Why do you keep books? After a moment of panic at the thought of someone taking them away, stop and think about it. What practical purpose do they serve if you’re not reading them or lending them out?
I started thinking about this after buying a batch of books that I wound up not caring for much. See, in the past, I’ve borrowed a lot of my books from the library via Overdrive and only bought new releases or books I wanted a copy of for my shelves. So most of the books on my shelves are books I really enjoy, and I didn’t want this ok batch to join those ranks.
Obviously the next step is to donate those books to someone else. But it got me thinking about why I hold on to any of the books that I have on my shelves. Some of them are books that I definitely plan to pass on to my children if I have any, like my Nancy Drew and Boxcar children collections. But what about my large collection of Rick Riordan books? Or Alexander Hamilton and Titan by Ron Chernow? I enjoyed reading them, but I have no plans to reread them, and let’s be real, when you lend out a book, you never get it back. So I rarely lend books.
Surprisingly, my husband, who always has an opinion on everything, didn’t really have an answer for me when I asked him why I should bother keeping any books but the ones I plan to reread. And he usually encourages me to buy and keep books despite discouraging any of my other hoarding tendencies and wanting me to get rid of more stuff.
But really, what’s the point in keeping them? I’ve just always collected and hoarded books, but I’ve never stopped and thought critically about that practice.
Intrigued by this idea, I started asking some of my friends and family for their thoughts. As it turns out, a lot of them hadn’t thought about their book accumulation practices, either, and didn’t have much of an answer for me.
One friend suggested that collecting books appeals to our inner hoarder. Which it certainly does, but so do lots of other things. What’s the appeal of hoarding books in particular? And is hoarding them really a valid reason to keep them?
Another friend answered that she keeps books because books are our friends. I think that’s an interesting perspective, but I feel like friendship requires more of a back-and-forth relationship than what a book can offer. And while I definitely connect with a lot of the characters I read about and want to visit their worlds, I’m not sure I’d call them my friends.
My husband, after thinking about it some more, decided that he thinks people keep books as a status symbol. His theory is that books were historically expensive to own and that a large library was representative of wealth. Eventually that mindset became ingrained in society, and today people collect and display books as a holdover of that mindset, even though books are relatively cheap now. I hate to think of my beloved book collection as nothing more than social custom and a need to show off, so I don’t fully agree with his assessment, but I do think it has some merit. Especially since I do think part of the reason people (myself included) keep books is to show off to others what they’ve read.
I think my sister hit the nail on the head, though, when she said she keeps books because they make her happy. In the vein of Marie Kondo (whose book I have not yet read), it brings her joy to look at her shelves and remember the stories in them, even if she doesn’t plan to reread them. And I think this is probably the main reason why I keep books, too. It makes me happy to look at my shelves and see all of my favorites there and how different books reflect different aspects of my personality.
Ultimately, I think the reason I personally keep books is really a mix of all the different answers I received. I mean, they absolutely appeal to my inner hoarder, which feels more justified in collecting books than almost everything else (which is another topic on its own!), and some of them are definitely trophies, both to show off that I’ve read them and as a reminder of the knowledge I gained in reading them (there’s really no other reason to hang on to Empire of Cotton). But the most prominent reason is because I enjoy looking at them and reflecting on all of the stories and adventures and knowledge they hold.
The end result of this thought query is that I want to be more mindful of the books I keep so that I have a well curated collection. Obviously if I loved a book and see myself rereading it, I want to hang on to it. But what about the books I don’t want to reread? They have to bring me some sort of joy to look at on my shelves, otherwise they need to be passed on. And I think I should reexamine my shelves every so often and make sure a book still brings me joy. Right now, I enjoy looking at Empire of Cotton and remembering that I was able to push through the book and that I learned something from it. But in a few months, will I still feel so triumphant? And if I don’t, is there any other reason for me to keep it? Or the books that I really enjoyed at the time I read them, but don’t remember in a few months. Do they bring me enough joy to look at to justify the shelf space? If not, then it’s time to pass them along.
Now it’s your turn! Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever stopped and thought about why you keep books and how you justify hanging on to them. I’d love for you to continue the conversation!