Sunday Salon: Can You Ever Have Too Many Books?

There was a time when I only bought books that I was ready to read. I was a poor college student, then a recent graduate. I couldn’t afford to buy many books, and I certainly couldn’t afford shelves to put them on. I’d stack books that I found at used bookstores around the house, stuff them in milk crates, and wedge them on top of books on my shelves, the chaos tended to keep me from buying more until I could make more space.

Eventually, I started earning enough that I could buy books—and shelves to put them on. I generally stuck to around one book purchase a month, usually for book club, and I relied on the library for everything else. I might have about one shelf  of unread books in the house, but not more than that.

Built-in Bookcases. Home of my permanent collection. On the lower right, just out of sight, are my unread Morland Dynasty books, review copies, and books to be read by a certain date (book club and Classics Circuit).

But then I discovered online book swapping sites like Paperbackswap and Bookmooch. Most of my book club books weren’t worth keeping so I traded them away for books that looked more promising. Soon, I needed another bookshelf. Around the time it got filled up, I moved to a condo with built-in bookshelves. So the books kept coming, and I kept going to the library and putting my new acquisitions on my new shelves and never actually reading them. Once I discovered blogging, it got worse. I found I could get review copies of brand-new books. I won giveaways. And the books kept coming, much faster than I could read them.

I started setting limits. I could only request books from a swapping site if my library didn’t have it. I could only request review copies through Library Thing. No more giveaways. These guidelines have helped, but the books are still coming in faster than I’m reading them. According to my LibraryThing inventory, I now have 209 unread books in my house, 80 of which I acquired this year.

TBR Central. Home of most of my unread books. The stacks on the bottom are making me crazy.

I know I’m not alone in this. I’ve seen bloggers impose book buying bans on themselves, and I’ve come across four reading challenges devoted entirely to reading from TBR stacks. With so many good books out there, it’s hard to say no to getting more, and there’s great comfort in knowing I have a stockpile of books I can turn to when I’m looking for something new to read. Litlove had an excellent post explaining why she think it’s important that we support the book industry by purchasing the kinds of books we want to see published. I agree with her in principle, and because of that, I don’t want to quit buying books altogether, but, alas, the books are taking over.

I have stacks of books on the bottom of my main TBR bookcase, and I can’t stand stacks because I want to see what I have. I’ve also created two TBR annexes: one annex is for review copies, my Morland dynasty books, and books with a required time frame (book club and Classics Circuit); the other annex is the “top of the TBR pile,” and it lives at the top of my theology and reference bookcase. That annex can’t last because as my coursework continues, I’ll have books to put in that space.

As you can see from the photo of my white built-in bookcases above, I actually have room for more books, and I have considered reorganizing to make use of that space, but most schemes would involve bringing large numbers of TBR books into my living room, which I don’t want to do. The last time I did that, everyone who came over asked me about those books or (quelle horror!) asked to borrow them. (If I haven’t read it, you’re not borrowing it. That’s my rule.) That space is reserved for currently the unread books that will soon become dear friends I can’t part with.

Reference shelves, with TBR annex at the top (and high school yearbooks at the bottom)

So I’m torn. I want the shiny new books, I love visiting the library, and I want to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to books, but I don’t want my books to stress me out. And the stacks stress me out. The thing is, even though I havent read the unread books, I want to—I want to read every single one of them. So culling is out of the question. There are maybe two or three I’ve lost interest in, but when I pick them up and read the back, my interest gets rekindled.

Right now, I’m limiting myself to purchasing books that I need for book club or the Classics Circuit. I’m donating most of my Bookmooch points, just keeping a few in reserve for some books I want for my permanent collection. My Paperbackswap wishlist is on hold, except for a few permanent collection books. I’m not entering giveaways. I am continuing with LT Early Reviewers because that program has introduced me to some fabulous new-to-me authors—plus, it’s generally no more than one book per month, and you can go months without getting anything. I’m not, however, requesting other review copies at the moment.

And I’m reading from my shelves. At the moment, I’m trying to catch up on review copies, but my main TBR stacks will soon become the focus. There are some treasures there, several of which many of you have encouraged me to read. I have To Say Nothing of the Dog, The Count of Monte Cristo, a handful of Persephone books—I’m looking forward to them all!

How about you? Do you have a point when the number of unread books just seems to take over? Or do you think there’s no such thing as too many books?

Notes from a Reading Life

Books Completed

Currently Reading

  • Winter’s End by Jean-Claude Mourlevat. Dystopian YA translated from the French. From LibraryThing Early Reviewers. I suspect I’ll finish it today or tomorrow.
  • The Ode Less Traveled by Stephen Fry. Lessons in writing poetry. I’ve reached the chapter on odes, but I’m taking a break for a few weeks until the semester is over.
  • Ghost Hunters by Deborah Blum (audio). Scientific investigation of Victorian spiritualists.
  • The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (reread). I first read this in college and consider it my favorite Eliot even though I remember very little about it.

On Deck

  • North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. For the Classics Circuit.
  • Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (audio). Jenny loves Dennis Lehane, and I want to read this before the movie.

New Acquisitions

  • None

Books on My Radar

  • Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope. I love Trollope but mostly know of his two long series that I can’t make time for at the moment. Litlove’s review of Miss Mackenzie alerted me to another good standalone to consider (along with He Knew He Was Right, which has been on my list for ages).
  • Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig. Zweig is one of several authors who’s been around forever, but whom I’d not heard of until I started blogging. Danielle reviewed this book, and it sounds great.
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34 Responses to Sunday Salon: Can You Ever Have Too Many Books?

  1. readerbuzz says:

    If I’m not in the mood, I’m just not in the mood. I’ve got one bookcase devoted to TBR, but I should weed through it and pass most of these on. I thought I wanted to read these, but—who knows why?—I just do not. And I want the shiny new books.

  2. Sasha says:

    Gasp! “Too much books?!” What blasphemy!

    … So says this girl who’s on constant danger of having her bookshelves topple over her.

    My own book ban was, well, by default. See, I *am* a broke college student. :) So, I’ve decided that since I’m paying a ridiculous amount of money to use the university library, then I will use the university library. So far, it’s been amazing. :)

    But I know that at the first sign of financial stability (snort), I’m heading to the bookstore. :p

  3. cbjames says:

    I just today went through my TBR stack and culled. Generally, after a few years have passed I may as well cull the book and pass it on.

    But, just in case of emergency, I have a large stack of books I’ve never read on hand. ;-)

  4. Tricia says:

    Great post! I used to keep all of the books that I read until I moved from home and then I didn’t know where to put them all so I practiced the art of letting go. Now, if I read a book I will give it away so all of the novels on my shelves are ones I want to read.

    I buy a lot of novels since I believe in supporting the industry and I also recently discovered Friends of the Library Bookstore so my bookshelf is stacked and so is a large drawer at work.

    I used to think that I would never get rid of my precious books but now I love giving them away because that way I can let more in and I can share my passion with others.

  5. JaneGS says:

    Interesting thoughts. I am currently focusing on the TBR list because I feel guilt at purchasing books and not reading them, and I purchased them because they did interest me. I am definitely in need of new bookcases as the stacks are becoming a bit dangerous, and I do like a certain amount of order.

    I definitely think it is important to buy books to keep the industry going, but I am not going to buy $26 hardbound best sellers…ever. I am fine with waiting for the paperback or buying remainders on Amazon or picking up used copies at the used book store. I did get a copy of Gabaldon’s new An Echo in the Bone for my birthday, but I didn’t buy it myself :)

    I am also never going to buy a book from Wal-Mart or the grocery store. We all have our limits.

    Reading about the publishing industry circa 1620 has made me think about how it has evolved over the centuries, and not evolved too.

    Finally, I don’t believe in burning books, but I also don’t consider them sacred in the sense that I worship all books equally. There are trashy books out there and I’m not afraid to rid my house of them.

  6. Wow! Your collection is amazing and, frankly, a little intimidating! You’re definitely doing the right thing by taking your usual book consumption down a notch.

    As a poor college student, I only buy books I know will love and support my beloved genre fiction- fantasy, mostly. I tend to really abuse my local libraries.

  7. I hear ya! I’m stressed by my bookcase too. Luckily it has doors.

  8. Vasilly says:

    I went from having a few books unread on my shelves to the majority being unread. I used to have a shelf devoted for books I want to read soon, but it didn’t always work. On some of my shelves there are books behind books, so I understand wanting to be able to look at every book you own.

    I keep my purchasing down to books I want permanently in my library and those that my library doesn’t have. When I know I won’t re-read a book, I give it away to PBS or my local library.

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  10. Kathleen says:

    I could so relate to your post. I built my library up to over 4,000 books and then let it go by selling them on Amazon and making a huge donation to my favorite library. I found myself spending too much time cataloging and acquiring the books and not enough time reading them. Now I have just under 300 books, most of which I have not read. I’ve noticed that I have been buying a lot of books lately so I am imposing a temporary ban until I read a few more. Everything in moderation I always say! Good luck deciding what to do about your books that are bothering you!

  11. Danielle says:

    I think I’m in the ‘you can’t have too many books’ camp. That said, maybe you Can have too many books if you have nowhere to put them, which is sort of my problem. Mine are on shelves but also in piles. I think you need to do what you feel most comfortable with. If you’re feeling stressed that’s no good. I’m trying to not order new books using my credit card but I am mooching books occasionally and buying them when I can pay cash. And I do want to read more from my own TBR piles as well, but then someone will write about a book I don’t have and it will sound so good and my library won’t have it….and you probably know what happens next! :) I hope you do get around to reading Zweig–I’ve really enjoyed the books I’ve read by him!

  12. Steph says:

    Well, we all know that books have pretty much taken over my apartment – it’s definitely a slippery slope, as since I buy most of my books used, I never seem to walk away with just one title! I’ve definitely acquired more books this past year than any other, and we’ve definitely run out of places to store many more… so I’m going to try my best to read through what I have before bringing any new books into our home. I know at least once per month I’ll bring in a review copy for work, but I need to focus on switching the balance so that more books are going out rather than coming in!

    One other thing I noted from your post that wasn’t really central to the main point was when you said that most of your bookclub books aren’t worth keeping. It’s funny, because I tend to feel the same way… and it makes me wonder why I continue on with my book club, when most of the books do so little for me!

  13. Teresa says:

    readerbuzz: The trouble I have is that I may not be in the mood for some of these now, but I will be eventually. And I have enough books that I should be able to find something for any mood.

    Sasha: There have been periods when I don’t know what I would have done without my local library—reread the same 50 books, I guess. So I’m glad I have some financial freedom now.

    cbjames: I keep thinking of culling, but they all look good to me. Maybe a five-year limit is in order. I think the oldest unread books go back to 2006, so I don’t have to get rid of them now :-)

    Tricia: I’m giving away more and more books these days. If there’s not a good chance I’ll reread it, out it goes. I can always find a new home for my books, and I enjoy sharing them.

    JaneGS: I hardly ever buy new hardcovers either. Perhaps for a beloved series or author. (I’m collecting Laurie King’s Mary Russell series in hardcover, for instance.) Generally I like paperbacks better. And I’m with you on not regarding the books themselves as sacred objects. I believe Ann Fadiman would consider me a carnal lover of my books, although not as carnal as Samuel Johnson with his gravy!

    Literary Omnivore: It’s pretty sad that I’m intimidated by my own stacks!

    Chris: Doors! That’s the answer! (Actually, I do have a section in my permanent shelves that could have doors added, and I’ve considered it.)

    Vasilly: That’s pretty much the approach I’d like to take. Right now, though, I’m avoiding the library, because I tend to leave with more books than I have time for. I’m enough of a spendthrift that I can go into the bookstore for something specific and leave with just that, so it works for book club books.

    Kathleen: Wow! 4,000 books! I’m amazed, and I could see how that would take over. And you’re right–moderation is the key.

    Danielle: I think we all have to find a system we’re comfortable with. I’m not comfortable with stacks, so I’m going to focus on getting the stacks down to just the one bookcase. But in the meantime, I’m keeping a list of books all my blogging friends are recommending for when I’m ready to visit the library or go back to mooching. :-)

  14. Jenny says:

    I don’t think you can have too many books, but I always think they should feel like something wonderful, rather than a burden. When I start feeling anxious about the number of unread books I have around the house, I list some of them on PaperbackSwap and give myself that deadline. If I get to them before someone else orders them, I get to read them; if not, then not. :P

  15. Teresa says:

    Steph: More books out than in—that’s my goal too. Seems reasonable.

    And yes, I wonder the same thing about book club, especially when we read a run of stinkers. (Most of the books I hated this year were for book club.) But then we do read some wonderful books that I want to keep and many books that I enjoyed quite a lot but don’t expect to read again. At this point, it’s as much about getting together with friends as it is about the books, though. Maybe that’s a post for another day. :-)

  16. Teresa says:

    Jenny: I’m definitely at the point when the number of books in the house is causing stress. I like that Paperbackswap trick. Do you do that with wishlisted books? Because that’s not much of a time limit! I could try it with books I know I can still get at the library once I decide I’m ready to read them.

  17. I think I hit my point this weekend. I had what I thought was a huge pile (about 150 books), but then this weekend I went to two great used stores and came home with 20 more books. Sheesh. I think I need a moratorium.

    And I used to love going to the library. But I have too much in my TBR to go there now.

  18. diane says:

    I LOVE LOVE the built in book cases very nice. I think “yes” you can have too many books –I do have too many, but I still acquire more….it’s a sickness here.

  19. Jenny says:

    Your bookcases are beautiful! I’m hoping we’ll move this year to a house with some built-ins… Do you ever stack books on their sides to make more room? I have all my Lemony Snicket books stacked flat on their sides, and all my Dickens stacked on their sides together, etc. It makes for more space and it looks attractive by breaking up the line of books a bit. Not everyone likes to do that, but it’s worked well in my own stacks.

  20. Too many books? nah!!

    I have about 35 unread books at the moment, and am planning to not buy any ’til I get the number down to ten. While you still have space to keep your books, I’m at a stage where I’m contemplating ridding my room of a bed, just to keep books.

    The book cases are stunning though, and I’m slightly envious, as I only have a small bookcase here. :(

  21. Lightheaded says:

    I don’t believe there’s such a thing as too many books :)

    While I have limited my purchases to mostly secondhand books at the moment (read: broke), I still make it a point to get a new (old) book like once a month. I live in a third world country where public libraries are virtually non-existent. That or I don’t know where they are and again, I doubt if a third world country public library has stacks of books I may want to read.

    I buy books and let it sit on the shelves because later I might get around to reading them. Well, hopefully that is. Since I have a tendency to read just about everything depending on my mood, having a good stash (err, shelves) is a good idea. I just don’t let the stash (err, shelves) stress me out because that would defeat the purpose of reading. Maybe that’s why I don’t exactly have a TBR since I don’t want the stress, hahaha! I mean, my whole shelves of unread books are all TBRs in that respect, so I take it one book at a time. And if I’m not feeling it I replace it with another.

    And while that sounds like I have properly arranged bookshelves, I don’t. I love your bookshelves! So neat, even the stacks! The stacks beside my bed is a mess, so with the books on my shelves!

  22. litlove says:

    I do love your bookcases! I’m a complete addict for pictures like these and just want to get in closer to look over all your titles!

    As you know, I do belong in the ‘you can’t have too many camp’, but that’s entirely personal, and I’m all for people doing what they feel comfortable with. That being said, I looked around my house a few days ago and realised that there are practically no more spaces for bookcases and what I do have is already full. What if I live another ten years? I know I’m incapable of not buying books. It’s a conundrum!

  23. Tara says:

    Well, I don’t think you can have too many books! You never know what you might be in the mood for and it’s good to have options. Having said that, I happen to have 100s of options. And I am okay with that!

  24. Ariel says:

    I am going to come down firmly on the side of “No. It isn’t possible.” But then again, I now have considerably more unread books than read ones in the house (twice as many, perhaps). In fact, I calculated that if I never bought another book, I would still probably have enough unread books to read for the next decade, reading at top speed. (Blush.) Still, this brings me great comfort in times of book-panic.

  25. LOVE those white built-in bookshelves! Beautiful!

  26. softdrink says:

    Nope, there’s no such thing as too many books. :-D Although I do maintain a bit of control by keeping very few of the ones I’ve already read.

    I love the built-in bookshelves…I’d love to have walls of books to gaze at.

  27. Teresa says:

    Thomas: Every time I get things under control, I have a spree–and then I raise my limit on what’s acceptable.

    Diane: Those shelves are pretty much what sold this condo to me.

    Jenny: I sometimes do that to create “bookends” but not in the middle of my shelves. I might look over my TBR shelves, where I need space the most, and see if I have groups I could do that with. It would certainly help, and it can look nice. (Much better than stacking on top!)

    uncertainprinciples: 35 used to seem like a normal number of TBRs to me. Now I can’t imagine getting down to that. I bet if I did, I’d still find I had enough to choose from.

    Lightheaded: I can’t imagine not having access to a good library. If I didn’t, I definitely would create my own and feel no guilt about it!

    litlove: My main goal is to give myself more room to grow my collection so that I can live here comfortably for another 10 years or moe. I can maybe squeeze in two more bookcases, but I don’t want to resort to that after just three years here!

    Tara: That’s what’s important–that you’re okay with the amount of choice you have.

    Ariel: I can see taking comfort in a large collection. As I said to Tara, if you’re comfortable with it, that’s awesome! You have 10 years of good reading to look forward too :)

    Sarah: Thanks! They’re one of my favorite things about my home.

    Softdrink: I don’t keep many books once I read them either–only if I expect I’ll want to read them again.

  28. Dorothy W. says:

    I’m with you on feeling thoroughly conflicted. I agree with a lot of the things people say about owning books, even if those things contradict each other. I want more books, I want to support the industry, I want to keep from feeling guilty about unread books, I want to clear out shelf space, I want to focus on TBR books, I want to read things not on my shelves at all — I feel all of it! I’ll just continue doing what I have been, I suppose — collecting books as a decent rate and trying to read as many of them as I can.

  29. Alayne says:

    Girrrrrrl I feel your pain. And also, I WANT those white bookshelves!!!! Every time I look at different condos/houses I look for built-ins and if they have it, they go straight to the top. Jeaaaalous. I’ve also had to limit myself with new books. I’m not allowing myself to buy anymore books for a while, no specific time limit, because I just bought 8 from Amazon. It’s okay if I receive them as gifts though. I also have stopped myself from requesting every ARC just because I can. I will only request the ones I truly am interested in. I have a 5 shelf bookcase devoted entirely to unread books and I really need to whiddle them down. I’ve started stacking them flat on shelves instead of upright because I fit more that way. Ha. :)

  30. Teresa says:

    Dorothy: It is a conundrum. Right now, the desire for space is winning, but I doubt that’s a permanent situation!

    Alayne: It is a good thing those shelves are nice because this condo had the worst kitchen and bath of the ones I looked at. The shelves made the hassle of renovating worth it. :-) If I can get things down to the 5-shelf bookcase, I’ll probably start mooching and visiting the library again (but only mooching books I can’t get at the library to keep the inflow).

  31. rebeccareid says:

    I don’t buy books because I can get anything at my library or at Project Gutenberg. Besides, I recently purchased a home and budget is tighter. And, like you say, I have shelves of unread books still!

    I tend to buy books only after I’ve read them and loved them. Then I want a nice pretty copy for my shelves so I can love it. I love to own a physical book. I just don’t have money to always purchase the books I want.

    I absolutely LOVE your built in bookshelves. Someday I’ll own a proper bookshelf.

  32. Teresa says:

    rebeccareid: I used to rely almost totally on the library; it’s a great resource. I have trouble reading anything very long online, so Project Gutenberg would work less well for me, although I have used it for short stories and poems.

    And the built-in shelves and my pride and joy. :-)

  33. lorraine says:

    My bookcases (I have about ten of them) are like a warm fuzzy security blanket. I feel warm just looking at them so you can imagine how much I love my books.

  34. Pingback: THE “TO BE READ” PILE | MURDER by TYPE

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