Not just wallpaper

But what if you identify as someone who doesn’t know when she might want to re-read or browse or look for something in this book and this one and this one?

Some people treat books like totemic, magical objects. I know, I was one. About 10 years ago, my (divorced) parents moved house at around the same time, and gifted me a number of books about which they presumed I might feel sentimental, but which became a sort of albatross in my relationship. When I moved in with my husband, he had very few books, not because he is not a reader, but because he grew up in a Buddhist household, prefers an uncluttered environment and places little value on physical objects. Once he has read a book, he simply donates it or gives it away, and holds on only to the ones he is sure he will reread.

Bully for him, but that doesn’t mean everyone wants to do the same. You can want to re-read a book you didn’t know you were going to want to re-read until this minute. You can want to browse a book. You can like having favorite books present in case you want to re-read or browse them. And here’s the thing about having a lot of books: they will still be there to give away when you move on to the library in the sky. You don’t have to give them away now because someone else can give them away later.

I was thinking about him the other day when I saw an internet discussion about a man who told a bookshop employee that he only owns one book at a time, buying a new one when he has read the last one and got rid of it. “The horror! How could he? I simply couldn’t!” people wrote, leading me to reflect yet again on that contemporary tendency to treat having books as a sort of identity.

That’s not necessarily what it is though. Here’s the thing about books: you can’t absorb them by reading them once and never again. If it’s a bit of fluff, that doesn’t matter much, but not all books are bits of fluff. (I hope I don’t need to present evidence for this? I think it’s rather obvious?) Take Hamlet for instance – as a book it’s a slender thing, but you can’t just whip through it and put it in the nearest Little Free Library and get all there is to get out of it. History, philosophy, law – books in those fields can’t just be gulped down like a glass of lemonade.

Sure, no doubt people can be pretentious and smug about having a lot of books, but that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to have a lot of books.

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