Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, March 14, 2014

My Future in a Shelf of Books

Over at the NY Times, James Collins considers mortality in a box of staples. Then he moves on to other large numbers, such as his collection of books:
I have been blithely buying them all my life without ever giving a thought as to whether I will live long enough to read them. But will I?

I am not in any way a collector of books, but I am an accumulator of them. Counting shelves and estimating an average number per shelf, I figure that my bookcases hold about 4,250 books. In addition, I own over 100 books on my Kindle, and there are at least a couple of hundred in boxes in the basement. Let’s call it 5,000 books (that number again) in total.

How many of my books have I already read? That’s a delicate subject. I hold that by simply owning a book I deserve about 90 percent of the credit I would get if I also read it, but not everyone looks at things that way. I am a little shocked to discover that on any given shelf, I seem to have read, according to the conventional standard, only about one-third of the books.

That leaves around 3,300 unread books. If I read one book a week … but you and I know that I don’t read one book a week, I read a couple a month, grazing in a few others. If I read two books a month, it would take me 137 years to read those unread books. So there we have it: absent the discovery that those long-lived, underfed mice thrive equally well on a diet of vodka and peanut M&Ms, I am not going to live for 137 more years, and therefore I do not have enough time left to read the books I own. Death will intervene (thank God) well before I get around to the later volumes of “A Dance to the Music of Time.”

We can look at this another, equally pessimistic way. If I die in 30 years, when I will be 85, and if I read two books a month, then I have 720 books left to read in my entire life. That number seems so … numerical. So low. Far too few slots remain in my life for anywhere near the number of books I want to read. Now what am I supposed to do when I go into a bookstore?

I'm twenty years younger than Collins, but I've apparently already lived more (or less, depending on how you look at it) since I've now read all 12 novels of A Dance to the Music of Time through at least three times.

If you compulsively surround yourself with books, however, it's impossible not to soon start thinking in these terms. I read 20-30 books a year. If I have about 50 years (if I'm lucky) left to me, that's 1000 to 1500 books -- and some of those will doubtless be re-reads or books not yet written. I don't have as many books as Collins, but there are doubtless some books that I already own, and mean to read, that I never will.

It's almost lunch time. I feel like I should go read something.


bearing said...

This was a most unpleasant way to encounter "memento mori" this morning.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I stopped counting my books back when I had only 7,000. Although I got rid of some after my husband died, I doubt if I've dipped below that number. He went through a period of wanting to get rid of books because he realized that he'd never be able to read them all. I persuaded him not to because I was four years younger and had not yet begun to feel my mortality.

Now I do. But instead of feeling like I should get rid of my books, I wonder if I should perhaps limit myself to reading only books I already own. At other times I just tell myself that building a library is like planting an olive tree. Those who come after you can enjoy its fruit.

Rebekka said...

Maybe I'm not being ironic enough, but I think these calculations overlook the fact that people may read more/less at different times of their lives. Right now I have a 3mo and a 2,5yo, and it feels like I will never read anything not on an illuminated screen, or with more words than pictures, ever again. At this rate I have maybe three books left in me. But I really hope that's not the case.

Banshee said...

O tempora, o mores! I used to read five or six books a day. Kindle has helped me up my speed a bit again, but an adult with responsibilities can't read as much as a kid incarcerated in school.

Oh, and here's a book Darwin might like!

Melanie Bettinelli said...

My thought was the same as Rebekka's. Right now I average a handful of books a month. But before children I might read several in a week. I suppose I'm banking on a time when the kids have grown up and moved out when I will once again have leisure to sit and read.

Though if I look at my dad enjoying his retirement... he seems to fall asleep over his books an awful lot.

And yes, many of the books I own I hope to bequeath to my children so that they too may enjoy them. Divided up among five kids, it doesn't seem like I own quite so many books now.

And yet... Amy Welborn wrote something similar as she was having to deal with the death of her husband, who was a book collector, and that of her father and the disposal of his estate. I don't like to think of these books as being a burden instead of a treasure, but I suppose that is a possibility.