, lots of good comments here! Thank you all for helping me work through this guilt of mine :) I’m trying hard to think of all those books as a good thing to have, not a bad thing. I love the idea of collecting books for retirement …

  18. I have thousands of books, more than half of them as yet unread. It makes perfect sense to me that the majority of the books on the shelf should be unread. My guilt, such as it is, is about hanging on to the ones I’ve already read when there’s no sensible reason for doing so. My abstract criteria is that I keep them if I expect to reread them, or if I like them well enough to want to have copies on hand to lend to others, or if they’re reference works or at least resources for future writing projects. But the reality is I find it very difficult to let anything go. As for the unread books, to sit amidst them makes me feel that I am surrounded by opportunity and adventure. And I confess that I felt positively smug about my hoard a few years back when a strike of library workers seemed likely!

  19. While I might feel twinges of remorse over the amount of money I spend on books, I feel no guilt whatsoever over how many books fill my shelves.

    Collecting books, even if they remain unread, isn’t the same as buying more food than you can eat and throwing it out once it rots. Books aren’t perishable. Well, certainly the paper and ink will break down over time, but I hope you see my point.

    My book collection is my personal library–to choose from for myself, to lend to others who are in need of something to read. It’s a way for me to provide for my children. My young sons are surrounded by books, and I hope that, one day when they’re ready, they’ll make their reading choices from what is right in front of them.

  20. Kate — I like that way of thinking about it, reversing the way I usually think, which is that a collection of books I’ve read is fine but one of books I haven’t isn’t. I’m more likely to pay attention to the books I haven’t read than to re-read old ones, though — certain types of books excepted.

    Jennifer — if I had children, I would certainly want them surrounded by books. And you’re right — it’s not like buying something perishable.

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