Let Us Speak of Unread Shelf Paralysis

In which the author considers the unique threats posed by the hordes of bookdom.

A shelf of books, mostly unread
Darkened shelves staring forth their accusation...

Let Us Speak of Unread Shelf Paralysis

Dear Reader,

I have two friends of the readerly persuasion who ruthlessly only keep around a small collection of books – paper or electronic. And they’re married to each other.

Myself and the rest of my reader friends on the other hand, we’re into hoarding. You can call it collecting if you’d like, and there’s plenty of semantic overlap at play in this interpretation of reality.

But I’m going to stick with hoarding.

You see, I know what I am: I am a bargain hunter of hardcovers, a pillager of previously owned paperbacks, a collector of cheap kindle copies. Given the opportunity to go on an outing, I will calculate where the nearest bookstore (used or otherwise) may be located.

And onward I will quest.

If you want to know what to buy me for a gift, then the answer is simple, either option:

  1. A quality unruled notebook
  2. A book to put on my shelf (I'm always open to recommendations)

Though the shelf-space be overflowing. Though the cabinets be packed. Though every end-table be overwhelmed under the mass of paper’s weight. Still, I gather to myself more and more, with a quintessentially ravenous materialist hunger.

Greeks and Romans and Norse books
A shelf of classics, judging me.

The Teacher Was Right

I am referring to Qoheleth, the otherwise unnamed author of the Hebrew book of Ecclesiastes, who says this near the end of his last chapter: “There is no end to the making of many books, and much study is exhausting to the body.”

There is no end to books. So, if you are like me – always open to new interests – there is little sense in trying to be a completionist collector.

Now to some extent, I can be excused. I’m a writer who draws from many, many books in my thinking and writing. I know academics – particularly historians, literary scholars, and philosophers – who can likewise claim a kind of pass as to the piles that crop up down their hallways and encircle their easy chairs.

But that is not all I can say for myself. Those two friends I mentioned provided me with the further reasoning that I am building a library for my boys. My sons will have not only a collection of books to peruse, but my marginal notes to try to decipher. This pleases me.

Yes, I am satisfied with this defense.

Oh, but collecting is not my only problem!

The Accusing Face of the Unread Shelf

Many books are small and can be stuffed into all manners of nooks for the purposes of storage. But when assembled together, rank upon rank, they become the stern and merciless face of judgment.

For, you see, I am not one of those fortunate readers whose pace of reading can match his pace of collecting. Indeed, I can often even be found rereading a favorite book rather than starting a new one.

That means that for years (especially in my twenties), when I would be reading in bed before falling asleep, the unread shelves of my bedroom confronted me.

And they are many.

Certain volumes mock me even now with a cruel and cheerless glee:

And that is only a sampling from Army Group Centre, spread across three bookshelves united in common cause.

So, yes, again the Teacher is right: “much study is exhausting.”

Poetry of various sorts
Poetry old and older – I've read less than half of what's shown.

Relief and the Way Through

There were times in my life that I considered either a) Creating a reading plan (onerous and foolhardy), b) giving away books, or c) stopping (perhaps slowing) the rate of acquisition.

Thankfully, some changes have helped.

First, at this present time in my life not all of my books are in the same building as I am. They are stored away, beyond easy reach. Hidden…

“[H]idden, dark and deep. Not used, I say, unless at the uttermost end of need.”

But further, as of late I have discovered that as long as I am consistently reading, I do not feel the accusation of the unread shelves. It is during those periods when I give up reading, either from exhaustion or distraction, that the weight of my books begin to crowd in around me – the whispers of another life.

It also helps if I keep a reading shelf. One dedicated only to the books that I am actively reading or referencing, or intend to start soon.

But, perhaps most importantly, it is of great benefit to me that I have rediscovered the joy of borrowing books from libraries. Ray Bradbury made his impassioned case on their behalf and so I made his cause my own.

(Though I cannot now place the reference, I recall an image that Bradbury reported: a child walking through the library with a stack of books, eager to consume them – a reality I have lived my whole life.)

It is sad that I cannot write in the margins of said borrowed books, but dedicated notecards stored in an indexed shoebox can help (indeed, as I have mentioned elsewhere, I have been playing with the Zettelkasten Method).

Know Thy Shelf

Today, I am at peace with my library. More restrained in my purchasing than I once was. More willing to borrow than buy. No longer so pressured by the accusations of the Unread and Unfinished.

I have examined my reader’s life and arrived at indulging whim (see Alan Jacobs’ lovely and timely book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction), patience, note making (a concept I picked up from Sönke Ahrens), and the joys of the library.

And there is still time to finish.

What of you, Dear Reader? How fares your relationship with your shelves? If you are so inclined, reply with a message of your own. I would be glad to hear from you.

Next week, we will be returning to our series "Let Us Speak of Magic" with a conversation about pacts and incantations. We begin with Elric of Melniboné and his Ring of Kings, which allows him to call on great powers.

Till then, happy reading.

Best regards,


Want more words, Traveller? Come visit my website at bryanerye.com, or take the direct route to the blog.

Want to throw me some coin to support me financially? I have a Busker's Hat to help buy coffee and used books.

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