Just before sitting down to write these words, I finished reading a book and handed it off to my mother-in-law. So tonight’s the perfect time to talk about how books come into our lives and stay there.
As a young reporter in my early twenties, I had a couple of friends who ended up moving in together in the apartment next door. I remember their decision to place certain books strategically in the living room, so visitors would be impressed about how well-read a couple they were. I understood the impulse and did the same thing in my own living room.
Nearly two decades later, I have no need or desire to impress people with my books. The living room bookshelf can go days, if not weeks, away from the eyeballs of anyone who doesn’t live in our house. In fact, the same thing goes for anyone who does live in our house. This is why I’m proud to say my 7-year-old owns more books than I do. Her collection is vast, reflecting her growing literacy and her changing taste in bedtime stories, plus the generosity of our friends and relatives. My collection is shrinking. I probably own about a dozen books. They’re among the few books Lindy cherishes and a few family books in the living room bookcase, which is the only one we own. (Lindy also has a small collection of art and teaching books in another room.)
I’ve got fewer books than I have at any point in my adult life, but I’m reading more books than ever. How is this possible? I’ve re-examined my relationship with books and made it work better for my life.
How books come into my life
I vastly prefer reading paper books. They’re more tactile and don’t generate blue light to keep me awake, like my phone and iPad do when I’m reading in bed. Once in a great while I’ll read an e-book on the ancient, non-backlit Kindle device I bought used years ago.
I tend to find books I want to read through friends, through magazine articles, through reviews in the Washington Post. About four times a year, I’ll buy an audio book and listen to it along with my various podcasts when I’m out on a long run. (I used to listen to a lot more audio books when my commute was longer.)
If I run across the title of a book I want to read or listen to, I’ll add it to my Amazon wish list. Then, about once a month, I look up all the books on that wish list in the web catalog for our local public library. If the library carries the book, I put it on hold at the library and delete it from the wish list. Anywhere from a day to several months later, I’ll get an email that the library has my book set aside for pickup. I go over, grab the books from the hold shelf, hit the self-checkout machine and get back on the road. XY once clocked me at a minute, 45 seconds in and out.
The next month, if a book is still on my Amazon wish list and the library doesn’t carry it, I’ll either buy the Kindle edition or the cheapest used copy I can get my hands on. Or sometimes I’ll decide I don’t want to read it enough to buy it.
Of the hundreds upon hundreds of library books I’ve checked out, not once have I felt compelled to buy my own copy. Which leads me to…
How books stay in my life
This weekend, we walked up to the theater and saw the phenomenal Hidden Figures. At one pivotal point in the story, Taraji P. Henson’s character runs off to a different building and finds an ancient mathematical technique in a dusty book behind her desk. I don’t think I’m giving away much to say she uses what she finds to make a major impact on the world. It was an inspiring moment to watch.
And it’s never happened to me.
I’m not an academic, so I don’t keep research materials on hand. And the odds of wanting to look something up in a book I used decades ago are slim to none.
For the vast and overwhelming majority of books I read, I will enjoy them, put them aside and never read them again. These books don’t have to be part of my collection to be part of my consciousness. So I follow three simple rules for whether I’m going to keep a book. These also apply when I’m going through the collection to see if anything needs to go.
- If it’s a book I’ll re-read more than once, or refer to for information, I’ll keep it.
- If it’s a book I can’t easily lay hands on at the library or by buying another copy, I’ll keep it.
- If it’s a keepsake book about our family, I’ll keep it.
- If it’s a book that I’ve enjoyed and might lend to a friend or relative more than once, I’ll keep it.
For example, we have had well-thumbed copies of Dr. Pitcairn’s Natural Health for Dogs & Cats and Clean House, Clean Planet on our shelf for years. Hard to beat the convenience if we’re trying to figure out what’s up with Penny’s poop or making a new batch of surface cleanser. My copy of the first edition of Dream City, autographed by both authors, remains. As does the out-of-print Perfectly Contented Meat-Eater’s Guide to Vegetarianism, which started our journey 16 years ago. I have kept my circa 2000 Illinois Blue Book, issued by the state government, which contains pictures of former President Obama as a state senator and of me as a reporter. And the various photo books we have made out of old blogs and family trips will remain.
But that’s about all.
What’s better about fewer books?
We’ve all had the experience of packing or hauling the heaviest of our moving boxes, which of course are the ones with the books in them. I remember helping to move Lindy out of her college apartment and cursing my decision to minimize the number rather than the weight of the boxes coming out of the third-floor walkup. Having fewer books and moving means having fewer things to move. Having fewer books and not moving means having fewer things to dust and to clutter up your space. And buying fewer books means having more money for other things.
If the Marie Kondo notion is to own only things that spark joy, I choose not to own things that are unlikely to spark joy more than once. That’s the selfish reason. The unselfish reason is that books on a shelf unread by their owner are not sparking joy in anyone else either. If I donate it to Goodwill or the library book sale, or give it to a friend, or simply leave it on the store shelf unpurchased, someone else can enjoy it.
I have found lately that I enjoy giving books away more than I enjoy owning them. But none of this comes at the expense of reading. I make a point to set aside time on the train and at home to read, and I want to make sure XY takes careful note of our many trips to the library as well.
Indeed, in an era when it seems impossible to put down the cell phone, the ability to curl up with a printed book may be more important than ever.
What are you reading these days?
Also published on Medium.