More Thoughts About the NTBR Pile

Yesterday’s post (From the TBR pile to the NTBR pile) generated some comments from Mastodon participants that have me thinking more about the question whether I should sell or give away some of my books, acknowledging that I’m never going to read all of them. As I said then, I know that doing this would help to declutter our small condo. But would it also serve to declutter my mind? Or, as I said yesterday, would there be “something freeing about it”?

I hinted in that post that there’s an underlying struggle in these deliberations: though I really do feel some urge to winnow my book collection, on the whole I’ve been willing, so far, to stay with the status quo. Though my wife is willing, so far, to live with the status quo, she really does feel (and occasionally expresses) a strong desire to have fewer books in our admittedly limited space.

Mastodon participant StefanieH at (surely unknowingly!) weighed in on my side against that of my wife, reminding me of Umberto Eco’s notion of the anti-library. Stefanie points to Maria Popova’s account of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s account of Eco’s point:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

(I’ll interrupt this missive to say that if you’re not subscribing to Popova’s The Marginalian, you really should check it out. Even better, throw her a few coins to support her work!)

Of course, Eco is right about the menacing power of these books. And I’m proud to say that the number of unread books on my shelves has grown over the years, probably faster than the number of books on my shelves that I’ve read. The menace is potent; so potent, in fact, that I suspect it would continue to pulse through my psyche even after the books are sitting on the shelves of the used book store. So perhaps they don’t have to stay on our shelves to maintain their potency. (I know, though, that their potency as research tools would be diluted if I had to seek them out elsewhere because they weren’t sitting on our shelves.)

There’s also another factor in my particular situation: My wife would insist (and, being the reasonable person that I am, I have to agree) that we add the constraints of physical space to those that Eco lists (“financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market”). Of course, I hasten to point out that reasonable minds can disagree on this point – I think I’d be happy to be surrounded by walls of books in every room. My wife, not so much.

But there’s more. Just an hour or so later, @ajlewis2 (again, surely unknowingly!) leapt to the defense of my wife’s position, offering Anthony De Mellon insightful advice (from his book Walking on Water) helping one to part with something that one values: “Take these books (hard to separate from) and say to them ‘How precious you are and loved, but you are not my life. I have a life to live and a destiny to fulfill different from you.’” Good advice there. I especially like “I have a life to live and a destiny to fulfill different from you.” I think that’s a much richer account of the dynamics of a decision not to read a book, even though I still feel an urgent desire to read it. There are so many books (and so little time) that I’m forced to decide not to read some of them. I should value the freedom inherent in making that decision intentionally rather than accidentally, while still acknowledging the value of what I’m giving up and why I’m doing that.

So, what to do? I’m still inclined to declutter, selecting some of my valued books to put on other shelves. But I’m just as strongly inclined to put off the action at least a bit, so I can sit in our small condo and enjoy the menacing power of the books all around me.