Is it Possible to Own Too Many Books?

Nothing quite describes the thrill of finding an amazing book at a thrift store or a library book sale. When I am browsing used books, I often run my fingers over the spines as I look at the books. I feel as though the books are speaking to me, telling me of previous owners who have read them and loved them. Touching the books gives me a small connection to those who have come before me in reading this book and those who will come after me.

            I try to be picky about the books I purchase, but the siren call of unread books is too often irresistible. Library book sales are particularly challenging because the books are so inexpensive, and in my minds’ eye, I imagine all the unpurchased books being thrown in the dump. I generally come away from library sales with stacks of books.

            As a result, my shelves of unread books runneth over. It may seem counterintuitive to buy books faster (way faster) than I can read them, but I buy books knowing that I will never read all of them. What is at the root of this buying?

            First, I like knowing I have plenty of books to read. Honestly the thought of running out of books to read makes me feel restless. The unread books on my shelves reassure me that there will always be another story, another book to read.

            Second, I find my interests changing from year to year. I have gradually come to the belief that as a mother I have a responsibility to continue my education. My husband, as a manager at Union Pacific Railroad, is required to do continuing education or recertification on an annual basis. Most industries require something similar of their employees. Truly the best educated individuals in any profession are those who continue to learn more about their interests, their passions, and their areas of expertise. As a mom, I don’t have the external requirements of an employer sending me to classes or training. It’s a choice I must be self-disciplined enough to make. Fortunately as a mom, my interests can be wide and varied. I can read or learn more about parenting, homemaking, gardening, car maintenance, or any other number of subjects.

            Third, I’m collecting books for my children. Yes, I’m homeschooling my kids, but even if I weren’t, I want to have the books in my personal library that will feed my children’s hearts and minds. I don’t entirely know which books will capture their imagination so I do my best to collect a wide variety of quality books so that as they grow older they will have enough choices. I intentionally buy books that don’t interest me because I know they’re good books, and I want to have a wide literary feast available to my children to feed their many interests while they’re living in my home.

            In an article on Lifeway Books blog in 2018, Scott James wrote, “I explained to my boy that the practice of stockpiling books we’ve already read . . . is way down on my list of library benefits. It’s definitely on the list, but it isn’t the chief end of my book hoarding. Except for a few gems that fit into the ‘reread as often as you can’ category, a library full of previously read books can easily become a sort of in-home monument—vaguely commemorating past accomplishments, having no real present purpose. In contrast, the array of books in our home is intended for ongoing, well-rounded usefulness. They’re there to show us what’s possible, not venerate what’s already been. Even the history books, which are expressly about what has already been, are there to light an inquisitive fuse and point us forward into new exploits.”

            With so many wonderful books quite literally at my fingertips, it can be hard to determine where to start in reading through some of these books. Do I read through some as fast as possible? Or do I only read the best of the best on my shelves even though it means reading fewer books?

            My personal opinion is that it’s best to strike a balance between those two extremes. As I was still developing my literary life, I prioritized the “smart” books, the hard books that made me feel intelligent. As a result, I read fewer books, but the books that I read were good. The benefits of this method is that I was filling my mind with ideas worthy of consideration. The downside though was that I was easily burned out. When all of my books required an immense amount of mental effort, my brain tired quickly. The end result is that I was unable to remember many of the important ideas I was reading about. So yes, I can say I’ve read those books, but I didn’t give them myself the time and space needed to learn from them.

            On the other hand, I’ve been in the place where I want to read as many books as I can. When I’m in that mode, I prioritize books that are quick and easy to read . . . which often means I’m reading a lot of novels and easy books. The benefits to this are that I can read many good books . . . and if they are good novels, I’m still developing my ability to empathize with people as I see life through their eyes. On the other hand, most novels are not life changing and paradigm shifting; they aren’t going to make me stop and truly consider what I believe and why.

            The best path is one that strikes a balance between these two opposites. Reading a bit from heavy books while also enjoying easy books. It gives my brain the exercise it needs to thrive while also giving it the comfort food it needs to recover from the exercise. A well-balanced literary life gives me a deeply satisfying feast of ideas.

            Practically speaking, I choose to read in multiple books at a time. I always try to be in the middle of an easy book, a slightly challenging book, and a heavy intellectual book. I also keep books going in multiple formats. I try to keep a “real” book going as well as an audio book or two. Occasionally I will read an ebook as well. A third tip is to have books going in multiple genres. Perhaps have a biography or memoir going while also reading a novel, a career related book (this is generally a homeschooling book for me), as well as a new skill I’m learning. All in all, this brings me up to around ten books that I’m often reading at a time. This ensures that I almost always have a book that fits the mood I’m in. If I’m reading at night before bed and I’m tired, I can read a novel or an easy biography. When I’m up before my kids in the morning and my brain is read for some work, I can pick up a heavier book. When I’m cleaning or running errands, I can listen to an audiobook.

            Even with these plans in place, I do find that multiple times a year my reading becomes unbalanced, and I reevaluate what I’m reading and what changes I want to make. I used to only do a reading audit so to speak at the end of the year. But when I put it off, I tend to discover that I’ve spent a big percentage of the year reading books that don’t really meet my goals. Taking the time to evaluate the books I’m reading multiple times throughout the year helps me keep on track.

            “You must be content to know that there are rooms in the fairy palace of Literature into which you cannot enter yet. But every year, as your knowledge grows, you will find that new keys have been put into your hands with which you may unlock the doors which are now closed. And with every door that you unlock, you will become aware of others and still others that are yet shut fast, until at last you learn with something of pain, that the great palace of our Literature is so vast that you can never hope to open all the doors even to peep inside.” – English Literature for Boys and Girls by H. E. Marshall

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