Our Reading Lives

Perennial Question: Can A Person Have Too Many Books?

Leila Roy

Staff Writer

After a lengthy stint as a children's bookseller, Leila Roy took a step sideways into the library world. There, she does the same thing she did as a bookseller—matching people with stories in any and all formats, whether print, audio, film, comic, or some newfangled hybrid—but doesn't have to deal with changing the tape on the cash register. She lives in Maine with her husband, where she runs her small-town library and occasionally tries to rescue wildlife from her cat, who is a murderer. In addition to talking books at her long-running blog, Bookshelves of Doom, she's a weekly columnist at Kirkus Reviews. Blog: Bookshelves of Doom Twitter: @bkshelvesofdoom

Answer: Yes. Yes, she absolutely can.

Over the course of the past weekend, I dealt with this situation:


My husband calls it The Cube.

He’s called it that for years, because this is only the latest in many, many visits from The Cube.

I’m a librarian. And a reader. And a reviewer. New books enter our house every day—some that I buy, some that I borrow from the library, some that publishers send in the hopes that I’ll cover them, some that seem to just appear out of thin air. As much as I read and as fast as I read, I will never ever ever ever be able to keep up.

(I’m guessing that a lot of you out there can relate?)

So, despite the fact that I have a whole lot of shelf space, every few months the overflow becomes The Cube, and suddenly it feels like there’s a third person living in our (extremely small) house.

And that’s when the weeding begins.

I pull it all apart, and I sort books into two piles: books I immediately know I want/need to keep vs. books I immediately know can go away. Then I sort the Go Away pile into finished copies vs. unfinished review copies—finished copies get donated to my library, and review copies get recycled.

Here’s a picture of what I ultimately discarded:


Then comes the hard part: dealing with the rest.

I sort and sort and sort and sort, breaking the piles down by publication year and, in the case of upcoming titles, by publication MONTH:


Here’s part of the (almost) finished product—also known as the Former Home of The Cube:


I get rid of even more, shelve what I can—alphabetically by author for the most part—and then I start making room by weeding the shelves themselves. Sometimes I find books that I was once interested in reading, but that interest has waned; sometimes I find books that are there purely because I feel like I SHOULD read them.

Let’s be honest: we’ve all got a few of those books on our shelves. Books that we’re hanging on to because they’re capital-I important, because they were gifts, because they won such-and-such award. And books that, worst of all, we’re holding on to because we think it will somehow reflect badly on us as readers if we not only haven’t read them, but have no intention of reading them. Books that are there because of What Other People Might Think, not because we actually want them.

Every so often, there’s an essay—or sometimes an entire book, barf—bemoaning the State of Modern-Day Reading Culture, wailing about how a lack of interest in a specific subgenre of literature is a sign of the decline of civilization. (Not-so-surprisingly, said pieces usually focus on long-dead cishet white male authors, and not-so-surprisingly, said pieces usually say more about the essayist’s ego and desire for intellectual validation than they do about their supposed topic, but holy cow, I am digressing.)

As much as we push back against that mentality, as much as we talk about reading what we want to read because we want to read it, like any other message that is pushed at us over and over and over again, deep down, it’s very easy for that message to worm its way into our hearts and our brains. It’s like advertising.

As I scan my shelves looking to make more room, I try to keep that in mind. If I look at a book and feel a sense of obligation rather than an active desire to read, that’s a good indicator that I’m probably never going to get around to reading it.

If I change my mind, there’s always the library.

Or, more likely, I might buy it all over again, thus continuing the life cycle of The Cube.

(At least I’m honest about my bad habits?)

For more on weeding—including various weeding techniques!—see these posts.