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 (hint hint!).
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.