The acquisition of a book signalled not just the potential acquisition of knowledge but also something like the property rights to a piece of ground: the knowledge became a visitable place.
James Wood, from "Shelf Life," New Yorker magazine, Nov 7, 2011
The photo to the left is taken from my home office. Looking at it gives me, alternatively, both joy and misery. I love seeing all of my books, but they also look sort of disheveled and sloppy, and I am a little embarrassed for you to see them.
I have a complex relationship with books. I chose to be an English major in college purely because I love to read. It seemed incredible to me that my "job" for four years would be to simply do something I would rather do than nearly anything else.
However, not surprisingly, somewhere during that journey, reading became a bit more of a chore, and nearly 30 years later I have yet to recover a real enjoyment for fiction. I firmly believe it got killed off (not completely, but deeply wounded) when I took not one but two English lit courses and had to consume 17 novels during the ten-week span of an academic quarter. That essentially meant reading two books per week, and it basically did me in.
Upon graduation, I don't think I probably read an entire book for two years. I was burned out, and also very distracted by a full-time job as a technical writer and my first foray into youth ministry as a Young Life volunteer. But fortunately, two things occurred: I heard the horrifying statistic that 42% of all college graduates never finish another book, and I started going to seminary. Both of these situations vaulted me back into my love for reading.
But a love for reading is different than a love for owning books, I believe. For years I shlepped around my many boxes of English major books as I migrated from tiny, cheap apartment to slightly less tiny, slightly less cheap apartment. The books were already beat-up paperbacks to begin with, with massive underlining and highlighting. But I couldn't let them go. I liked having the proof that I had read them.
At some point though I went through some major need to get rid of stuff (perhaps because I have never had a garage), and decided to get rid of all of my books from college, telling myself that a) I didn't need to prove anything anymore and b) I would eventually re-read every book someday and buy them in hardcover in order to do so.
Where in the world I got that second idea is baffling to me. Don't get me wrong, I am grateful that I have read classics like the Odyssey, the complete works of Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer and the like. I read everything that Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James ever wrote. Large doses of Wordsworth, Hawthorne, Dreiser, Lawrence, Herbert, Coleridge, and Percy can be added as well... And let's not forget I went to seminary too. I have jammed a lot of books in my brain.
But what I have discovered is summarized perfectly in the quote at the beginning. For me, reading is as much as about acquisition as it is about enjoyment. I love holding a book in my hand, and I love putting it on the shelf when I am finished, knowing that I have read it. But the second I am done, I am hungry to acquire more, NEW knowledge. So a paradox rages inside me: I like keeping a book that I have read (though I will most likely never read it again) AND I love acquiring new books!
Indeed, it is not about owning the books themselves. Rather, it is about the opportunities that await! It takes genuine self-discipline on my part to keep myself from buying too many books. I have to limit myself to a certain quota, to be honest. But that gets all thrown off if people choose to give me books, tee hee!
So between the closing of Borders stores and the generosity of friends, I have a delightful pile that beckons me, and that pile never diminishes. I spent years daydreaming about a sabbatical where I would simply read all day, every day. I envisioned chipping away at a glorious pile of all the books I have wanted to read. It was a happy place in my imagination that I returned to regularly. In this magical land, I would stay on that sabbatical until I had read them all...
Ironically, in November 2008 I went on said sabbatical. And I read about 10 books in 3 months. And didn't make more than a little divot in the pile! The sabbatical succeeded in dissuading me of my fantasy. Instead, I have finally realized that the joy is in the journey. I will never "finish" reading all of the books I want to read. And I don't want to anymore. I will just read as much as I can and enjoy every second!
I am going to list my current books that are patiently waiting for me, not because I think it is impressive, but simply because it sheds some light on the "visitable places" where I want to go sometime soon:
- Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through The Five Books of Moses, by Bruce Feiler.
- Movements That Change the World: Five Keys to Spreading the Gospel, by Steve Addison
- Istanbul: Memories and the City, by Orhan Pamuk
- The Norton Anthology of Poetry
- The Multicultural Leader by Dan Sheffield
- C.S. Lewis & Francis Schaeffer: Lessons for a New Century from the Most Influential Apologists of Our Time, by Scott Burson and Jerry Walls
- Muscular Faith, by Ben Patterson
I will further admit that I keep a list of books I would buy in a New York minute if I got a gift card! (Please do not take this as a hint -- I am simply illustrating my hopeless addiction.) I will spare you the titles.
Instead, please tell me tell me -- do you keep a pile of books too? What are you looking forward to reading? Oh! The places we will go!