Of Bookshelves as Indexes
Updated: Sep 1, 2022
I’ve recently been entering bookstores with a certain amount of trepidation. Even the most casual and fleeting visit brings to mind my many lapses of judgment. All the books I should have read (but haven’t), and all the books I did buy (even though I have so many already!) begin to loom large in my consciousness. I end up feeling vaguely embarrassed and more than a little guilty.
If you’re anything like me – a reader who compensates for her lack of discernment with excessive enthusiasm – you will understand what I mean when I say that I read well, but not wisely.
I have a terrible habit of letting new books languish on the backs of shelves while I borrow something from friends, and add other titles to wishlists and carts. I go back to books months or even years after I’ve first bought them. There are dozens of others that I'm happy to just look at, without cracking them open. And don’t even get me started on bookmarked articles, bootlegged e-books and old magazines that I am ‘definitely’ going to read on a beachside holiday (spoiler: I definitely do nothing of the sort).
Over the past couple of months, I’ve bought a huge chunk of non-fiction from Westland’s rumoured-to-be-pulped catalogue, purchased Oliver Burkemann’s highly recommended books on time, happiness and fulfillment, been gifted murder mysteries, memoirs and poetry. I have picked up, put down, and completed only one of these books. These authors and thinkers deserve so much more than my fleeting attention, but that’s all I have to give them.
The books I buy function less as actual reading material; they’re more of an ever-expanding index of momentary intentions, lingering curiosities and passing fixations. My collection of books isn’t a catalogue of what I’ve read, but a catalogue of where I’ve been, what I’ve been interested in and what I felt I should know more about. In a way, this is essentially a catalogue of who I have been - or who I wanted to be.
You could call it a kind of literary delinquency, but I prefer to call it the good kind of greedy. There’s no such thing as buying too many books. Especially when you can find a way to derive insights about yourself from a growing collection, without having read any of it! It’s a useful (and guilt relieving) trick.