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‘Don’t You Read?’ or the Fears of the Book Hoarder

In addition to being an obsessive reader, I’m also an obsessive book hoarder. As in, I have hundreds of books I will probably never read again, but I can’t bring myself to give them away or sell them or recycle them. Maybe it’s because my maternal grandmother has an art book collection that takes up most of her downstairs wall space in the form of tomes squeezed into full-to-bursting bookshelves. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, and I wouldn’t want to do with someone else’s book what I hope no one is doing with my book. So as you can probably imagine, our bookshelves look a little something like this (except less color coordinated):

While I implied above that book hoarding might be a family trait, it would only be on my mother’s side. My dad lets books slip into and out of his life – reading them and then passing them along – unless they are some of the few he’s happy to read again and again. The bookshelf area of his home is, as a consequence, tiny, but size doesn’t mater. And yet, I think that’s why I’m so hesitant to part with my books – even the ones that haven’t brought me much pleasure other than hastening the passage of time. I think I am afraid of someone coming into my home, seeing no bookshelves, and assuming that I don’t read much.

But even this strikes me as odd. Because the truth is that some people don’t read much for pleasure anyway, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They just enjoy other things. So why does the idea of someone pegging me for a non-reader make me feel so queasy, and furthermore prevent me from de-cluttering our right now extremely cluttered finished basement (which it should be noted is home to walls of bookshelves)? At this point in my life, I’m visiting the library for books more often than buying them, so it’s not like I’m adding to my collection. I’d wager that most of the books on those shelves have been with me since just after college. Some of them are even textbooks!

Do you, lovely readers, hold on to relatively unimportant books with a similar zeal? What’s keeping you from parting with them?

13 Responses to “‘Don’t You Read?’ or the Fears of the Book Hoarder”

  1. Jen November 16, 2010 at 8:00 am #

    I keep books as if I were a library – I love to be able to tell someone about an awesome book and then lend it to them so they can experience it too. Consequently, all my bookshelves are filled with books I’ve read a million times. I still have a few textbooks, too – they are handy sometimes when your laptop is closed. The only time I get rid of books is when I re-read them and am so irritated by their inanity that they do not deserve space in my library anymore.

  2. Christa Terry November 16, 2010 at 8:44 am #

    @Jen I think those are the books to hold onto – the ones you might read again or love so much you want to lend to the people you know will love them. Maybe I should start re-reading all of my books one by one so I can figure out which ones I ought to donate!

  3. Raven1025 November 16, 2010 at 6:51 pm #

    I have been trying to whittle our bookshelves a bit of late. Trying to keep things that I want to read again or have special meaning or the like. We have a finite amount of space, and it is overflowing. We have books teetering on top of the bookshelves, books stacked on the windowsill, books stashed various places. I realized that I have books on the shelf I have no intention of ever reading again, and it seems silly to keep them. Or books that I bought because they were on sale and have never cracked open and likely never will. As the daughter of a retired librarian, it is tough to let go of books!

    OTOH, I recently read an article about someone local who purchased the house next door and had it connected by a wee atrium and turned the whole thing except for the kitchen into a library for their book collection. Two story home. Full, floor to ceiling including library ladders, of books. Lovely, but perhaps extreme.

  4. Jennie November 17, 2010 at 4:45 pm #

    When I moved to my condo from my house after the divorce, I was forced to purge my library. I donated over 2000 books to the Assistance League and wept as if my best friend had died.

  5. Laurie November 17, 2010 at 5:03 pm #

    I love having books, and I have always wanted a true library, but I am limiting the books I keep to ones I truly love and preferably hardcovers.

    I also sign my books when I finish them. I have this crazy idea that the books you read form who you are, and I want my grandchildren to know me through my books.

    My big dilemma is with the new e books- can I give up on the used bookstore hardbacks and go all techie? I am not sure.

  6. marvel November 17, 2010 at 8:54 pm #

    I love books. I remember my childhood through the books I read at each age. I love having shelves and shelves and rows and rows of books. I acutally prefer to re-read books I know I like, rather than take a chance on a book I may not enjoy. I’m sure there are some novels I’ve read more than 20 times. Sinking into an old favorite is like visiting with old friends. I’m always afraid I’ll forget to take books back to a library, so I prefer to pick up paperbacks at used book stores. We have a lot of books.

    When I visit someone’s home or office for the first time, i always find myself scanning their bookshelves (if present). I don’t think I’ve ever had a “negative” feeling towards someone who didn’t have books prominently displayed, however. I think I was only put off once by a friend who clearly used books as display/decorative items–the few visible books were chosen for their appearance, and stacked in elegant little arrangements that declared they were never, ever read. I found that a little off-putting. (It’s okay if you’re not a reader. But don’t be a non-reader but try to pretend that you might just pick up Faulkner or Dickens in an off moment.)

    I have disposed of old textbooks–we were moving and they were sufficiently out of date that I knew even if I needed the reference I’d have to find another source. I think I donated them to an overseas group (3 years out of date is too old for what I do, but unfortunately good enough for some parts of the world.) But I have crates of books in the basement that I just can’t bear to part with! I love books!

  7. Cathouse Blues November 21, 2010 at 1:44 pm #

    As a Navy wife, weight restrictions when moving kept the books reasonably in check (though the guesstimate when we left Japan was approximately 3000#; we were able to slide by since they didn’t give us a weight limit moving over). The divorce led to an approximately 70/30 split (I was the 70), and with roughly 1000# scattered among various unsuspecting libraries’ drop bins I still couldn’t unpack more than half when I moved into my new apartment. Seven years later the total is creeping back up and nearly doubled by my new husband’s massive library of reference material for his job as a commerical genre artist and illustrator. I’ve started collecting pre-WWII cookbooks, which doesn’t help, and my Amazaon wish list is over 15 pages. How much of the stash have I actually read? I’d say about a third. Most of the time once I read a book I have no trouble passing it along, but for every book I read I tend to buy five more. I’m trying to curb the habit by getting more and more from that wish list at the library, but I still find myself single-handedly keeping the History Book Club in business. At least nothing’s in boxes, it’s all on shelves and at the moment everything has a place. Heavens!

  8. Anonymous November 22, 2010 at 8:49 am #

    (My humblest apologies for the anonymous post, but my reasons will be obvious, I hope.)

    I love my fiance dearly, but she wouldn’t get rid of a book to save her life. Her books shelves are full, and she really doesn’t have room for any more, so she has stacks of books in her apartment. If she gets a few more stacks I’ll accuse her of being a hoarder, which she fears she may be anyway. She’s read them all, rereads some, but just can’t part with them.

    I pray she uses the Kindle she’s getting for Christmas. Fifty gazillion books on one small device sounds like heaven to me.

    (As for myself: Yes, I keep some books, but I can and do donate the ones that will obviously be read only once.)

  9. annie November 22, 2010 at 12:04 pm #

    Books, books, everywhere there are books. When we moved from California to Hawaii, we mailed the books to ourselves over there. Over 100 cartons of books. The post office in Hawaii refused to deliver them to our home. I had to pick them all up in Honolulu, in a little VW, and drive them over the mountains to our home. Books! They come into our home now at the rate of 3 – 4 per week. I think we have a fear of being stranded somewhere, book-less.

  10. Cathouse Blues November 22, 2010 at 5:21 pm #

    @Annie: I have books stashed everywhere for I can never bear to be bookless: There are the bathroom and bedroom books (of course), in addition to the one by my living room chair and the one in my purse. There is even one in my car as emergency backup for long red lights and drive-though lanes.

  11. marvel November 22, 2010 at 9:36 pm #

    @Anonymous–I hope the Kindle works out for your fiancee, but I like the feel and smell and weight of paper. I don’t think a Kindle would convince me to part with any of my books. It might reduce the influx. Not sure.

  12. Charlene November 26, 2010 at 11:54 am #

    Our house contains books from the early 1800’s on that have belonged to my husband’s family who built it in 1823. So we have added shelf after shelf upstairs and down as our own collections grow. Additionally my husband keeps running out of shelves for his toy soldiers and ranging them on the ledges in front of the books so I can’t pull the books out without an accident to the little men. I do occasionally purge a few books but then end up looking on the shelf for the absent tome later! I too am guilty of buying books I “think I’ll want to read someday.” Actually I do pretty often, just encouraging me to buy more! I guess my only hope is my reading children who sometimes “borrow” my books only to install them on their shelves.

  13. gamma November 27, 2010 at 8:18 am #

    I have always been a book lover, but my collecting escalated when I moved to California and discovered that not all libraries carry my favorite books. And sometimes libraries discard their old books, never to be replaced! Also, books I read and loved as a child are irresistible to me, as are books with beautiful illustrations.

    I read new books from 3 different libraries, garner 2nd-hand books from two rich sources for both my mother and myself, and try to keep my library relatively purged by storing the mass-market paperbacks under the bed, and everything else in one of four bookshelves, three of which reside on my bedroom landing, creating a mini-library, to my lasting delight. Excess books are donated to the local friends of the library, who sell them to benefit the library.