Updated on September 26, 2017
Why do we buy books?
Having ‘too many books’ is a common problem for the people who love them. Our shelves might be overflowing and still we go and find more. Brand new, secondhand, from the library, online – it doesn’t matter. However you get your books, you get them.
But there tends to be a certain guilt associated with doing this, and so many times I’ve heard people say that they should ‘stop buying books’, or decide that they will limit themselves to a certain number/type/budget, not because they need to but because they feel they ought to. But should we really feel guilty for buying more books than we can ever hope to read?
Recently I read an essay called ‘The Philosophy of Book Buying‘ by Enoch Arnold Bennett. He was alive between 1867 and 1931, which shows that the book-buying ‘problem’ and the guilt associated with it is by no means the product of modern capitalism or rampant social media marketing. In his essay, Bennett makes the case for buying books even when you know you’re not going to be able to read them all. He notes his own tendency to return to old favourites when there are books on his shelves he has never even opened, and he points out that sometimes it takes him a month to get through a single book, when there are dozens more just waiting to be read. And yet:
I am still walking up and down in front of my books and enjoying them without reading them.
If the sole pleasure a book could give came from reading it, I’m sure nobody would own more books than they can read in a lifetime. We’d all buy the one we want to read, read it, and then buy the next one (or we’d use libraries a lot more). But that isn’t the only pleasure to be had from books. Just owning them is a joy in itself. Walking up and down in front of them, picking them up and putting them back, running your hands over the covers, reading the blurbs, imagining what might be inside, rolling the author’s name around in your head… All of it is book loving, and all of it counts.
The better question, then, might be: why don’t we buy books? Of course, there are external limiting factors: we don’t have any more shelf space, we can’t afford it, our partners are annoyed that there’s nowhere to sit down. These are all good reasons not to buy books – after all, we mustn’t live beyond our means and, probably, we shouldn’t crowd out our loved ones with our collections. But clearly for most book lovers there isn’t an internal point at which we decide we have ‘enough’. We’ll always want more, even if we can’t have them. And I don’t think this desire is anything to feel guilty about.
Once you buy into loving books, chances are you’re going to buy into owning more of them than you could ever read (and if you can’t afford to do that, you’re no less a book lover: it’s just that your collection is in your head). People with vast home libraries are those with the means to make their dreams physical, but no matter your income, the wish to read more than is possible is the mark of the book lover. And it’s OK to bear that mark. We will read what we can in the time that we have, and we will indulge in the thrill of finding new books that excite us, even if it never goes any further than that. I say, if books give you joy – in all of the countless ways that they do – then fill your mind, and your home, with as many as you feasibly can.
Do you own ‘too many books’? Do you feel guilty about it? Let me know your thoughts with a comment!