The Problem of Books

The Problem of Books

I have two problems: one is that I read a lot of books. The other is that I buy a lot of books. Unfortunately, my credit card is more plentiful than my time these days, which means that I have an increasingly large number of books that I haven’t read yet. I even bought a separate bookcase in order to hold all of these volumes. I currently have approximately 300 books in my apartment, and about 20% of those are unread.

I read a post (which I have since lost) which said that the basic rule of books is that if you bought a book and haven’t read it within a decade, you probably should just find a way to give it away. Books should fundamentally be exciting — they transport us to strange new places and can show us both the past and the future. There is a tragedy when books become burdens — reminders of all the interests and wonder we once held and no longer have time for.

And we really don’t have time for so many works. Every year, there are millions of books published if we count self-published as well as traditional publishers. Indeed, there has been a veritable explosion of books published in the last few years. Even when we filter for quality, the deluge is just extreme. I once tried to only buy books that were rated five stars on Amazon: and my wish list still kept growing. Seriously, try just to keep up with the top prize winners every year — you are still going to get 10,000 pages of content per year.

I think there are two sides to this. One is that I am addicted to reading, and I am weaning myself off of it. That might sound like a weird thing to say — isn’t all reading fundamentally good? But like all good things, sometimes you need to step back and ask whether any of it is valuable at all. I read a lot of prize winning fiction and nonfiction, and it has all shaped me. But do I need the stress of keeping up? Of constantly feeling like I am being left out from some great work?

The other side of this is that the publishing industry really needs to work on page lengths. There are great works (some of them located on the right sidebar) that are incredible on every page and needed that 300th, or that 400th page to get the story out. That’s fine. But there are an enormous number of books that would do well with lower page and word counts.

I don’t think we should ever be too busy to read great literature and news. But I do think we need to be very deliberate in how much we take in, how we process all of it, and what we take away from it. Would love to hear comments below on how you handle all of this.

Image by Germán Poo-Caamaño used under Creative Commons