Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My browsing life

with 5 comments

The author's library, temporarily unshelved

I’m grateful for a lot of things in life, but if there’s one blessing I could stand to appreciate more, it’s that owning a home full of books is still a socially acceptable form of hoarding. If I were addicted to buying kitten statues or cartons of discount detergent, I’d look a little crazy, but keeping more books around the house than I could ever possibly need just makes me look cultured and smart—or so I’d like to believe. I’ve bought maybe five to ten books a month since I was old enough to spend my own money, and the number has often been much higher: back in New York, when I lived only a short train ride from the Strand and its amazing dollar bin, I probably bought twice that amount, and occasionally even more. And I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that I love buying books for their own sake, and not necessarily because I intend to read most of them cover to cover. (It’s an urge that can only be satisfied with physical books, the older and dustier the better: after more than a year and a half, I don’t think I’ve bought more than ten books for my Kindle.)

Looking around my office now, I’d say I own about a thousand books. This a rough estimate, based on the assumption that I have fifty shelves with twenty books each, which almost certainly undercounts the true number. It also doesn’t include my wife’s two hundred books or so, which live in a separate room: even after close to four years of marriage, we still haven’t integrated our libraries, and we probably never will, given my own obsessive tendencies. The number used to be much larger, too. Before my move to Chicago, I forced myself to reduce my library to what I could fit in six large boxes, meaning that I donated or gave away something like five hundred books. How those six boxes multiplied to fill fifty shelves in less than four years is a mystery I haven’t been able to solve, although the fact that I’ve bought a hundred books a year in the meantime might be a clue. And while my acquisitive tendencies have been slightly reduced by the birth of our daughter—I just don’t have as much time to go to bookstores—it isn’t hard to foresee a future in which the house has been totally taken over by books, a prospect that fills me with delight, although my wife seems a little less enthusiastic.

The author's library

As for how many books I’ve read—well, that’s another question entirely. Even under the most generous assumptions, it’s unlikely that I’ve read more than a couple of thousand books in my adult life, and I obviously acquire books at a greater pace than I could ever hope to finish them. I’m reading all the time, but my browsing tendencies are evident here as well: at any given moment, I usually have one big literary novel I’m trying to finish, a paperback thriller, and four or five nonfiction books in various stages of completion. (These days, for instance, I’m halfway through Infinite Jest, The Fist of God, Inventors at Work, and the letters of Maxwell Perkins, and I’m still technically reading Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns and Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation.) Most of the books on my shelves have been read at least in part, and I take comfort in the fact that they’re always there to be browsed through again. I’ll often pull a random volume from the shelf and leaf through it for a few minutes to relax, and I try to make some quality time now and then for my eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The bottom line is that I’m clearly more of a browser than a reader, and I’m comfortable with this. You see it in every aspect of my life, from the small to the large: it’s possible that I became a novelist mostly as a way to rationalize my browsing. As a result, I’ve become very protective of it. Browsing is an art form, like loafing, that has been compromised by modern technology: it’s properly done in a comfortable chair, with a cup of coffee or something similar, with a book—or a stack of them—that has already passed through the hands of many other readers. Ideally, the book should be a little tattered or yellowed, which makes it seem happy for the attention, even if it’s never going to be read straight through. It requires a fine appreciation of opening a book to a middle and seeing where it takes you, or flirting a bit with a few tempting prospects before committing yourself to an after-dinner read. Above all, it demands a love of the arcane, the obscure, the obsolete, and the useless. And while it’s satisfying enough when done for only a minute or two, it expands to last a lifetime.

Written by nevalalee

May 16, 2013 at 8:37 am

5 Responses

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  1. I too have shelves and shelves of books in our library. I think I’ve read about 2/3 of them. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the others, because I do like my kindle, and I’ve got a list of books several clicks long sitting in the kindle queue.
    Is there such a thing as digital hoarding?

  2. An interesting angle on reading, and one I, too, enjoy. Thanks for the insight.

    Jet Eliot

    May 16, 2013 at 1:51 pm

  3. @Christopher: There definitely is: Hoarding goes digital.

    @Jet Eliot: Thanks!


    May 16, 2013 at 10:00 pm

  4. We are kindred souls: I too enjoy the “famous Eleventh Edition,” which I own in the compact leather-bound edition that Aldous Huxley carried with him in a trunk when traveling abroad. When I was a poor student, I bought it over several months while it sat behind the bookstore counter, in a cardboard box where I could see it.

    While I’d love to be surrounded by books at home a la the late Richard Macksey of Johns Hopkins and his 70,000 volumes, I also want to be freer to move my place of residence, and I want my wife to be as happy as I am in our shared home. So over the past three years I’ve donated several hundred books to our excellent local library, and sold some more. As we moved from a five-bedroom house to a two-bedroom apartment, I divided the remainder evenly between our apartment and a storage unit. All this winnowing was an interesting, sometimes painful process. The books I have left are very cool, but since half of them are in storage, where I can no longer enjoy them and sometimes no longer remember them, I find myself wondering how many books I really need. When I finally took that encyclopedia home, I remember thinking, “Never again will I have nothing in the house to read.” It’s been a long time since that was a problem.

    As the shelves continued to fill up, they seemed to tell me who I was, and I could point to them proudly, if secretly, as proof that I am impressively intelligent and learned. But having reached a more mature age, maybe I don’t need those good feelings reinforced anymore. My sense of identity has become more internal. But there’s no doubt that a good book will always be a sacred object to me. And I will always view the large personal libraries of others with a certain amount of envy, and be drawn to examine the shelves with fascination.

    John Cooper

    May 20, 2013 at 11:02 am

  5. That’s awesome—I’d never heard of Richard Macksey or his library, but now I’m fascinated by it.

    Incidentally, I almost picked up a copy of the compact version of the Britannica, too, but arrived a few hours too late to claim it—the book sale where I got my set had several different editions, and the compact one, which I’d had my eye on, was gone when I got there. It all worked out in the end, though, because I suspect that the type in the compact edition would be too small for me to comfortably read.


    May 20, 2013 at 9:24 pm

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