There are definitely times when I feel like I am single-handedly keeping Barnes and Noble in business. It was very dangerous when I lived walking distance from a store, because I’d go there several times a week, and almost always came away with at least one book in my hand.
I realized that as much as I love reading books, what I truly love is owning books. When I look at my overflowing bookshelves in my house and my office, I smile.
I had always wondered why that was the case, until Rabbi David Wolpe shared this thought from A.E. Newton a few weeks ago: “The buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity.” So perhaps the many, many unread books on my shelves are not simply gathering dust. Perhaps all those unread books are there to help me to nourish my soul.
How so? First, unread books remind me that even if I gain some modicum of knowledge and insight, there will always be more to learn. In fact, Jewish learning even intentionally makes it impossible for us to learn everything — every tractate of the Talmud, the great collection of law and learning, begins on page two, never on page one. Why? To teach us that we should never assume that we have found all the answers.
Similarly, owning dozens (or hundreds!) of unread books is a very physical reminder that there is always more wisdom being added to the world. It is both inspiring and humbling to know that whatever we learn, there will always be new facts, new interpretations, and new ideas to discover.
Second, a library filled with unread books gives us the freedom to go browsing in the comfort of our own home or office — and we often overlook the value of browsing. As author Leon Wiseletier wrote beautifully in a piece in the New Republic:
When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations…[and] serendipity is how the spirit is renewed…
Too often, we search only for the information we need. We type in a Google search, and are very happy when we find the answer we’ve been looking for. But searching is limiting — we have to know in advance what we’re looking for. Browsing, in contrast, opens up our horizons, and helps us develop connections or inspirations that we may have otherwise missed.
So if you, too, have books that are now laying horizontally on top of other books because your shelves are too full, that’s a good thing. They are reminding you that wisdom and knowledge are an ever-expanding enterprise, and they are giving you the opportunity to come across insights you may have otherwise missed.
Unread books do not add to our store of information; to do that, we do actually need to read them. But unread books do add to our store of humility and the broadening of our worldview — and so even if they are never opened, they help our soul reach to infinity.
8 responses to “How Many Unread Books Do You Own?”
Really good post. It’s in keeping with Joe Queenan’s new book. He might enjoy reading this post.
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Our home is overflowing with books, both read and waiting to be read. Your words made me feel good about that.
Thanks, Debbie! I remember your house as being filled to the brim with books.
Last count was around 300, some read and others unread. Once in a while I feel compelled to share a few of my treasures with someone who may not have read them, so I take a bag full to the library.
Yet again, you find words for thoughts and feelings I’ve harbored for years! Thanks for another nice piece.
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Brilliant as always. Consider. You can browse the web on your iPad and find books (and websites) you really want to read. Set up some Pinterest boards to keep everything organized and you can easily find everything again to rapidly browse. The nice thing about Pinterest (or competitors Scoop.it and Pearltrees) is that they are free, no trees killed, and your roadmap can be shared with everyone for free. Help others reach out to infinity!
That’s a truly excellent suggestion! Thank you, George — Shabbat Shalom!
Hi Geoff, Your article is very comforting. When we moved from a house to an apartment in 2007, we gave 1000 books to the public library sales. Of course, we had several hundred more we took with us. We certainly couldn’t give away our Judaica or Holocaust collection nor my American history books or beautiful art books. The apartment was in easy walking distance from Borders (alas, now gone) and Cosco and BJ’s have such great prices. Before we went to /Florida at the end of Nov., I “browsed” our collection and realized that it would take several lifetimes to read all the books there. Some I am determined to read, but since the public library is also within walking distance, I end up taking out books that I must read first. Now in Florida, as I was “cleaning” for the cleaning woman, I was trying to figure out where I could possibly put all the latest books we bought. So your words and those you quoted eased my guilt feelings. ! A happy and healthy New Year to you and your family. We look forward to seeing you at the end of April. Fondly, Aileen Gluck