Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Have You Read All These Books?"

If you have any sizable collection of books, I am sure you have been asked frequently: "Have you read all these books?" It's an annoying question because it betrays that the person who asks it is not a serious reader. Any answer you give: "yes", "yes, but" "no" ... will almost certainly not be understood. I dread the question because I usually want to be "nice." But how do you explain something as complicated as reading and the need to keep books around to someone who has never thought about serious reading.

I recently came across an answer that is as good as any: "The best library contains both books you have read, and books you have not. The latter should grow in proportion as the library expands. A working library is as much a place for the possible as it is a record of the past."[1] But I will not use it either to answer people who ask the question.

1. See here — an interesting site.


Michael Leddy said...

I like what you've quoted. I remember reading that Umberto Eco thinks of the unread books on his shelves as the most important of his books.

I get the question sometimes from students coming to talk to me in my office. My answer: "A lot of them, but not all of them. Having a lot of books goes with being a professor." I think part of the reason for this question, at least sometimes, is that the person asking has simply never seen so many books in one place outside of a library.

MK said...

Thank you very much for the comment! Actually, I do not get this comment from students very often. At Purdue, I kept most of my books at home and at BU students seem to be used to it. In any case, even if they asked it, I would feel a duty to explain!

I was mainly talking about other visitors at home and at the office.