One of my favorite funny quotes is from director and screenwriter John Waters, who once said, “If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.” I found the quote so funny that it became a de-facto motto of my dating life in my 20s, passed on to friends at the end of bar nights and birthday parties. Like most of us, I own a lot of books. They sit on my bookshelves and sometimes I enjoy browsing through the titles, but I mostly keep them for memories, the occasional reference, or, most of all, aesthetics.
“Check their bookshelf,” I would tell a friend. “The titles are whisperers. And if it’s sparse, you get out of there.”
Of course, the same could be applied to me—to all of us—and we know it by nature of our show-off shelfies, our humble brags of how we buy too many books, our Bookstagram stories on how we just can’t help ourselves. They say something about our interests, values, intelligence, and theoretically my books have helped someone in the decision to fuck me. At the same time, they’ve always bothered me a little. There’s something about using a thing once or twice, then holding onto it—for what, exactly?
Having so many books always made me feel some type of way, probably for one main reason: keeping so many of them feels something like greed.
A bit of personal context: I was fortunate to have traveled a lot during my early adulthood, and eventually I joined the Peace Corps. When I was in the Peace Corps, god bless them, there was only a small Peace Corps “library”—a concept to which many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers can relate, in quotations specifically because of its lack of readable books. I had access to a small number, ones mostly left behind by previous volunteers as the ones that didn’t make the cut in their limited baggage space. Still, it was better than nothing and I was glad they donated.
Living abroad with a lot of time and not many books, Peace Corps Volunteers basically had two options: have books shipped internationally or use that library. I didn’t have money to have books shipped, nor did my family have the dough to mail such heavy packages my way, so my option was chosen for me: the Peace Corps library and its glorified status as a take-a-book-leave-a-book kiosk. Which isn’t to be unappreciative—it was most definitely better than nothing—and we were definitively desperate but imagine not having access to what you want to read. Imagine not having access to books at all.
When I return to the United States over two years later, I moved to New York and find the New York Public Library. The first librarian I met must have thought me crazy.
“You mean I can reserve this online? Any one of them?” I asked, doubtful. I went on to quiz her, searching for the catch to her trick. “Like this book here? Or that one?” She looked at me like I was crazy, because I was. (I also hadn’t seen many smartphones before, so that tells you where I was mentally in my reverse culture shock.)
On that day I told myself I would never take the library for granted, and since then I like to believe I never have. I donate to my local library and began support my local indie bookstores, but I still felt that pang of guilt every time I looked at my growing bookshelf. What if nobody donated to my Peace Corps library? What if they kept their books when I was there? How many accessible Americans have it the same, or worse? Of course, the answer is many.
If there’s one thing the United States is good at, it’s mass incarceration. Recently, three New York State prisons filed a directive to ban books from being donated to prison inmates. It was a pilot program that was soon rescinded thanks to advocates who saw the infringement of a person’s right to read, but the threat should remind us how not everyone has access to the life-saving power of books. And prison inmates are easily forgotten by society and without psychological necessities like decent books to read.
Meanwhile, I have books caged on a shelf while there are inmates asking for simple books such as dictionaries (I own 3, and why?) or “pirate books” (I don’t have any of those, my pirate collection is shamefully deficient) or any other number of book topics that are useless to me but a mental oasis for somebody else. All for my shelfie, or my favorite self-deception that says I’m likely to revisit that title someday, so I need to own it forever.
And that’s a shame, because reading shouldn’t be a luxury. Everyone should have access to books, the ones that interest them, challenge them. Yet my bookshelf has long said otherwise. My bookshelf says I’m caging knowledge, or comedy, or adventure, just to look at my bookshelf every now and then like a house plant. So recently I committed to fixing my guilt problem.
If you want to help an inmate through a probably-too-harsh sentence, check out your local books-to-prisoners program. And if it helps you part with some books, remember that the best reducer of prison recidivism has proven to be education.
So, let me start over again. Like most of us, I own a lot of books. But only because it’s weeks before my purge as I willfully adopt a new philosophy: a bookshelf should never be full, unless it’s in service of others. I challenge you to do the same. Find a favorite charity to donate your books. Thin out your bookshelf intentionally and thoughtfully. For every book haul you share on Instagram, commit yourself to a de-haul as well by piling finished books into a pile for donation.
As for my personal bookshelf? It deserves to be a holding place, a foster home for the stories that move me before they go on to move someone else. So don’t fuck anyone with a perfectly full bookshelf. Fuck a reader who donates too.