Why are books so addictive?

I am an unabashed bibliophile, as is Sara and both of our kids (a point of pride for us). Sa and I have very rarely given away or thrown a book, and it really has to be dreadful to qualify (we can count about 10 between us, ever). The kids do ‘better’ as they are growing, and so grow out of the books they have read. But, they have a over three hundred between them even when they have winnowed out the stuff that is too young for them. And, as a family we conservatively buy 15 books a month. We are just renewing our bookcases as we redo a room that we hope will take most of the non-kids books, and we were chatting about why we have this attraction. I should say here that this discussion wasn’t an effort to persuade ourselves that we should have less books – it’s much too deep seated an emotion for both of us for that … just an intrigue with WHY it is so deep seated.

We know we are far from unique in this – many of our friends are also similarly hooked. But, many who I’d have regarded as well educated aren’t, with just a few tens of books in their house. Though they buy less (I think) they are also better at getting rid of ones that the don’t think they’ll read again. I’ve looked for any stats on book ownership on the web, but can’t find anything that looks remotely robust, so I don’t know if we are particularly unusual (we have about 2500 books). One source that was really stunning said that in a survey at a Liverpool school, 30% of children lived in houses with 5 books or less IN TOTAL!

We came up with a couple of almost rational explanations. Finding books to read again that fits the mood you are in requires you to have immediate access to the books. So, if you love reading, it’s entirely reasonable to want to keep the ones you have read for immediate access. Alternatively, one can say that it’s nice to be able to recommend books and find them so people (especially our kids) can immediately see if they like them. Sadly, the cost of rebuying the ones you want to read again simply doesn’t figure since the cost of bookcases is larger than any amount of re-reading we are likely to do, never mind the real estate cost. Neither are hugely compelling reasons to want to keep so many books.

But, there is a compelling, albeat irrational/emotional reason. It is the feeling of browsing shelves of books that you have read and remembering snatches of them, in the same way that a familiar smell can suddenly take you back to an experience you had forgotten. It’s also great to come across books that you have completely forgotten about or have never read. And, at an even more basic level, the feeling of relaxation that comes from the simple act of browsing – probably psychologically linked to the feeling of reading a great book. Having a large library of books is, for us at least, uplifting to the spirit.

One thing that intrigues me here is whether that will always be true. For many people it would have been true of their music collection … but now that would all be digital (as it is for us). And, the experience is better, with things like random pay from your entire collection reminding you of music you haven’t listened to for a while, and searches making it fast to find stuff. Today there isn’t a good alternative for books that provides the same book-reading experience, but if there were, I wonder if my feelings would change.

As a related aside, in ‘The Black Swan’, Nassim Taleb talks about someones personal library as having 30,000 books, most of which the owner hadn’t read. He notes that the value is in the stuff the owner hadn’t yet read. I had three observations. First, that I’m not sure I agreed. The long tail of Amazon works great here I think – I can get 250,000 books at a days notice, and routinely have ordered two or three books on a topic I am interested in by simply browsing. Second, where on earth would you find the space for 30k books? Space for 3500 that we are putting in is about 12 square metres of bookcase, so 30k would take ~100m2, or 40 metres of wall with bookcases 2.5 metres high! Third, and most driving is pure unadulterated envy 🙂

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