Why do we keep books?

I read James Joyce’s Ulysses once. It wasn’t easy but I got the job done. Did I understand it? Of course not. Nobody understands Ulysses, and anybody who tells you they did is lying. But I knew what a lot of the words in it meant and I’m pretty sure I looked at them in the author’s intended order, and if that’s not reading then I’ll eat my cat. Understanding be damned.

I have no intention of re-reading Ulysses. Ever. In fact, I rarely re-read anything, even things that I enjoyed the first time around. Assembly instructions for flat-packed furniture and incrementally soul-sapping children’s bedtime stories. That’s it. Everything else I read once and once only. And yet I kept a copy of Ulysses on my bookshelf for many years after I read it. Why?

Why do we keep books that we’ve already read? Is it really so we can read them again one day? I think that’s true sometimes – for certain people and certain books – but most of the time it’s a fantasy. Reading most books is like climbing most mountains; you really only need to do it once.

Is it so we can share them with family and friends? I guess that could be a valid reason, as long as you limit your sharing to the works of dead authors with expired copyrights. Because we all know that sharing books deprives hard working authors of the precious royalties that enable them to keep writing the very books that we enjoyed enough to recommend to others in the first place, right?

Is it so we can consult them for information when the need arises and Wikipedia is down? Yes. OK. Whatever.

Even if you do have legitimate reasons for keeping your old books on standby, you still have to take into consideration the fact that owning books is no pixie pool party. Maintaining a library requires some sacrifices too.

You have to remember to feed your books every day. And take them for plenty of walks, even when it’s cold outside.

Plus, bookcases take up valuable wallspace in your home. Are you in the market for a big screen TV? A dart board? A wine rack? Art? Not with all those bookcases, you aren’t. Books eat into your living space like Venezuelan cornea spiders eat into your eyeballs while you sleep.

Books are heavy too. Whenever you move house, you have to take them all with you, and you can only put a few in each box because the precious removalists don’t want to hurt their precious backs, and hide behind their precious occupational health and safety legislation.

So how is book ownership sounding now? Not too good, right? I know. Is it really worth trudging through life with that gigantic paperback albatross hanging around your neck just so your brother-in-law can occasionally borrow one of your books and never give it back? You know it isn’t. Of course it isn’t.

But that’s not why you keep your books, is it? You don’t keep them for others to read. You keep them for others to see. Because books are trophies. They’re an official record of your achievements in the field of reading. That’s why a book that you haven’t read since the 1990s, and will probably never read again, is out on display in your living room and not packed away in the back of your wardrobe between your rollerblades and your Super Nintendo cartridges. With a copy of Ulysses strategically placed on your bookshelf, you don’t have to figure out a subtle way to mention that you’ve read it in a conversation or blog post. You can just invite people over to your house and let your bookshelves do the talking. Your guests will know that you’ve read a big fancy book and, if you’re lucky, they might even assume that you’re smart enough to have understood it.

Books are more than just trophies, though. They’re also great conversation starters. Your bookshelf says a lot about you. It says “If you would like to talk to me about photography, vampires or the dangers of an unrestricted military-industrial complex, I would probably be into that.” With a well stocked bookshelf, you can silently advertise the full breadth of your interests without having to duck into your bedroom to swap your Team Edward t-shirt for a Team Chomsky t-shirt half way through the dinner party.

But do you really need to keep all those books in your house just to let people know what interests you have and how clever you are? It doesn’t seem like an efficient system. So why not be honest about what you’re trying to achieve?

First, get rid of all those books that you’re never going to read again. Don’t sell them or give them away, of course. You’ll have to burn them. You know. For the authors. Then print out a list of all the books you’ve ever read and stick it on your coffee table.

That’s all. There’s nothing else to it. Now you can put up your dart board and your Van Gogh prints, while your guests flick through your list at their leisure, ask you all sorts of interesting questions, and generally marvel at your cleverness. Sure, you’ll look like a bit of a wanker but think about the removalists. Why doesn’t anybody ever think about the removalists?

8 Responses to 'Why do we keep books?'

  1. Glenn Murray says:

    I hope you’re not referring to me with that brother-in-law comment! I keep your DVDs, not your books! ;-)

  2. Ha! Now I know why I can’t seem to get rid of those William Kennedy books – even the one I never finished reading.

    I will say you’re on to something about the effort required to pack and lug books around from house to house. Once I had to start paying for them as part of international moves, I started culling my books.

    Still can’t bring myself to burn them though. I give them away.

    • Phil says:

      I hadn’t even considered international freight costs. Even more reason to burn them all… um… I mean… give them away to loving homes.

  3. Tash Hughes says:

    So true for most of our books – they sit for years gathering dust even when we loved them and expect to read them again.

    I have been more ruthless in recent years and donated books I don’t like, but there are some I could never part with – just in case I get that chance again :)

    When we started our renovation, I envisioned a huge bookcase across one wall to store all our loved books (my kids are obsessed with reading as me!) and I found it hard to move all my books up to the attic for the duration. Now, I love the minimalist look of the family room without a messy look of various book spines, and it would take time and effort to carry them all down again… SO we may just remain without books on display – and you know, it’s actually ok. We can live through the lack of books there…

    • Phil says:

      I talk a good game but I’m actually terrible at getting rid of books. I did a big cull recently and it felt unnatural, even though my logical self told me that there was no good reason to keep hanging on.

      One thing that I found particularly difficult – and I’m not sure why – was making the decision to keep some books by an author but to get rid of other books by the same author. Some bizarre sense of loyalty inside me was saying that if I kept one I should keep them all.

  4. jacco says:

    I love books and we can relate to them so we should keep them pass them down in the family

  5. jacco says:


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