Monday, July 17, 2006

Collecting unread books is dishonest?

PG brought this comment on promiscuous book acquisition to my attention:
People . . . where there is much social capital to be gained from being or seeming well-read, seem to covet the physical book more than the stuff in it (at least, this is my impression from reading lj's where people talk about acquiring books all the time (squee!), but almost never about their content). It just seems like a chic way to spend disposable income and to cultivate an undeservedly erudite reputation.
As someone who believes that the shelf reflects the self, I find this sort of indiscriminate book gathering deeply problematic. I, like some, like to keep close those books which have attained the status of old friends, but I am fundamentally introverted and dislike sharing my home with strangers, much less strangers who may reflect poorly upon me. And how to know the character of a book without reading it? Absent this knowledge, you are aware only of the physicality of the volumes, and this is the very opposite of erudition.

While in certain circumstances, people may be too busy or too isolated to borrow books before reading them, to keep a mediocre book one has bought indicates a certain acceptance of mediocrity. Similarly, one might purchase a book with the intention of reading it later, but at a certain point the timeline of future reading stretches out so far as to make it clear that some of these books will never be read and one becomes an Imelda Marcos of books, compulsively collecting (whether it be for the undeservedly erudite reputation that Rita notes or for the vanishingly tiny benefit of additional reading options).

We have all scoped out the shelves of a friend or date in some attempt to discern the character of the books' owner. But a shelf full of books that are unread and probably never will be read is a deceptive front. The party is hopping to all appearances, but the house is full of strangers; friends who should have pride of place and personal attention are lost in the throng. One's true nature is concealed, masked behind an explosion of aspiration and artifice. I'll keep my carefully chosen volumes any day.
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