I buy a lot of books. Not as many as some people but certainly more than most. Unfortunately, as an English instructor at a community college, nine months out of the year I don’t have a lot of time for reading books. Granted, I read a lot, thousands of pages per semester in fact, but almost none of it is anything a sane person would read voluntarily. At least for fun. That means that the books I buy go on my bookshelves and sit there unread, growing in number. I used to console myself with an anecdote that I remember Harlan Ellison telling. As I recall, Ellison’s house is basically wall-to-wall books, and when he has guests, someone inevitably asks him, “Have you read all these books?” Ellison’s reply: “Why would I have a library full of books I’ve already read?” So, I tell myself, buying all of those books and not reading them is common sense. After all, if I read them right away, I’d have a library full of books I’d already read, wouldn’t I?
That I hadn’t convinced myself was made clear when I was walking through a Barnes and Noble one day, tempted to purchase book after book. I mustered a modicum of restraint and hadn’t so much as even picked one up, but after wandering around the store for almost an hour, I wondered what I was doing there. I knew I wouldn’t have time to read anything should I buy it, so I would probably leave the store empty-handed. In fact, I hadn’t even gone there with anything in mind to buy in the first place. The only reason I was there, I realized, was that I was intoxicated by how good I imagined the books would be, and in that imagining, it was almost as if I were reading them. Furthermore, if the intoxication were sufficiently heady, I would break down and purchase a book or two. Upon returning home, I could leave the books on my shelf unread without too much guilt because, in a sense, I’d already read them, yet they were still something to be read.
However, I suspect that even closer to the truth is Walter Benjamin’s claim that book collectors really declare their seriousness as collectors by not reading the books they collect, that reading isn’t the point, possessing the book is. As evidence, Benjamin, in an anecdote remarkably similar to Harlan Ellison’s, relays a retort that Anatole France “gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, ‘And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?’ ‘Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?’” As much as I may want to, I can’t deny the truth of Benjamin’s claim that my relationship with my books “does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value—that is, their usefulness,” but rather that I see in my books “the scene, the stage of their fate,” namely, my owning them. As Benjamin continues, “The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them. Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property.” By owning my books, I don’t so much own the privilege of reading them as I own my dreams of them. And the more I think of it, that’s not such a bad thing. If I have the time, maybe I’ll even swing by a bookstore this afternoon.