I am a Reader. One of those people who reads books all the time. If you’re one of them, you know what I mean. You have a pile of books you want to read, and you’ve always got a book in progress, whether you read daily, or just a few days a week. You’ve got books on your nightstand, books on your Kindle (if you read ebooks), and you probably have a “to be read” pile of books you’ve bought and plan to read soon on a shelf (or on several shelves). When you finish reading one book, you immediately choose which one to read next. Of course, you have plenty of other leisure activities: you watch movies, listen to music, perhaps even go to concerts or the theater. But you regularly read.
Many people don’t read much, if at all. One third of men and one quarter of women don’t even read a single book in a year. And that number has increased in recent decades; in 1978, only 8% of people hadn’t read a book in the past year. The median number of books that American adults read in a year is only four. Some people read books because they have to: for school, for their jobs, or for training. If you discount that “required reading,” you find that only 55% of people read a book for pleasure in 2012.
Many people read a book or two on vacation, or pick up a best-selling novel after it’s been made into a movie. Others scour used bookstores and online merchants looking for everything their favorite authors have written. Given the availability of used books these days, it has become increasingly easy to build up a library at low cost.
A reader’s library is a mirror of their mind. The books you read and keep reflect your interests, your ideas, your personality. Like analyzing tree rings, you can examine your library, remembering when you read each book, and how it fit into your life at the time. You can, perhaps, recall how it changed you, how it opened your eyes to new possibilities. You may not remember the details of the novels you’ve read, or the conclusions of essays or non-fiction volumes, but just looking at a book’s cover may recall the feelings you felt when reading a given book.
I have more than 1,500 books in my house. I’ve owned some of them for over thirty years, and others for a few weeks. In my library, I arrange books by topic. I group books by and about certain authors, with their fiction, and, in many cases, biographies. I have a shelf of books about music, with books about Bach, Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, and Schubert. I have a shelf of books about ideas: philosophy, Zen Buddhism, psychology, and more. I’ve got a couple of shelves of books about history, and another of Shakespeare plays, and books about the author who was born near where I currently live. I’ve got a few shelves of books in French (I’m bilingual), and several shelves of novels. And I have shelves with science fiction and mysteries, two genres I especially like to read.
I’m a bit obsessive about literature; I tend to want to read everything my favorite authors have written, as well as learn about their lives. I have shelves of books about Thoreau, Emerson, Melville, Joyce, Proust, Beckett, and the two James brothers (Henry and William). I’ve delved into the lives and works of each of these authors, sometimes reading critical studies as well. Each of these sub-collections in my personal library corresponds to a period when I spent a lot of time reading an author.
For example, one summer, I read all of Herman Melville’s fiction in the Library of America editions. Reading an author’s work in this way can be instructive, as you can see how their writing evolved. With Melville, it was especially interesting, because he wrote all his novels over a very short period. He was a curious man, having spent time on whaling ships, traveling around the world, and reading his life story also added to my pleasure in reading the fiction. Or there’s Marcel Proust, one of my favorite authors. I re-read À la recherche du temps perdu every now and then, and I enjoy reading about his life and times.
I also enjoy reading biographies of authors, composers, and historical figures. I won’t re-read most of these biographies, but I may want to dip into some of them again in a few years. Or, I may find that I’m interested anew in an author, and decide that I do want to read about his or her life again. It seems a waste to get rid of a book that I might want to browse again in the future, especially because it might go out ofd print, and getting a used copy may not be easy.
Each time I cull my library – something I do from time to time, giving books to charity shops – I look through my collection to find the books that I know I’ll never want to read again, or those books that don’t contain information or ideas that I may want to consult in the future. I downsized substantially about three years ago, when I moved from France to the UK. I probably disposed of (gave away or recycled) half of my library: mainly novels, and, in particular, mysteries, which have long been my literary bonbons. If I had to cull even more, I could probably reduce my library to a few hundred books, but it would be hard to choose. If I were fortunate enough to live near a good public library, it would be much easier – and I wouldn’t buy so many books – but I don’t.
The Future of Personal Libraries
If you’re a Reader, and you encounter another Reader, it’s as if you’ve found a soulmate. When you enter someone’s home and see that they have an extensive library, you’re drawn to their shelves to see if they have similar tastes as you. Or to see the books they have that you haven’t discovered yet. And to start a conversation about the books on the other person’s shelves. Even if you don’t share favorite books or authors, you speak a common language.
As books transition to digital, we lose the physical reminders of our reading. While it can be more convenient to have ebooks, but recent statistics show that print books are making a rebound. Perhaps part of the reason is because serious readers want books on their shelves as a reminder of what they’ve read, something more tangible than just a list on their Kindles.
If physical books lose out to digital, our libraries will no longer be reflections of our lives. Instead of shelves of books, arranged according to personal methods of organization, our reading history will be nothing more than a list. Without physical books, our reading history becomes a blur. And we lose that reminder of what we read, and how books affected us. We lose what matters in reading.