How To

Toward a Philosophy on Book Collecting

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Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Most readers without unlimited space or superhuman self control must develop a philosophy on book collecting. My method has evolved over the course of my life, and it’s sure to continue changing. As we approach spring cleaning season, it’s an especially good time to shore up your thoughts about your personal library. While you’re at it, shore up some of those piles of books so they don’t topple.

Owning Books is Not a Substitute for Intelligence or Personality

A quick search on Twitter yields all sorts of things that are “not a personality”: crossfit, hating pineapple on pizza, owning houseplants. I’ll stop there lest any of us feel too attacked. Merely owning books and displaying them in the public parts of your living space isn’t equivalent to cultivating reading tastes, interests, and opinions.

If you’re keeping a copy of Ulysses on your shelf despite having never read it (this is wild conjecture not at all based on my own reality), think about why.  It’s taken some time for me to get to this place, but I no longer want people to scan my shelves, see Ulysses, and think that confers some smarts to me. I want them to talk to me and learn exactly how dumb I am.

Libraries are Collections of Collections

Once you’ve arrived at the place where you have accepted that your personal library is just that, it’s great to think about it the same way professional libraries do. The public library in my town has special collections for local authors, history, and genealogy; other libraries have special collections devoted to a particular writer or kind of media. If you, like me, are worried that unfettered book buying would result in your own death by book avalanche, you have to narrow your collecting goals.

For me, I’m interested in collecting gothic literature and books about gothic literature. I also collect interesting editions of Little Women and other books relating to Louisa May Alcott. I love contemporary poetry, graphic novels, and retellings of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Naturally, I also have sentimental favorites from childhood onward. With my collecting goals thus defined, it becomes easy to choose which books to buy electronic or paper versions of. Borrowing a book from the library rather than buying it makes perfect sense. And giving away a book that I already own that doesn’t fit my framework is not at all heartbreaking.

Not only is my book collection full of volumes that I love and that fascinate me specifically, the collection is now a truer reflection of my personality, inasmuch as any of our physical possessions can be. Before, someone might have silently noted my ownership of Infinite Jest and assumed something about me. Whatever they imagine is less puzzling than my own realization that I somehow own the book despite having read a library copy? Does that book just appear on “book nerd” shelves unbidden? Begone, ponderous tome! Nowadays, someone might note, “You sure do seem to like Frankenstein,” and isn’t that much more interesting conversation fodder?

Books are Decor

Organize them by color! Place them on the shelves spine-in! You are beholden to neither Melvil Dewey nor the Library of Congress, so go nuts. Rare books are underpriced, as it turns out, because rich people don’t know how to display them in their homes, in case you were wondering if rich people lack imagination. Whether your books are rare or not, show them off, if only to remind you of how they make you feel. I aspire to display my vintage paperback collection in a grid on my wall, a Warholesque tribute to the repeated visual theme on their covers, Women Running from Houses. Buy cool shelves, build cool shelves, face your books out, leave them out on desks and tables. Surround yourself with books.

Some people felt affronted by Marie Kondo’s approach to minimalism about books in particular. When I read her book, what resonated with me was her advice to visualize your ideal living space. My ideal living space is cluttered with books, and I can still run that vision through the sparking joy algorithm. There’s no need to conform to a minimalist philosophy on book ownership.

Your TBR Need Not Be Physical

Pop quiz: how many books on your shelf have been there for years, which you are meaning to read? Me too. If you’ve developed your aforementioned collecting philosophy, and a given book does not match that philosophy, let it go, as long as it isn’t something that would be difficult to attain in the future.

Use a book tracking website, a spreadsheet (try Book Riot’s Reading Log!), or go analog with a notebook. We have journal ideas as well. Your job is not to hang onto every book you might ever want to read; that’s an actual library’s job. Donating, selling, or gifting a book you’ve been meaning to read does not mean you’ll never get to it. As with so many things in life, if it’s important enough to you, you’ll eventually make time for it.

Don’t Be Afraid of Rules

I have an acquisitive nature. I collect books and hobbies and enamel pins, etc., etc. It’s not something I’m proud of, and I’m constantly teasing out whether I truly want something or whether capitalism has tricked me into that feeling. Even with collecting goals in place, it’s easy for purchases to get out of control, or to feel stress or shame about the state of things. There’s nothing wrong with creating rules or keeping track of books to keep yourself honest. If you’re feeling the squeeze in your living space, your wallet, or your psyche because of too many books, you may need to institute a one-in, one-out policy. You may need to track your budget. Perhaps a waiting period before purchases would be beneficial. These are good techniques! Instead of feeling bad about your books, find a system that works for you and stick to it.

There’s No One Way

Books are deeply personal; so too should be your collection. If you’re interested in reading about some of the amazing book collecting that happens among women under the age of 30 in the United States, check out the Honey and Wax Book Collecting Prize. And get in touch with me on Twitter if you want to tell me about your book collection. I promise I want to hear all about it.