In Defense of Unread Books

What’s the difference between a hoarder and someone who buys books and keeps them stacked like termite mounds in the basement? This isn’t a joke. I’m actually wondering.

Solomon said (to the “amen’s” of countless generations of students), “Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecc.12:12). This is one of the most bewildering and, dare I say, even offensive verses in the Bible. Of the making of many books there is no end. Praise the Lord! That means that of the buying of many books there is no end. And of the reading of books there is no end. Solomon, it sounds like you’re describing paradise.

Now, of course, Ecclesiastes is a back and forth between two ways of looking at life. You can look at life “under the sun” and what you see is what you get. That can make life tiresome (even in studying what you love). Or you can enjoy life “from God’s hand” and look along the sunbeam (as Lewis would say) back to the source of the gift and, thereby, see everything else properly. And Incidentally, that’s why the phrase “nothing new under the sun” isn’t a truism for how a Christian should see the world, but rather, how the folly and exhaustion and diminishing returns of a life without God is repetitive. But if nothing else, his mercies are new every morning (Lam.3:22-23).

But I digress. Back to my hoarding problem. Or is it hoarding? Is it because I need to have a plethora of books? (“Jefe, what is a plethora?“) No. When I changed professions this summer, I gave away or sold about 30-40% of my book because of storage space and it didn’t kill me. And yet, three months later, here I sit with lovely, wobbly skyscrapers of knowledge climbing to the ceiling around me. I’m flanked at my desk. I’m surrounded from behind. They loom over me from above.

And while I sip from twenty or thirty books on a monthly basis like some sort of lazy hummingbird, I know that I will never read them all. But that’s not the reason. Why do I have so many unread books? Why will I (without doubt) buy or trade or borrow more unread books?

I love meeting new people. It increases my empathy. It expands my experience. My favorite C.S. Lewis book is An Experiment in Criticism. In it, he talks about the interaction of multiple writers. “But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

I love the pleasure of potential. Why is the waiting for Christmas better than Christmas day? Longing and joy mix together in a glorious anticipation that is invulnerable to letdown. There is a sweetness in an unread book because it could be the next Wind in the Willows to me. It just might be as good as Supper of the Lamb.

I love not being the smartest person in the room. This is an implication of Lewis’ above point. Wendell Berry is a wiser man than I am. Augustine was a genius on par with Plato. Don’t even get me started on Tolkien. But if I can experience life through the eyes of Tom Sawyer or Lucy Pevensie or Martin the Warrior, then I can also learn from them. I can be kept humble while I hear what Gandalf has to say. I can take notes as Dumbledore opines about true greatness. I can beat my head against the wall as Karl Barth shows me how I’m wrong even if I know he is also wrong.

So, as long as I can have a handful of change, it’s a good bet you will find me in a use bookstore. The allure is so strong and I can now justify it with at least three reasons. These stacks might grow a little higher yet.

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