Friday, 7 March 2014

Callous neglect

A new survey says the average British household owns 138 books, but less than half of them have been read. The others are poor lonely things that have been callously neglected.

Our own bookshelves have a lot more than 138 books - more like a thousand, I would say. But the unread portion is probably about right - something like half. So why are they unread, I hear you asking?

1) We know they're excellent books and we fully intend to read them when the time is ripe. When we're both retired maybe.
2) We read a few pages of the book, couldn't really get into it, but kept it in case we were more attuned at some later date.
3) We didn't know we even had the book. We must have bought it some time. Or maybe somebody gave it to us. We must read it.

One journalist* suggested "It would be a slightly scary household where every single book had been read." Indeed it would. It would suggest powers of concentration, determination and enthusiasm bordering on the miraculous.

It would be almost as scary if none of the books had been read, and the whole collection was merely an attempt to impress any well-read visitors. It would be awkward though if the visitor suddenly asked you what you thought of Jonathan Franzen's views on family dynamics.

The same journalist guessed that the volumes in the lavatory were most likely to be read, though probably not if you were busy vomiting at the time.

But there's something very cosy and reassuring about bookshelves, whether the books are read or unread. The mere fact that many of the books were written decades or even centuries ago gives a sense of continuity and permanence that soothes all those hovering anxieties.

That is, until one of your oldest paperbacks simply disintegrates as you're lovingly dusting it, and turns into a useless heap of confetti.

* Ben Milne of the BBC

42 comments:

LadyLuz said...

What is it Cicero said "With a garden and a library, you have all you need".

A home wouldn't be one without books; mine have followed me around since the early 60s and , yes, some threaten to fall to bits on the umpteenth read.

I have a Kindle and it's easy to give in to the impulse to click and buy. I don't find that reading this way is as satisfying as holding an actual book. And as for reference or other non-fiction...impossible on a Kindle.

susie said...

I don't have that many books. I've always been a fan of the library, and now I have this huge addiction to blogs. :-)

Secret Agent Woman said...

I used to have lots of books because I just kept them. Now I only keep some favorites and ones I plan to read soonish. If I start a book and don't like it, I get rid of it. I have a big stack I'm planning to take to donate to the library's annual book sale. It has to do with minimizing how much stuff I own. I do get books form the library and also have many books on my iPad.

Bijoux said...

We have zero adult fiction books here because I either use the library or donate books I've read. We have maybe a dozen medical, gardening and travel guidebooks. I guess we are not normal!

Nick said...

LadyLuz: I wouldn't quite agree with Cicero. I think a kitchen and bathroom and bedroom are pretty essential too.

I had to replace Therese Raquin because I'd read it so many times all the pages were falling out.

I agree, there's something about reading a physical book that's more satisfying than reading a screen. Not sure why though.

Nick said...

Susie: I'm all in favour of libraries, but I find they seldom have the recently-published books I'm usually looking for.

Agent: That's very disciplined of you, managing to part with so many books. Of course you plan to move soon, so the fewer possessions to be moved the better....

Nick said...

Bijoux: Well, is there anyone who's normal? You're obviously very disciplined about disposing of books as well. Reference books are different of course, they can be useful for decades, as long as the content doesn't get outdated. And we're likely to have read at least parts of them.

Ursula said...

That you have read Therese Raquin so many times you had to replace it I find mildly worrying. Sure, it's a good story. But ... who am I actually corresponding with here?

U

Nick said...

Ursula: I think it's a brilliant story of people who quite casually do something utterly heinous and then are gradually eaten away by what they've done until it finally destroys them.

Helen Devries said...

I wouldn't dream of parting with a book unless it was something ghastly that I had been given by some well meaning person - in which case it goes out double quick.

Unless a book is still in the 'just arrived' box it has been read....we are building a new house and one factor in the design was having somewhere to put the books!

And that's not to mention the books in our house in Spain...always good to go there and find them waiting.

My husband re reads Zola too...

Nick said...

Helen: Very true about planning a place for all the books when moving house! We have bookshelves dotted all over the place. None in the lavatory though!

Helen Devries said...

No neither have we!

Grannymar said...

I do have books in the living room and in my bedroom. Some were gifts but several have arrived with the message: "Mum, you would enjoy this one". I do buy books, but the one off reads, I pass on or give to a charity shop - someone might as well have them and it saves me some dusting time! ;)

Mike said...

We have always bought books more than we've borrowed. Our library system doesn't keep up with our diverse interests.

We bought kindles a couple of years ago and, in the interim, have purchased virtually zero physical books. I am in the process of reading and rereading Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan books and have purchased some of them on kindle, even though we have a hardback copy. Reason? The books are so large it is uncomfortable to read for a long period of time. The kindle have also been a plus for when we travel in our small RV (caravan). We don't have to figure out where to stash the books in our limited storage spaces for a 6 to 8 week trip.

I would guess that our percentage of books read of what we own would have been close to 90 to 95% -- until we bought a bunch for resale online several years ago... just about the time the resale value of books went through the floor because so many people were reselling books. We still have a lot of those books, though a lot have been given away.

Nick said...

Grannymar: We regularly weed out unwanted books to give to the War on Want bookshop, but there are still plenty of unread books left on the shelves!

Mike: I can see the advantages of using a kindle, but I haven't yet felt the urge to buy one. I do like the feel of a real book in my hand, though I seldom buy hardbacks for the reason you give - they're too large to read (and transport) easily.

John Gray said...

I bought Hugo's Les Miserables after seeing the stage musical.
It was so big, I couldn't even pick it up, let alone read the bugger

Cheerful Monk said...

I once had over 800 books in our small apartment --- I gave most of them away to our Friends of the Library. They have a little bookstore and are always happy to get donations. I now have some physical books, some on my Kindle and iPads, and some audio books. Plenty to keep me amused.

Nick said...

John: I'm not keen on over-long books either. When I read a 400-page book, I usually conclude that it could have been condensed to 200 pages without losing anything important.

Jean: 800 books in a small apartment sounds pretty overwhelming. We have a fairly spacious house to spread our books around, but if we had to downsize in a hurry, we'd be forced to say goodbye to some of them.

Alan G said...

I’ve been driving by for a while now but thought I’d stop and visit this time by….

I’ve never been a ‘book person’ as relates to casual reading and particularly as relates to fiction. Now non-fiction is a different story but even though I read a lot of non-fiction, it is all done these days virtually or digitally. I am fully aware of many people’s desire to hold and cuddle their books but not me – I’m solely interested in the content and not the packaging. And I’m sure many would condemn me to “book hell” for being so blatantly sacrilegious.

It’s like music in a way; I never bought a record or CD for the pleasure of holding the record jacket or CD case while I listened to the contained music. It’s all about the content. And music now, just like books, no longer requires “physical space” in our lives. So what’s the difference?

In the case of non-fiction, a number of years back when books were being digitized for the Internet and selections were more and more available, I gave away a ton of books that I had spent a lot of money on because they became cumbersome and too inconvenient to use for me.

I should add that in addition to the above as relates to my choices, as I have gotten older and dealing with lighting and the written page as relates to eye sight, the digital access via whatever device has made reading a much more pleasurable experience for me.

I completely understand and respect the fact that others love and cherish the “book”. But for me the days of book shelves has long since passed by.

Nick said...

Alan G: You've certainly embraced the digital age with enthusiasm! I know ultimately the content is what matters, but there's still something about a physical book that I enjoy. I haven't even bought a kindle yet.

Interesting point about e-readers being easier on the eye if your eyesight isn't what it used to be.

Oh, and don't worry, I'm not sending you to book hell just yet!

Jay of The Depp Effect said...

It looks to me as if you have more than a thousand books. I know we have!

I know that 'confetti' syndrome all too well. One of OH's early science fiction novels did that to me while I was reading it the other day. It is most disconcerting!

As to how many of ours have actually been read, well I'd say in our case it's probably more like two thirds. Of the others, yes, there are books that we simply can't get into or that we inherited. I will not get rid of my father's books. I didn't keep all of them, just the reference books on insects and some which have particular resonance for me, like his collection of hard-back H G Wells and the soft leather bound Ingoldsby Legends, which he loved.

Nick said...

Jay: Oh, those aren't our bookshelves, though we have just as many and they're just as stuffed!

You've got me wondering where all my father's books went to. My mother moved out of a four bedroom house into a one bedroom flat, and I have no idea what happened to his books. Not that I especially wanted any, but I must ask her about them.

CheerfulMonk said...

I agree with Alan, e-readers are easier on poor eyes. I've had trouble with my eyes all my life, and being able to make the print larger is a Godsend.

Wisewebwoman said...

Oh I so love my books, and like you often toss one aside until I might be in a different headspace to read it.

Never. Happens.

XO
WWW

Nick said...

Jean: My eyesight's still pretty good, but I might yet reach the kindle-only years!

www: I agree, the second reading is usually as disappointing as the first, but I live in hope.

Sol said...

I love books. if I like it and have it on my kindle I have now got the bad habit of also buying the paperback.

When we moved here I had to donate hundreds of books. I still have too many to count, I do try and get rid of them. I just cant. not any more I am down to my best ones that I am slowly re-reading. next purchase will be a hard back copy of the snow child. shh don't tell OH!

Jenny Woolf said...

I used to be much more selective about the books I bought, and they were always ones I had read. I now do have quite a few that I haven't got around to. I don't really like that feeling. I wish therefore that I could stop myself from buying more until I've read the ones I haven't yet opened.

Nick said...

Sol: Oh dear, you buy the kindle version and then the paperback version - that's a serious addiction! We also have many books we just can't bear to part with. We're sure we're going to reread them one day. Honest, guv.

Jenny: You'll have to be super-disciplined and just not buy any more until you've read the unread ones. Or the unread ones will get totally out of control!

Rummuser said...

I have got books coming literally out of my ears and simply do not have any more space at home for new ones. I have to get down to culling one of these days. In the meanwhile, I am buying only what needs to be bought if it is available on Kindle or that I can download on to my tablet. I have another problem that you are unlikely to face, dust!

Nick said...

Ramana: Literally coming out of your ears? That must be painful!

Plenty of dust on our books too. But maybe it acts as a preservative.

Sol said...

lol Nick there is also the thing that if you line all your walls with books it is not only another layer of insulation it is also sound deadening as well. you see there are perks. Kindles cant do that.

Nick said...

Sol: Indeed, books are excellent insulation. Expensive though if you have an entire wall's worth of books.

Keith Smith said...

I inherited a huge Jacobean bookcase from an Aunt. It took a low loader lorry and three men to get it into the house. I looked at it and though it needed a few more books than my twenty of so to fill it. I spent the next few years buying every old looking book I could find, some of them on their last legs, just to fill it. Now it looks magnificent and never ceases to impress the visitors. They think I'm intelligent!

Nick said...

Keith: If I'd inherited something as massive as that, I would just have sold it! And I certainly don't buy books to impress my visitors, I buy them because I want to read them.

Keith Smith said...

But I do read the old books. I just love the old flowery English used in some of them, and it's nice to read books where the grammar is nearly as good as what I write.

Nick said...

Keith: Ah, glad to know you actually read some of the books! Olde Englishe can be quite fascinating.

Liz Hinds said...

I'm glad it's not yet me who has so many unread books. Some I buy with really good intentions, others are whims.
But isn't it odd that when I'm looking for something to read I can never find anything? At least not right for the moment.

Nick said...

Liz: I know what you mean, I also have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate certain books. I can easily dismiss half a dozen as "not quite what I want to read right now."

bonsaimum said...

I love books. Could not live in a house without being surrounded by books.

Nick said...

Bonsaimum: Me too. A house with a solitary kindle sitting on a table and no books would be pretty sad!

cogidubnus said...

We used to own over ten thousand books...they had all been read, otherwise we wouldn't have kept them to read again. We're pretty voracious readers (perhaps I somewhat more than my wife);

I'm personally down to about three thousand now, and she perhaps a thousand as increasing age and space constraints have enforced a number of culls...I almost wept...I'm 60 and had owned some of those books since teenage...they were like old friends...

The books I have left have been read over and again...many are almost worn out...many would be regarded as nothing special... just novels to pass the time on my commute...but I enjoy them to the full.

Others are serious works of reference concerning my hobbies...if I survive until retirement I don't intend to vegetate...if nothing else I'll always have research.

When my children were small a Health Visitor once remarked on our books and commented that many houses she visited seemed to have no books at all...I suspect if the average is 138, then that should read "a good many"...how sad.

All the best

Dave

Nick said...

Cogidubnus: That's still quite a collection. I think we have about a thousand books in all. But I agree, it's really hard to get rid of well-loved books, especially ones you've read several times. And as you say, if the average is 138, there must be a huge number of bookless households.