There’s no such thing as “too many books”

Written by JA Andrews

January 6, 2020

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Have you heard of the Japanese word tsundoku?

tsundoku — (n.) the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piling it up together with other such unread books.

As most book lovers can attest, tsundoku is a common occurrence.

A book by an author we like, but need to reread the last book before diving into?

A second copy of a book we already own, but this one has an amazing cover?

A book by an author we’ve never heard of, but again, an amazing cover?

A book a friend recommended?

A book the book sales person recommended?

A book we have always felt like we should read?

A book we saw a review about once and thought it looked interesting for reasons we no longer remember?

All these books are purchased, and then set down.

Just for a moment, of course, until we …do something. Reread the last book, have a day off, know we’ll see that book-recommending friend. Take your pick.

Regardless, our purchased books begin to pile up.

Maybe sorted and put on shelves.

Maybe piled on the nightstand until the tower grows to a height that defies the laws of physics.

Maybe tucked into nooks or crannies.

Maybe used as an excuse to buy another bookshelf.

Regardless, the world of non-book-lovers likes to shame us about this.

There are endless jokes about how many lifetimes a book lover will need to live to get through their To Be Read pile. 

Yes, it may be true that I did the math and I’ll need 71.3 years to read the books on my Kindle alone. And yes, I may have just bought two new books this morning.

BUT, that doesn’t mean that having too many books is bad.

But, book-lovers of the world…I HAVE EXCELLENT NEWS!

Having more books than you can read is a good thing.

Author and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes the argument that having more books than you can read isn’t a sign of failure, but a way to “stay intellectually hungry and perpetually curious.”

A private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. 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. – The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Having unread books reminds you of what you don’t know.

Which keeps your brain primed for learning.

Which keeps you humble, and keeps you from being one of those know-it-alls who drive the rest of the world crazy.

I can see the truth in this idea.

Having an antilibrary, all those books just waiting to be read, is a beautiful thing.

For non-fiction books it’s endless opportunities to stretch your mind in new ways, to make new connections to things you didn’t connect before. To see the world from someone else’s point of view. To notice the distinct things they see that you always overlook.

For fiction, it’s like dozens—or hundreds—of rolled up maps of places you haven’t visited yet. It’s endless people you haven’t met. Innumerable experiences you’ll never get in real life, but could get through reading.

Literally countless worlds and lives are waiting between those covers, the words waiting, pressed together until the day you open it and step inside.

Do you know how much better this makes me feel about the two cookbooks I have about bread baking that I’ve barely touched?

Well, I’ll tell you: It makes me feel as good as perfectly kneaded bread rising in a warm, cozy spot.

Because now I don’t just see the cookbooks and feel guilty for not having used them, I see them as portals into that mysterious, magical world of people who can bake bread and make it come out less like a brick, and more like a cloud.

Do you know how much better it makes me feel about my ridiculously long, ever-growing fiction To Be Read list?

It makes me feel like I’m standing in a Hall of Doors, where each door leads somewhere different. I might not end up opening them all, but I could.

I could.

And all the doors are there waiting for me, reminding me that there are so many things I haven’t experienced in life, and so many things I still have to learn.

Reminding me I don’t know everything, and that I have so many ways left to grow.

Which is so much better than feeling guilty that I don’t read more often. 

So, from now on, I’ll choose to see my big set of unread books as an antilibrary.

And those piles of books aren’t clutter, they’re precariously stacked portals to other lands and knowledge that can stretch my mind and make me a better human.

Andrews is a writer, wife, mother, and unemployed rocket scientist. She doesn’t regret the rocket science degree, but finds it generally inapplicable in daily life. Except for the rare occurrence of her being able to definitively state, “That’s not rocket science.” She does, however, love the stars.  Oh, and she’s one of the BookSniffer founders. And a bestselling fantasy author.

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