Possession #4: On the Owning of Books

Books. It’s all very well to limit other things to the useful and the beautiful, but how does a reader throw out books?

I discovered I had more to say about this than would sensibly stay in the comment thread, so here are some scattered thoughts on the owning of books.

I grew up in a library-loving family (and one of my sisters is currently a librarian), and we went weekly to stock up on books. A key packing task for summer holidays was stashing the boxes of books to keep a family of five going for a month of lying around reading.

I started regularly buying books, as well as using the library, during university, and since then have almost always bought secondhand. Tattiness doesn’t bother me and I like a dollop of pre-owned character. I love discovering new authors on the shelves of secondhand bookshops – they carry an entirely different range from any new bookshop – and triumphing at book fairs. It’s the bookshelves I go to first in op shops.

My mind is largely constructed from the books I’ve read, and my bookshelves are a memory bank. I read a lot, and fast, and find that many books I have enjoyed or found helpful slip out of my consciousness if I’ve borrowed them, read them over a day or two, returned them and then not seen them again. If they have a home on the shelf, their place in my brain is safer.


Photo credit: eccentric scholar, Flickr

I get great joy from matching books and friends up, blind-date-style. I treat my books as a library, wide open to borrowing, and I’m not precious about them being returned. I’d prefer to get them back, of course, but I try not to hold on too tight – this is one way I try to keep the books from owning me. I used to keep a notebook of who had what, but I never kept track very consistently and now prefer to just hope people are enjoying them. I don’t have many books that are irreplaceable – like my Mum’s childhood copy of Anne of Green Gables – but I guess I don’t lend those. My love of lending books is the main reason I could never exclusively use an e-reader.

It’s been annoying to have almost all of my books in storage. It is a weekly occurrence to want to lend a particular book to someone and realise I don’t have it with me.

I don’t keep books I haven’t liked – or perhaps, respected – and wouldn’t recommend. I don’t keep books I can’t imagine re-reading or lending. I own very few books that I haven’t read, and keep the number of novels that I think I will read one day but not soon to under a dozen at a time.

The list of books I own solely for a one-day-it’ll-come-in-handy kind of reason is small (after years of chipping away at this), but includes foreign-language books that I can no longer understand but might again one day (yeah, I know I’m probably fooling myself). Picture books from my childhood used to be on this list but are happily now in use. One of SBJ’s very favourite books is a Church Mice book that I was never particularly attached to but was in a stack of our childhood books that my parents passed on when they sold their house to move to China for a while.

SBJ has a library card which gets regular use (I decided that four at once is a good number to stick to rigidly to help me keep track of them). I love children’s books but am happy to own or borrow. I almost always give books as presents to children, but haven’t bought very many for him so far. I guess for his whole life we’ve been on the move so I’ve been considering all purchases extra carefully. It has meant that we only carry around his enduring faves and enjoy reading other people’s wherever we are.

I am quite conscious that a habit of owning books can become idolatrous or constricting. I used to keep hold of every book I read, even when travelling, which led to a fairly ridiculous luggage situation. On my first big overseas trip, after university, I read a single-volume copy of A Suitable Boy on London tube journeys and carried it all the way home via Paris and New York.

Now I treat travel as an opportunity for spiritual growth in this area: with almost physical reluctance, I choose to give away books as I finish them rather than lugging them around the world. My Mum and Dad are my role models in this. They read even more than I do, but don’t own that many books, and often bring me a few when they visit. They both have a commendably easy-come-easy-go attitude to them. (Are you up for a guest post, perhaps, Pops? Mumsie?)

So, book-lovers, what do you think? We can all agree that reading and books are great, but why not just use a library, and how do we keep them from owning us, rather than vice versa? Some of you outlined your practices and dilemmas in the previous post. Feel free to continue here.

PS: Earthquakes have just been hitting our home town while we’re away. Securing books and bookshelves so they’re less hazardous has just gone higher up my to do list for when we move into the next house.

This is part of an occasional series on property and possessions. You can see the series list here, and the next post in the series, on the privacy and secrecy that surrounds our finances, here. Have a look around!

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0 comments on “Possession #4: On the Owning of Books”

  1. Claire 'Word by Word' Reply

    I have two shelves and am an avid reader and I am all for giving books their wings and allowing them to be reread by others. I give them away regularly, I rarely reread and don’t obsess over owning and rearranging them. I use an e-reader because its convenient for reading advance copies, it was a gift from my Aunt not long after I started writing a blog and ended up being perfect for a use I never expected to become part of, reading galleys.

    I also belong to the library and take my children there regularly, I love the library probably even more than the bookshop, because its bounds are limitless, it contains so much we will never know and we feel that presence of secrets untold.

    Hope things are ok downunder, I’ve been following events too.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Thanks heaps for your thoughts, Claire!

      Two shelves! That’s a challenge… 🙂

      Wellington’s fine, really, in most parts. A few buildings downtown closed, otherwise ok. Thanks for your concern.

  2. Alex Reply

    I grew up in a house with books in every room and a family where books were generally the first choice for presents. I have no problem at all with repeating that experience for my children. One of my favourite quotations as a child was on a bookmark that said “a home without books is like a house without windows” – we certainly have plenty of windows here!
    I used to be an avid library user, and Marcus got a library card before he’d even got a birth certificate. I’m sorry to say that it’s barely been used since. I don’t know why, but we just haven’t yet got into the library habit – our “local” library isn’t all that local or convenient really, and the few times I have been in, I sadly wasn’t that impressed.
    We do occasionally have a bit of a sort through our collection when we start to run low on space, and sometimes find half a dozen or so that can be donated. Although last time we had a shelf space problem we chose to rearrange the living room and invest in new shelves instead.
    I do lend books to friends and family freely, and am not bothered about how long they take to come back – I agree with you that sharing a good book is a pleasure in itself. Funny you should mention A Suitable Boy – I read a (donated) copy of that on my way home from China and ended up leaving it in a hostel in New Zealand somewhere to save backpack space!
    Our shelves tell a potted history of who we are, where we’ve been and what we’ve learnt. I don’t see that as baggage or a burden or a problem of any sort – I love it!

  3. ironchefwa Reply

    This is an issue close to my heart. I’m an avid reader as well, and like Alex grew up in a home full of wonderful books. I’ve recently been reviewing our bookshelves and have donated quite a few, which I’ll post about soon.

    I’m a member of our local library and I take my son there several times a week. Our library is great, and anything they don’t have they will happily find at another library or even buy for me. As a result, it is a long time since I’ve bought a new book, however I’ve got a lifetime of books at home.

    I’ll never completely get rid of my book collection, partly because I want my son to grow up with the experience I had – living in a house where an interesting, age-appropriate book is always at his finger tips. My parents’ house was like a gold mine for a reader, with classic, quirky, beautiful or funny books always on hand.

    My two rules for keeping books at present:
    1. I have read the book more than once, and can see myself reading or referring to it again in future.
    2. It is a book I would happily place in my child’s hands (at the appropriate age).

    • not a wild hera Reply

      I really like how you articulate rule #2. I think that has been in the back of my mind, but you express it beautifully, and it’s now at the front. I think I used the word ‘respect’ of books, which is a similar idea – I wouldn’t have a book I couldn’t respect on the shelves, because I wouldn’t want to recommend it to SBJ.

  4. Megan Reply

    I too grew up in a house of books. I agree that it’s difficult to part with them which I think is part of a larger picture of all the things we keep, own and display in our houses. Books, like art, furniture, furnishings, ornaments etc etc tell a story of who we are and where we’re at in life. While these things may evolve over time they provide a reflection of ourselves, reinforce our identity, and help to create a place which is meaningful and unique to us. I think I’ve considered some of these things while writing an essay on Place Making at Architecture school.

    My husband did not grow up in a house of books (despite his mother being a teacher) and one of his best strategies for winding me up is to tell me he’s going to have a book bonfire.

    We have already joked with our father who is a life long learner and horder of books that although he can’t part with them, once he’s gone we’ll just hire a skip. I’m sure in his own quiet way he burns up inside because of our joke.

    I appreciate it’s difficult to limit the number of books one owns and can only suggest one of my Rules for simple living ‘develop a habit of giving away things – even those you value’.

    Thanks to you I have been inspired to have a book swap. Some of my girlfriends have clothes swaps but I’m sure this will work for books. Anyone in the upper north island keen to join I’ll give you details when and where once I organise something!

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Hi Megan! Great ideas here. I really love your rule of giving things away – and I too have been thinking how that must include things you love to mean much.

      Tell us more about the book swap, please! Sounds great!

  5. Pingback: Minds Alive on the Shelf – Decluttering My Books Part 2 | declutteryear

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