Why it’s ok to buy books and not read them

I used to feel guilty about books I own but haven’t read. They’d sit in piles making me feel unworthy as a writer, and reader. And no matter how many books I’d read in a year, I’d always find myself buying more. I couldn’t win. It was a destructive cycle and it drove me mad. It was yet another kind of information I seemed to be drowning in.

One day I realized there was another way to frame my behavior. The goal should not be efficiency because efficiency makes you conservative. As a writer I need an ambitious curiosity, not a safe one. It’s good to take bets on books at the limits of my comfort zone. That willingness to buy books signals to myself there are new worlds other creators make, and for the price of a meal I can purchase the opportunity to discover them. I can’t penalize myself for trying. If I never read any of the books that might be a problem, but merely not reading some of them is entirely sensible. The clothes we buy mostly sit unworn. Our couches are mostly not sat in. It’s rare for a thing to be used as much as it could be.

Buying books also has these larger effects:

  • Purchases signal the creator that I’m interested in what they made.
  • It’s a bestseller list – not a best read list – buying a book signals agents, editors and publishers.
  • It provisions future curiosity, since in 3 months or years I can easily read that book.
  • Seeing a good writer’s name and knowing I helped their career feels good.

I feel no guilt now in abandoning books either. They’re not children, they’re invented things. If I don’t like it after 50 pages I owe the author nothing. In fact since I bought the book, I paid for the right to read as much or little as I please. Never finishing books is a different problem, and the solution for that is buying better books.

Not sold yet? How about this: on the day I was born there were already more books published that I could ever read. There was never the potential to read everything. I have to abandon the expectation of perfection in my book purchases, for the same reasons I need to abandon the expectation of perfection in everything. Books are cheap, my literary inefficiencies doesn’t cost much in the long run, especially if those bets and gambles help me find a book or two a year that changes my life.

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32 Responses to “Why it’s ok to buy books and not read them”

  1. Matt

    Great points, Scott. Plus, now I don’t feel so bad that I haven’t had a chance to read ‘Confessions of a Public Speaker’ that’s been sitting on my desk for 6 months :)

    Reply
    • Scott

      It should be noted I am a writer and therefore I am biased in all my opinions about buying books :)

      Reply
    • Jack Dempsey

      Matt,

      If you’re interested in that topic (and I imagine so given you bought the book), do yourself a favor and commit to reading 10 pages this weekend. If you like great, if not or timing is hard, put down til next time.

      FWIW it’s the best book on that topic I’ve ever read.

      Reply
  2. Jennie

    Scott, You have just released me from my book-related guilt! THANK YOU! I just received two books in the mail yesterday (The 4-Hour BODY by Tim Ferris and Abundance by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. I added it to my shelf of The 4-Hour Chef, two Malcom Gladwell books, some Seth Godin and I’m embarrassed to list the others I have on my list to read. However, that is just one shelf of five in my bookcase, and the other four shelves contain books I HAVE read. As these books came in yesterday, I was hovering over the ‘buy now’ button for yet another book, Catalyst Leader that is coming out – and OH THE GUILT. “Jennie, you can’t get another book with so many others piling up to read.” But I couldn’t resist the bonuses… so I got it… and a book-sized weight got piled on top of my burden of guilt. Your post is like a GUILT-BE-GONE pill – I LOVE it! Again, THANK YOU!!!

    Reply
    • Scott

      You’re welcome. Glad to be of use.

      It’s a funny thing, but sometimes people are embarrassed to tell me they bought one of my books but haven’t read it. Authors are grateful anyone buys their book for any reason at all – most of the planet will never buy any of my books. Which means to meet someone who was willing to plunk down some of their hard earned cash is always a pleasure and a privilege.

      Reply
      • Jennie

        Yikes… you caught me. Yes, to add to the others I have not yet read, I’m sitting on (not literally – ha!) a copy of Mindfire… I always say I’m transparent – but even when I’m trying not to be… I guess I am. At least I no longer feel guilty about having it unread at the moment! :-)

        Reply
  3. Astrid Claessen

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the great post! The myths of innovation was a fast read, Confessions of a public speaker a piece meal read (finished it last week and started an Improv theatre class this week) and Making Things happen a reference when I need inspiration on a certain aspect of project management. They’re on my Kindle so always at my fingertips.

    I do try to only buy “sure reads” but sometimes encounter books that just won’t go down….. I feel less guilty about that now and happy to contribute in such a grand way (116 books in less than 2 years)….

    Enjoy the ones you do read!

    Reply
  4. Jack Dempsey

    Glad to read this Scott. I’ve developed a habit of 1-click kindling many great books, and am almost afraid to see how long that list is now. Silly, right? So many good things to fear in life, and I’m somehow anxious about it.

    I think I’ll do what I suggested to Matt–just make time (it’s there) to read 10 pages. That will often be telling and you can go from there….though if I did that to Crime and Punishment I NEVER would have finished….

    hope you’re well!

    Reply
  5. Scott

    Great related comment by Nassim Taleb:

    “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.”

    Source

    Reply
    • Hristo Vassilev

      Hey Scott,

      I was just about to post the same quote. Ryan Holiday wrote on the subject as well: “We all have books and papers that we haven’t read yet. Instead of feeling guilty, you should see them as an opportunity: know they’re available to you if you ever need them. ”

      From ‘How I did Research For 3 New York Times Bestselling Authors” – http://bit.ly/ML2KaC

      Reply
  6. Percy

    Thanks for writing about this–this post really resonated with me.

    I used to feel bad (occasionally) about not reading books until I realized that I was doing a good thing by buying books (for the author) even if I didn’t read some of them. I also figured out that there are going to be some unread books in my queue no matter how many books I read. The latter realization was especially freeing. Paradoxically, after realizing both these things, I’ve been much more open about tackling the “unread” stack; previously I used to encounter a lot more resistance.

    I’ve also noticed that, with some books at least, it may not be the right time to read a particular book. I’ve put down books at some point or not even tried to pick up certain books and then suddenly, at a later date, these books are suddenly ones that I’m enjoying. At that point, I wonder why I didn’t pick up the book earlier. So, maybe there is a “right time” for some books and maybe for some books it isn’t the right time yet.

    Reply
  7. Phil Simon

    If the author doesn’t hold your interest, then walk away. It’s not your fault. You have no obligation.

    I used to finish every book I started. No more.

    Nice post, Scott.

    Reply
  8. Mark Ashley

    A wall of books also makes for pretty good insulation. Reading them is optional.

    Reply
  9. Evonne Benedict

    Scott – THANK YOU! Our house is crammed full of books we will never read.

    A few years back my husband bought me a Kindle and I wasn’t sure about it. But now I read almost everything on it (I have a Paperwhite now). And I’m finally going to release some of my analog books back into the wild for others to enjoy.

    But we will still have hundreds in our house that we will never read, for the reasons mentioned and the joy they bring just by being here.

    Reply
  10. Steve Logan

    Books can be a little like DVDs; we might buy them when they’re released/on offer/pique our interest, but that doesn’t always mean that they get watched/read instantly. Sometimes it might be a matter of days, as you finish off the last book, occasionally it is months and once every now and then – never.

    I’ve got a pile of books that are there as and when the time arises. They often get shunted down my ‘to read’ pile, but one day they will have their day. If you’re in the mood for light reading, you’re unlikely to pick up a tome from Dostoevsky. Equally, a rock n’ roll memoir might not be ideal if you want some classic literature. It’s all horses for courses – or at least it is in my world.

    Great read, thanks Scott.

    Reply
  11. Bernard Dy

    Thanks Scott,

    I love the topic! As a reader and collector, I have way more books than I could read, but you’ve noted some great reasons why collecting books is a good thing.

    Some of the other readers have mentioned that it’s nice just to have books around. Think of what your library says about you too; when others see what you have on your shelf, the types of things you like to read may say something about you.

    I wonder if or how all of this changes with the seeming drop in popularity of books in general and the rise of eBooks?

    Reply
  12. Http://www.unmods.Pl/

    When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get several e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service?
    Cheers!

    Reply
  13. Robert

    …and then there are books that I’ve read over and over again.

    Personally, I’ve learned to stay clear of great offers on computer books with a version number in the title… by the time I get around to them they are already outdated. But classics like Refactoring, the GoF patterns book, or non-computer stuff like Confessions of a Public Speaker just don’t go bad.

    Reply
  14. Bob

    I am guilty of this too. Although, I have read MindFire. A few years ago I went on a buying sabbatical for a year to catch up on my backlog. I also check the library first. It helps cut down on my piles.

    Reply
  15. Muhammad Arrabi

    Thanks for the post.

    I actually do it backwards, I usually read the book first (public library or listen to it – or even read the summary online), and then buy it if I like it. Books for me are “part of me”. Some like to stack the walls with paintings, music albums, DVDs, or decorations. I like to lead guests through my Book Library (in the living room), and wait to see if one of these books would “start a conversation”.

    Doesn’t always work, but totally worth it when it does.

    Reply
  16. Vivienne

    I’ve a friend who just purchased an entire book shop! Why, in this age of e-readers and quick, cost effective Internet book shopping..and when shops are closing by the moment, would anyone do this? I think, whether an entire shop or just one book, it is about a sense of beauty & place in the world and our desire to learn, grow, connect and enlarge our lives. I hope we never lose that.
    When I see those spines, I know that within them is the best effort of another human being & that inspires me. That I can actually hold and engage in this is beyond me! And when days grow mundane, spirits step out to remind me that there’s no such thing as boredom in this household! There’s always something more in the presence of an unopened book. I may never read them all, but they are there to speak when I desire them & about whatever subject is on my mind. I only have to reach out for them, then sit down to “listen.” Investing in one more book or an entire book shop, like building a house in a hurricane, may make little sense. But it speaks “volumes” about our faith in the ability of literature to weather the storms, defines who we are and expresses hope for another day. When storms do rage, our “friends” are right there and even in darkness we can hold on to them, light a candle and explore a new landscape of life. So “buying ahead” and having stocked shelves seems brilliant if you ask me! I’ll never go hungry, there’s always something fresh just beyond my finger-tips. Their worth to feed, shelter and clothe us never diminishes. What else has such enduring “shelf life” and style? I buy books I’ll probably never read and I write ones I’ll probably never write, but all of them hang on a hook of hope..the hope that possibly…POSSIBLY…I will take one down and enjoy it. It may not make good sense to buy books when we’ve a stack of unread ones before us, but how many good things of life do make sense? The best usually don’t. (And I’m typing with one finger on I-phone…in a crowd..so I HOPE this rant makes “sense.” Or not.)

    Reply
  17. Dan S

    I am typically reading 4-6 books in parallel. If a highly anticipated book arrives, I may pause the others and read it end to end. I finish most but not all books. I also have ~100 books in my private Amazon wish lists. It’s a way to curate current and potential future interest. I buy most books from the wish lists but ~75% of them will never be purchased. more than 25% of the books I purchase will never be read. I always read the intro and the first chapter though that is often available via Kindle free samples now so that helps ;-)

    Reply
  18. Scott

    Good point from Diana:

    “…books build my library as reference material that will be applicable (& therefore more readable) in future.”

    Reply
  19. Pasduil

    That’s all well and good if you have cash to spare, are adventurous in your book buying, give the books you buy a fair try, then decide some of them aren’t for you.

    For me what you say would all just be pure rationalization. The reason I never actually read half the books I bought in my life is a) I bought far more than there was any realistic prospect of me getting around to reading and b) getting distracted by some other thing so whatever I’d enthusiastically picked up got forgotten about soon after.

    In essence, not much different than throwing out half the food you buy.

    Reply
    • Scott

      I think it’s a mistake to optimize certain things. If you’re ambitious about trying new things and learning, you will be inefficient and will make mistakes, but more successful than never taking risks and spending energy ensuring every decision is perfect.

      Books are cheap. A 300 page book is 6-10 hours of experience. Compared to almost any other form of entertainment or education it’s a bargain.

      But of course I understand if books aren’t a good source of knowledge or experience for some people. Everyone is different. The post could be titled “Why it’s ok to rent more movies than you watch” or “go to more city parks than you picnic in” etc.

      Reply
  20. Jim Takchess

    Here are a few suggestions:
    1) create a goodreads account @goodreads.com
    2) list a bunch of books as to-read
    3) go to the library and see what they have on your to-read list
    4) request that the library purchase books you would like to read but they don’t own.

    >even if you never read a to-read book at least others get a shot to.

    Reply
  21. martin

    I thought I was rare, not reading bought books. Eventually I do read them, the longest – 20 years between buying and reading. Nowadays I give BOXES to local libraries, with the thought if I wanted to revisit them I would check them out :)

    Reply
  22. AMYunus

    When a book is written and getting no response from readers, author probably feel either his book is really great or his book is really completely not able to be understood, henceforth readers are speechless.

    Reply

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