When people ask me whether I have read all the books on my shelves, I answer ‘not yet’.
That’s true but if it implies that one day I will have read them all, it is misleading. Even if I were never to buy another book I think I would never read the lot. I buy more than I can read or will read. And it has only just occurred to me to ask why.
Here are some answers.
To fill up the shelves.
It can’t be that as I overfill them and have to get new ones.
To distract me from the fact that I have not read the old ones.
There’s some truth in that but it doesn’t work and is not really the point.
Because I like the cover.
I don’t feel I am very cover-sensitive, though a bookshop manager recently assured me that cover design is a major factor in determining sales.
Because I like the smell.
This is more like it. New books are like today’s newspaper first thing in the morning. But that’s not the whole story as I buy some on-line. I also buy second-hand, when aroma can be a disincentive.
Because I entertain the delusion that I have the capacity to read all this stuff.
Sadly so. But it is not quite the point as deep down, I know better.
Because I actually like unread books.
This is the heart of the matter. An unread book, whether old or new is a promise. It is a journey in waiting, a packaged holiday to take at home.
If it is fiction or poetry it’s an adventure for the imagination. If non-fiction it’s going to wise me up in some area of ignorance. And as I behold the book (not the cover but the whole object) maybe flicking though or reading the er… acknowledgements (because I want to know the story of the book as much as the story in the book) I know that when I have read the book I will be better person; more complete, competent and adequate.
But it is only the unread book that can do this.
The book being read is much more of a challenge. It can frustrate, disappoint, reveal a lack of my relevant
background knowledge or learning. Millions got stuck in (rather than stuck into) A Brief History of Time when they hit the maths. the book being read can also exhaust my patience and so not get finished. So becoming a half-read book and finding its way to the tower of shame.
The book which has been read is a subtle threat. It’s impressively creased spine gawps from the shelf as it asks, ‘And how much of me do you remember?’
But oh, the unread book! What a lovely friend!
So I speak to it, ‘One day, when we have time, we will really get along, you and I. We will sit down together and while away the hours.’
And the unread book whispers back tenderly, ‘We will, we will. I will give and you will receive. After a while you will put me down to ponder what I have told you. You will marvel at the secrets I reveal and delight in the subtleties of my arguments and the delicacy with which truth is revealed as you gently turn my pages.’
That’s it. The unread book is a symbol of hope. That’s why the shelves are never long enough and why libraries and bookshops can give such a spiritual high. It’s the oxygen of possibility.
So now – decision time. Shopping or reading?