The other day the philosopher (you can be one of those) Julian Baggini wrote an article which annoyed a lot of people on the internet. The title – ‘Why is it so hard to get rid of our books?’ – probably didn’t help, nor did the screenshot circulating on Twitter, where Baggini wondered whether ‘the main reason to keep a house full of books is to show ourselves and others that we are intelligent and well-read.’
Most of the article was dedicated to a survey of all the perfectly good reasons someone might have for keeping a book: as a reference, or to share with someone else, to re-read later, or as a treasured memento of a time or a person – or a time you were a different person. He admits that the aesthetic attraction of a bookshelf depends on seeing them en masse ‘irrespective of what lies between the covers’.
Which all seems pretty uncontroversial. What rubbed people up the wrong way was that Baggini had dared suggest some people might none-the-less be using books as status-symbols, as if this pretty mundane observation was itself an assault on knowledge, combined with the faint hint whiff of ‘personal optimization’ (at one point Baggini describes how the process of throwing away a book means coming to terms with ‘failure’, as if not having enough time to read everything you want to read says something about you, not life). Put those two together, ignore the nuance, and what was a harmless if anodyne series of reflections by a man moving house starts to look like yet another attempt to police people’s behaviour, right at the level of the most sacred thing there is: books.
But Baggini’s main argument was something else again, and one I recognised and agreed with: ‘We use books to underline our identities when more often than not they undermine them.’ There is a curious tension in collecting books which you don’t find in other kinds of collecting because the best books have designs on who we are – and who we are is constantly changing (sometimes because of the books themselves). Holding onto books can be a way of holding onto ‘unrealistic illusions’ about ourselves.
I don’t read this as an assault on the concept of literature so much as an attempt to square up to the conditions which make reading and writing meaningful in the first place: our limited time on earth, our limited attention spans, and perhaps most importantly our willingness to change our minds. Keeping a book that was once important to you is a way of cherishing the past. It might also be a way of hiding in it.
Like many people, I buy more books than I will ever read and I keep more books than I will ever revisit or re-gift. That won’t change. But I am well aware that one of the reasons I do this is to fool myself: to pretend, against all the evidence, that I will have time to reread this, or write something about that, or read everything I want to, and to maintain a connection to a past self which at times feels terrifyingly distant. The books are an escape. Every now and then I try and be brutal about it and chuck a load out. Probably, that is a kind of escape too. But at least it makes space.