I am trying to remember what my book collection looked like in high school. It was, at most, half a shelf of paperbacks. Probably ten or fewer. Until I headed off to college, most of the books I read came from the Granada Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. In those days before college, it often seems like I spent a large chunk of my summers in the library. Once in college, however, I began to buy books and keep them. As Dickens said, it was the best of times and the worst of times for collecting books. The best, because I had my own space, and a small bookshelf on which I could keep my nascent collection; the worst, because I could not really afford to buy books, and always did so with trepidation and anxiety.
I went to school in the age before ubiquitous digital cameras and I know of no film of my burgeoning collection in its earliest stages, but if memory serves me, there were several Piers Anthony books, mostly paperbacks but a few hardcovers, especially of his newer stuff. There were some Harlan Ellison books, including a copy of Deathbird Stories, which still sits on my shelves today. It contains “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read. There was a paperback copy of Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, and there was a paperback copy of Jumper by Steven Gould. By the time I was close to graduation in June 1994, there was a hardcover copy of I. Asimov by Isaac Asimov. It, and two other books, one Tony Robbins and one books on note-taking that was a game-changer for me, but which I’ve lost to the ages, made of the trio of nonfiction books on my shelf. I think that by the time I graduated, I had 15-20 books, not counting books for school.
Twenty-seven years later, my book collection has grown from those 15-20 volumes to something over 1,000 paper volumes. Eleven bookshelves fill three sides of my office. And while there is room to grow, it is extremely limited and that limited room has dictated how I add to my collection over time.
The books that make it onto the shelves, the ones that survive the occasional purges and donations to local libraries and schools, are there for two reasons: (1) they are part of what I think of as a collection, one that has value to me; and (2) they are there as a reference for me to use when needed.
With each move, my books collection has grown as space permits. At some point, I began to think of it as a library as much as a collection. And with space limitations, what goes into the library is dictated by its value to me as a collector’s item. This became much easier to do when e-books and audio books made it easy to get a book that takes up no physical space. Books that I want to read but that don’t need to be part of a physical collection go into the digital library. Books that I want to be able to hold in my hands, books that have special value to me, go on the shelves.
Back when I started collecting books in college, e-books were nowhere in my imagination. When they first came out, I was dubious, as any bibliophile might be, but their convenience and ease of access quickly outweighed any objection I might have had to not having a physical copy in my hand. I bought my first e-book in 2008, and as of this writing, there are 512 e-books in my virtual library. I had a harder time with audio books. For a long time, I thought I could not listen to an audio book, that the added dimension would not work for me. Boy, was I ever wrong! Today, I use the term “reading” even when I listen to an audio book because I firmly believe they are equivalent–at least in terms of the text. As of this writing, I have 1,090 audio books in my Audible library. Putting all of this together, I have about 2,700 books in my collection, accumulated over 27 years, for a growth rate of about 100 books per year on average.
That’s a lot of books. Of the books sitting on the shelves in my office, or in virtual libraries in Amazon and Audible, I’ve probably read less than half. That number–the number of books I own but haven’t yet read–continues to grow as I accumulate more books. In a recent post, my friend Mike refers to these books–those that he owns but hasn’t read–as his TBR books (to-be-read) and they can feel daunting. Why, one might ask as he does in his post, should one continue to accumulate new books when there are already so many books on your shelves that you haven’t read?
I had an intuition for why I continue to do this, but it wasn’t until I read a post on Brain Picking’s about Umberto Eco’s antilibrary that I fully understood what it was I was doing. The key passage in that piece was a quote about Eco’s thoughts on books:
The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.
Reading is, and always has been, the primary way I learn things. I’ve often said that grade school taught me to read, high school taught me to think about what I read, and college taught me to learn. Since then, reading has been all about learning for me. Despite taking AP classes in biology, and physics, as well as chem and o-chem in college, I continue to believe that almost everything I’ve learned about science, I learned from Isaac Asimov. I continue to accumulate books, despite having more unread books than read ones, for the very reason Eco describes: unconsciously or not, I want my library to contain as much of what I don’t know as I can manage. Mike’s TBR books are my antilibrary.
My library has gone through occasional purges, some of them tougher than others. The biggest and most recent was one in which I donated more than 200 books. These were books that I felt would not really damage my collection if they went away. They included nearly 100 Piers Anthony books that I’d painstakingly accumulated from those high school days. Indeed, I kept only a few Piers Anthony book, ones that I particularly enjoyed read, and one, Race Against Time, that I remember first reading in the Granada Hills library sometime in the 1980s and absolutely loving as a kid. I got rid of most of the Tom Clancy books I’d picked up, and all kinds of paperbacks. What stayed was the nonfiction, the stuff I hadn’t read, the stuff I didn’t yet know about.
My collection includes rare books, some of them dating back to 1865. I’ve got many signed books, most of which I was able to get signed myself, and quite a few by people who I’ve become friends with in my time as a writer. Many of the books in my collection are used, and there are all kinds of wonderful things that I’ve found in those used books. I have many first editions, and some rare editions of books by writers I admire, for instance, first editions of Isaac Asimov’s Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan and Asimov’s Annotated Don Juan. (His Annotated Paradise Lost still eludes me.) It contains an almost complete collection of original Astounding Science Fiction magazines from 1939-1950, many of which I’ve written about in my Vacation in the Golden Age series, and several of which are signed by Jack Williamson and A. E. von Vogt. It also includes a complete run of my favorite science fiction magazine, Science Fiction Age.
I am delighted sometimes, just sitting in the rail-chair in my office, surrounded by my books. I used to think it was the books themselves that delighted me, but what I realize now is that what I have collected is much more than book. It is a collection of things that I don’t yet know, but they are things that are within my grasp. All I have to do is reach for a shelf, pull out a book, sit down and begin reading.
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I’m coming up on 2,000 physical books myself (I’m not that fond of ebooks). What you wrote here perfectly captured my relationship with books. I’ve gotten to the point where I really don’t care if I’ll read all of them before I die, though I will try my best.
Bonnie, I try not to think about it too much anymore. A hundred lifetimes wouldn’t be enough for all of the books I want to read, but in that way lies madness. These days, I try to be grateful for those book that I have the opportunity to read, and happy that there is time to read another one. And maybe another one after that.
Totally with you and Bonnie on that subject. And honestly my most favorite post for this year, written by you, Jamie. This post speaks a deep passion for books and reading. I basically have the same procedure on books. Paperbacks mostly are given away to people of whom I think that they would enjoy them as well. Or, I live near a University Campus and they converted an old unused phone booth into a little “library”, you can just donate your books there for other people to take.
But books that have a presence in a shelf are something different. I cherish those leatherbound issues. To be honest, the US book market is far better in putting out such beautiful copies than I can find on the German market and often enough I just buy the US version. Only problem is, that I experienced that to much reading of English books messes with my German writing. Can’t remember the German word but do know the English term.
Apart from that, do you sometimes feel fear of not being able to read all the books you want? I certainly do, and I can remember that I had that fear already when I was a child because my father had a massive library. Since then even now in my late 30s I often feel anxiety about the number of books I probably will never read. And yes, I do believe that there is a medical term for that somewhere out there.
Sebastian, first, thanks for the kind words on this post. I am always delighted to hear this. Second, I absolutely feel like I will never read all the books I want to read. There are entries in my journals with fairly elaborate calculations estimating how many books I might read in my life, assuming I live a normal lifespan. The results are always mildly depressing. I’ve read about 1,100 books since I first started keeping track of my reading. I’d estimate maybe another 500 prior to that, so call it 1,600 books in my first (almost) half-century. That is probably more than most people, but at the same time, I’ve read that Thomas Jefferson read 10,000 books in his lifetime. And even that doesn’t seem like much when you consider how many books are out there. And then there are the forces I contend with, like the butterfly effect of reading, and how reading one book can act as a Gemino curse variant of a doubling charm (h/t to Harry Potter). More and more, I try not to think about how much I haven’t read and try to be thankful for what I have read. Anything else leads to madness.