Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My browsing life

with 5 comments

The author's library, temporarily unshelved

Note: I’m traveling for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared on May 16, 2013.

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 5, 2015 at 9:00 am

5 Responses

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  1. Interesting! It kind of makes me twitch to just browse in a book (unless it’s short stories or poems). I need to know where the story goes.

    Also, love your library.


    May 5, 2015 at 10:25 am

  2. Thanks so much!


    May 12, 2015 at 3:38 pm

  3. I just started following your blog, and I’m so delighted you re-posted this! I have to say, we’re similarly affected and love my addiction as much as you love yours! Once I took a new boyfriend to see my library–the room, not the bookshelves lining every other room in my house including the dining room and the kitchen, but an actual room with my favorite red-tassled lampshade, comfy oversided armchair, and 3 walls of books. He suggested, “You know you can sell some of these on-line.” Well, that was the beginning of the end! Just finished Megham Daum’s new book of essays–Unspeakable. Don’t know if you’re a fan, but I quickly read it cover to cover while still browsing here and there through several other tomes.

    Linda Nowlin

    May 21, 2015 at 4:36 pm

  4. Since you just wrote about your top ten movies, what are your top ten books . . . or books that have left their mark on you? That’s probably difficult to answer, but maybe you could speak about books that were meaningful to you when you were 15, 20, 25 ,etc.

    Linda Nowlin

    May 21, 2015 at 4:40 pm

  5. Glad to hear you’re enjoying the blog! As for my top ten movies, I did a similar list for works of fiction not long ago, and the titles still hold up:


    June 1, 2015 at 9:06 pm

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