The Value Of Owning More Books Than You’ll Ever Read

An “antilibrary” keeps you humble

Clive Thompson

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“Old books” by Eli Francis (CC 1.0 license, unmodified)

I buy a ton of books.

It’s one of my main splurges. Every time I walk into a bookstore, I come out with an armful. If I hear about an interesting one online, I have my local bookstore ship it in.

But I acquire books so rapidly I can’t possibly read them all. I finish maybe only half of them; another quarter I dip into slightly; the last quarter, I never touch. Just in the last month or two I’ve bought Zakiya Dalila Harris’ The Other Black Girl (which I read), Lauren Milici’s Final Girl (read), a collection of essays by Marshall McLuhan (unopened), an anthology of historical speculation about life on other planets (skimmed the first few chapters only), Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey (almost done), James Bridle’s Ways of Being (read only the first chapter so far), a collection of Mary Ruefle (skimmed), Jody Rosen’s Two Wheels Good (read), Emily Katz Anhalt’s Embattled (read), Kate Eichorn’s The End of Forgetting (as yet unread), Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Undrowned (halfway through only), Jonathan Kramnick’s Paper Minds (read the first two chapters only), Thalia Verkade’s Movement (read), 2015’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction (three stories read, of 36), Alexandra Oliver’s Hail, the Invisible Watchman (halfway through), Keats’ Odes by Anahid Nersessian (I read one spellbinding chapter, but nothing else yet).

These books are stacked all over my house — some teetering in a ziggurat on my nightstand, others in a pile on top of a bookshelf downstairs, or even on the corner of my kitchen table. Others are purely digital, usually read (or semi-read) via my Scribd subscription.

I used to worry that my constant accumulation of partially- and entirely-unread books was a weird waste — of space, of money, of my limited attention span. Flitting from book to book without finishing one; buying tomes that sit on my bookshelf literally for decades without my reading them? This seems faintly pathological.

To console myself, I pondered the Japanese concept of “tsundoku”. It’s a portmanteau invented in the 19th century to describe “the stockpiling of books that will never be consumed”. It’s a word that’s used sympathetically or even proudly: Coined by bookphiles, for…

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net