Book collecting

The value of our books left unread

Approx. 6 mins to read

I buy a lot of books. People often tell me that I’ll never read as many books as I buy. The curious thing is the tone with which it’s often said—it suggests that doing so is a bad thing, and that I should buy fewer books and finish more of those that I buy.

I’ll try to convince you in the next several hundred words that what I’m doing is a good thing and suggest that you might do it too—particularly if you’re the kind of person who loves ideas. Having them, discovering them, connecting them. Whatever.

  1. Preparing to purchase the book
  2. Adding the book to your shelf
  3. Sharing the book with others

Preparing to purchase the book

I buy a lot of books, but I rarely just buy them, on a whim, without a second thought. I buy them when I’m confident enough to part with my hard-earned money in exchange for them, which usually means I’ve done some or all of the following:

  • Read reviews of the book on Amazon
  • Read reviews of the book on Goodreads
  • Read the blurb on the back cover
  • If available, read the table of contents
  • If available, read in-depth reviews
  • If relevant, looked at similar books
  • Where appropriate, researched the author
  • Where relevant, browsed their other books
  • If available, sometimes, read a Blink
  • Where possible, spoken to other readers

That’s a lot of steps. I don’t follow every step for every book, but I follow many steps for most books, and after doing so, I have a pretty good idea not only what the book is about, but the shape of the book. If someone were to ask me what the book was about, I could probably provide a passable answer.

Knowing the gist of a book is third only to: knowing the book intimately, and; knowing the subject of the book deeply—the adjacent and foundational and successive context that surrounds it. Knowing the shape of the book allows you to articulate and discuss it with some degree of intelligence.

It’s the act of purchasing the book that encourages me to go to so much bother. Books sit on my wish list for months—sometimes years—without my knowing the faintest idea of their contents. They might have come recommended, or the cover could have caught my eye, but they don’t yet occupy much mental space.

If you’re rigorous with your purchasing habits, deciding to buy a book can go a good way towards you understanding the ideas within it; to seeing the point of it; to describing in some level of detail why it should exist and why you should reduce your bank balance to obtain a carbon copy of it.

Even if you stopped here, you’d have learned a significant amount about some idea. Most books are wildly good value for money, and paying the cover price for the idea alone is probably still very good value for money. If you don’t want to read it, just give it to someone else, paying only for the idea.

Adding the book to your shelf

Once you’ve received the book (and assuming you didn’t immediately give it away), you have to find a home for it. Perhaps that’s on your bedside table, or a stack on the ground, or on your desk. If you keep up your book-buying habit (like I do) it will likely live with, next to, or on top of some other books.

Even if you only spend a few seconds giving your new book a home, you’ll interact not only with that book, but many of your others—even if that means simply standing by them for somewhere in the region of three seconds. You might glance at a cover, shuffle their order, or push some aside to make room.

This small act—in my opinion, which you have absolutely no obligation to consider—is deeply underrated. Your bookshelf is (if you’re like many of us) the physical manifestation of those 17 open browser tabs. A reminder of things that you at some point found interesting, challenging, or fun.

If your bookshelf is particularly organised (which mine is not), you might even properly consider where your new book belongs. You could have it sit alongside books of a similar theme, or epoch. Perhaps you group books written by the same author, or follow the Dewey Decimal system (but probably not).

When you find your new book a home, consciously or otherwise, you remind yourself of your book collection (and by extension, the ideas within it). You’ve now learned more about the book (and perhaps about yourself), but in order to do so you had to buy the book. You had to see it and handle it.

Sharing the book with others

I’m using the term sharing pretty liberally here. In my mind, sharing contains anything from “mentioning the book in conversation” to “shipping your book to a total stranger” (free of charge). It could mean conveying the shape of the book to someone that’s interested, or recommending they read it.

Some people (but not many people) have told me that I can’t reasonably recommend a book that I haven’t yet read myself, but I refuse to be shackled by that idea. You can recommend almost anything that you’ve not fully experienced if you believe that thing to be good (based on some internal measure of goodness).

The number of unread books I’ve recommended at least equals the number of read books that I recommend (and could feasibly exceed it by an order of magnitude), because I’m confident enough that the shape of it is sound; that I get the gist of it and that I believe the person I’m speaking with would appreciate reading a book of this shape.

Many of those recommendations have returned (sometimes several weeks, months, or years later) glowing reviews from those they were recommended to. In that case, of course, I ask them for a more detailed review to strengthen my recommendation, or in some cases as fuel to actually read the book. I can only recommend a book that I can describe.

If buying a book causes you to research and reflect, recommending a book that you haven’t read should cause you to pause, too. In some cases, your reputation is attached to that book recommendation, even if only transiently. Recommending a book makes you first consider whether you should (and that requires you to consider the value of the idea).

Whether you mention it, discuss it in some detail, or give it away, not only have you strengthened the idea in your mind, you’ve potentially connected it to other contextual ideas. You’ve also given the idea away to someone else—and for all you know, that idea could very well change their life. Ideas compound and connect to other ideas the more space we give them.

I’ll wrap up by calling out that most of these ideas are not very defensible, and acknowledge that I could be accused of thinly disguised conformation bias (and that I’d probably agree). But if you can’t indulge your own biases on a personal blog, I’m not sure where you can indulge them.

Apr 21, 2020