Less than two years ago I became a bibliophile when researching what kind of education would be best for my kids and reading Susan Wise Bauer’s A Well Educated Mind. Reading that one book instilled an infectious desire to read the greatest books of the world, and hence I began to love books despite my heavy STEM-focused background and career. Nonetheless, I have a few confessions to make about my love for books – and I think many of my fellow bibliophiles might admit the same.
Loving Books But Not Reading
I’m in my favorite (undisclosed) location for buying cheap books. I pick up a nice hardcover edition of a A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne and quickly decide to buy this book, even though I’ve already read it and have another edition of it sitting on my bookshelf at home. Am I going to read it again? Probably not. The number of books I can read in my lifetime is finite, and there are very few I deem worth reading more than once. But this particular Reader’s Digest edition is in great condition, with gold foil stamped lettering on the cover and spine, and colored illustrations and dark blue accents scattered throughout the text. While I hand over $2 for the “used” book that I have no intention to read nor to give away, I realize that I may just love books more than reading them.
Is it true? Do I prefer mere possession of a book to the activity of opening and spending time with it, of finding out the story between the front and back covers? Yes, I probably do, to whatever degree I know myself.
Throughout my teenage and collegiate years, I didn’t read much as I was preoccupied with math and science. I always (and still do) consider myself a slower reader than I ought to be (especially when I start reading the same sentence over and over again). I used to not be able to read for more than 20 minutes on average, because I would get tired, or my mind would begin to wander. So, my natural state was not that of a true bibliophile: one who loves reading.
Regardless, I think I’ve matured in my ability to read longer and with greater attention, largely due to the addition of glasses to my face. So, I find myself enjoying reading more than previously, as my awareness of the duration I read has become less acute. My mind is better trained to read. Nonetheless, I still find my affinity for books to be more in the object itself than in the opening of them. What else might I claim to love that dissolves into something lesser? Do we love a person from afar and not our interactions with them? Do we merely desire the appearance of being good rather than the practice of being good?
The symptom of loving books and not reading is that I buy far more books than I can read. Every year I visit my secret used book store two or three times, each resulting in a new box of a dozen or more books. Most of them go straight to the bookshelf; one or two make it near my desk; and maybe one out of the year’s haul makes it into my mind (for I mostly read the books that have been on my shelf for awhile). The inevitable result is a library with vastly more books in it than can be read by one person with a job and family.
When I visited Dublin, Ireland in 2019, my favorite place was the Long Room at Trinity College, where some of Europe’s oldest books line the beautiful wood shelves from floor to soaring vaulted ceilings – a cathedral of the mind. I might as well be in heaven. That Irish library embodies the bibliophile aesthetic better than anywhere I’ve ever been. I could spend years paging through those books (if only they would let me touch them).
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
How many books a home has says a lot about the person living there; but the kind of books says much more. My attraction to old, dusty books reflects something about myself: I respect tradition, appreciate beauty, and pursue wisdom. Perhaps our home libraries are more like mirrors than portals to new worlds. They tell us what we value or seek; a shelf-full of self-help books may be a sign of striving for greater success in our jobs, home-life, or personal relationships. Another shelf-full of religious texts reflects our desire to better understand our faith or those of others. That dusty shelf of our past college textbooks is an obvious reminder of our career aspirations, whether they materialized or not.
How much we could know about a person if we just watched their browsing habits at the book store! Some flock to the modern mystery novels, others to romances, fewer to the classics, and many a mother to the children’s books. The book store or library is a sorter of people into their primary interests, perhaps if only temporary interests.
But what does it mean for someone to seek a particular book out? Generally, we read books for two potential reasons: entertainment or understanding. My library reflects the latter motivation far more, as I seek knowledge and wisdom from books. Digging a little further, what does this say about myself? We seek what we do not have; hence, I seek knowledge and wisdom because I think myself deficient in both? After all, we buy “How To” books because we don’t know how to do a particular task. We buy “self-help” books because we need help with some problem. Hence, if my library reflects the pursuit of wisdom, I must believe I lack wisdom. Oh, the things a book will say about you before you’ve even read it…
So, I confess that on most days my love of books might be superficial, I hoard books I cannot possibly read, and my personal book choices reflect an inner judgment on my lack of wisdom and understanding.
Perhaps the first two are a result of a lack of beauty in the world, or an increasingly harder to find beauty at the least. Nature appears removed from everyday experience more than ever, and the world changes faster than anyone can keep up. Books stand apart as fixed and beautiful, inert to the world around it. The last of my confessions, that my book choices betray a lack of understanding, may be still a symptom of the stark difference between today and the world in which many of the books I own were written. Education is declining; attention spans are free-falling ; and so I emerged with a Ph.D. without ever reading any work of Plato in a 20+ year education. As an optimist, I know greater understanding is only a book away – and so I buy books not just for my future self, but also for my children.
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