Reading Habits

No problem with anyone’s personal library

There’s an understandable sense of anxiety in the air lately. It’s somewhat incomprehensible how it can lay its sticky little anxious fingers on the topic of books and reading. People seem confused as to why other people have books on their shelves. Some people complain about trivial things like little notes estimating reading times for online papers. Do we need these notes? No. Are they accurate for everyone? No. Are they “the opposite of real reading”? No. We are all free to ignore them.

We are all free to do whatever we like without books—keep them, throw them away, build our own libraries that reflect our own growing up and reading lives. Doing so, as a recent op-ed put it, is not part of the cult of book ownership. During all your Zoom meetings, there may be a lot of books on the shelf behind you, or zero visible books in your home. Nobody gives you any definite judgments about you as a person.

Your personal library, no matter how big or small, is as good as it gets.

In a way, I understand why people are like this. I also rolled my eyes at an overly enthusiastic book tweet, a post about how books matter like air, some gross book merchandise, abuse of Peter Dinklage from Game of Thrones of a line. There is being a reader, and there is acting “as a reader,” but they are not necessarily the same thing.

But it really doesn’t matter.

If you are reading, you are reading, whatever it is. If collecting books brings you joy, add double-walled bookcases to the walls of your home until the floors squeak. If you want to own one book at a time—the one you’re reading at any given moment—would you be happy about it? Do it. If you’d rather rearrange your digital books than dust off all your physical books, then do so.

Do we read to learn? Enhance our understanding of the world? To understand, to sympathize, to be excited, to question, to doubt, to tremble? Yes. Yes, a thousand times yes; all of this and more. But we also enjoy reading. For fun, for distraction, for entertainment, for recreation, for company. Some of that joy, pleasure, and companionship comes from books as objects and books as ideas, stories, and writing.

Wanting to surround yourself with things that bring you joy isn’t smug, or the result of some kind of fan-worship. (Throwing away things that no longer serve that purpose, and changing your mind at any given moment, even—perhaps especially!—is okay if you’re Marie Kondo herself.) Book collections are just one of them, one aspect of each of us as readers. Books do say something about the people who own them, but on rare occasions, you can look at a bookcase and draw definite conclusions about who it belongs to. All you get are glimpses, fleeting ideas of what their passions are, what they’re interested in, what kind of world they spend their time in, and what you might have in common.

That’s why I’m looking at people’s bookshelves on Zoom, or in person, or through photos: what do we share? What curiosities might I find there? Which book is my favorite and is kept where the camera can see it? What has this person read that I might want to read? As Leah Schnellbach puts it:

“I’ve been revisiting interviews with Tony Kushner — video interviews, one with the late composer Michael Friedman, and others via Zoom to promote his relationship with Steve Collaboration with Vin Spielberg. In most interviews, he sits in front of a wall of books, and in some interviews, the camera actually takes the time to lovingly stroke his bookshelf. I can’t tell you how many screenshots I’ve taken trying to zoom in and jot down all the titles, and I can’t describe the excitement of getting this… The externalization of the brain from one of my favorite authors. Kushner can, and he’ll probably find a way to connect the description to the analysis of Marxist ideology, I don’t know, a poignant anecdote about the life of Herman Melville or something, but I, I’ll just say that it makes me so happy to see which books people choose to keep and put on their shelves.”

It can be disappointing when someone has no visible books in their home. Not because they were a failure, but because I couldn’t peer into things that sparked their imagination or curiosity. But apologies to John Waters and his haunting quotes – books lacking on display don’t really say anything about a person. Not when they have a tiny device on their desk that can store thousands of stories, like the ones in mythology. You can’t look at someone’s digital book collection in quite the same way; even if they’re on Goodreads, it’snot quite the same as physically seeing the spines of books on a shelf.

In the end, it’s not important how many books you have or if you have any at all. If you love reading, that’s what matters. If you enjoy collecting books, that’s great too. And if you prefer digital books over physical ones, that’s perfectly fine as well. Ultimately, what matters most is that we continue to read and explore the world through the written word, in whatever form we choose.

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