A while ago we converted what was a mostly disused dining room into a library. It was my husband’s idea. We took down our dining table and removed the clunky sideboard; my husband fitted some boxy shelving units from Ikea and almost filled the entire span of one wall, leaving room for expansion. We acquired some secondhand chairs and a sofa which we bought with vouchers we were given for Christmas – we bought the sofa, also from Ikea, on New Year’s Day and if you are ever tempted to visit Ikea at a time when it is quiet, unhurried and relaxed then I can recommend New Year’s Day as the day to go. We drove home slowly via the A roads; the sofa didn’t quite fit into the car, we couldn’t close the boot, so my husband tied it all down and we took a leisurely drive back home; with the boot open it was bracing but surprisingly pleasant. One of the other advantages of New Year’s Day, there’s often very little to do. I filled up the shelves with the books that I had, and at that point there were about 2 shelves un-utilised, but they soon filled up. Books have come, books have gone, but my library is as full as ever. I’ve organised and reorganised it, separating out my non-fiction from my fiction, separating out books that I’ve read from books that I haven’t. I’ve spent almost as much time rearranging my shelves as I have done reading the books on them.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my library recently. My library is my favourite room in the house, perhaps not surprisingly. It is a quiet room, it looks out over my (messy) back garden and if the windows are open there is birdsong and lawnmower sounds, maybe the occasional car passing. It is tranquil. There is no TV, TV is forbidden as are (generally) computers and phones. It is a room for reflection, for quiet conversations with, perhaps, a little music in the background. It is a contemplative space. But the books, the books are something else. There was once a time, perhaps not even that long ago (I can’t really remember), when every book I owned was a book I had read; books that I had read and re-read and treasured and kept because I loved them. I can’t recall when it was that I started buying books to be read, books which would find a slot in my shelves and remain there to some long-distant date in the future when I would actually give them the attention I must have thought they deserved. Every book I have bought I have bought for a reason, because I believed I would want to read it. Because at the time I wanted to read it. Yet I set it aside, along with so many others, and once set aside the chances of those books being read became slimmer and slimmer. Because I have been so entranced by the new, the next thing, the future read. I am always looking ahead, rarely focusing on the present.
When I embarked on my slower reading experiment, I really wanted to change my relationship with my books. I wanted to stop always looking to the next one and start focusing on the one in front of me. I have been, I think, quite successful in this enterprise, but I haven’t yet managed to quash my desire, entirely, for the new. I am still borrowing books from the library. I have a wishlist with 14 books on it (after a recent cull, it was much longer) and a library list with 37 books on it. When I am going to read all of these, I cannot say. The situation is better than it has been – in the past I might simply have bought all of those books and added them to my library – but it is still not where I want to be. Every book I own, I have bought for a reason. I wanted to read those books too. Why is it that once I have them securely on my shelves, I don’t actually seem too keen to actually read them?
Doubtless there are reasons, I’m sure a psychologist or an insightful reader could come up with a few, but I’m less concerned about reasons and more concerned about how to change the way I deal with these books. Because I’ve come to realise that whatever the reason, the key to changing my habits lies with myself. I think I need to spend some time trying to reignite whatever it was about that book that made me want to acquire it in the first place. If I can reinvigorate the way I feel about the book then perhaps I can finally get around to reading the book. Which is why I bought it in the first place. And if, perhaps, I can remind myself why I bought all those wonderful books on my shelves, I won’t need, or, perhaps it is truer to say, want to seek books elsewhere. Because I already have everything that I need right here. Sure there are other books I would like to read, but not before I read these books that I wanted to read already. I was vaguely thinking about this when I read this article at zenhabits around which my thoughts began to coalesce.
I have taken the books that I own for granted. I’ve realised that when I inhabit my library I barely pay any attention to the books at all; I enjoy sitting on the sofa, I listen to the birdsong out of the window, I notice the beautiful quality of light at different times of day, I adore the writing desk that we picked up secondhand and which I use for writing and working, I enjoy the feel of the sheepskin rug on my bare feet. But the books: I don’t pay any attention to them. It is as though I have created a work of art, a jumble of colours and textures, and like a work of art I cannot touch it, let alone interact with it. I see the books, but I don’t see the books. When I look for books, I always seem to be looking elsewhere: the library, other people’s blogs, online newspapers or articles. I rarely look in the place where the books most accessible to me, which most reflect my interests and desires, actually reside. I don’t pay them attention. That needs to change.
I have begun meditating on my library. I don’t mean just thinking about it, I mean sitting in front of it and actively looking at what’s there, spending time appreciating it. It’s hard right now, because what I see is shameful, it’s embarrassing, it is a testament to all the ways in which I have been thoughtless and habitual, in which I have acted impulsively and not deliberately. But even so, I spend a little time every day sitting and looking at my shelves and reminding myself what a thing of beauty they are. And not just a thing of beauty, but a living, breathing thing, the combined intelligence of a multitude of great minds that I have the privilege to connect to. Every time I think I want to read a book I do not own, I will go and sit in front of my shelves and remind myself of the value of the things I already own, the things I have been failing to appreciate or see the joy in. In fact I have felt oppressed by them at times, particularly those books which I have bought in a lofty, aspirational frame of mind – the War & Peaces, the Moby Dicks, the Second Sexes, the Shanamehs. Those books that sit on my shelves as a testament to who I wanted to be, the reader I wanted to be, and not necessarily the one sitting mindfully in front of them now.
I am so privileged. I am so privileged to have such an abundance of wonderful stories, wonderful thoughts, available to me. I am grateful to be able to devote an entire room to the written word. It is gorgeous, isn’t it? I think it is. I am ashamed that I have allowed such extraordinary things to go unvalued for so long. But I am also learning to let that shame go, to let go the weight of the TBR pile and allow myself instead to begin to appreciate it as something into which I can delve and discover, again, those books that so stirred my imagination before. And in the next few months when I finish one book I will go and sit in front on my shelves again, and not just sit in front of them but examine them. I will pick books off the shelf, I will handle them, I will think about them, I will weigh any resistance against the motivation that spurred me to buy the book in the first place. Those that I resist the most are most likely to end up being read. Those that have spent the longest times sitting on my shelves are more likely to be chosen. Those chunky books that I have avoided because they will take so much time and focus to read, those will be read too. It will take me a while, I have a lot of unread books on my shelves and I don’t want to give up on the re-reading either, but I think if I can retain this frame of mind I can do it. When I’ve read a book I will decide whether to keep it – after a realistic assessment of whether I’ll re-read it – or whether to let it go. I expect my library will grow a little more space on the shelves. But over time I will work my way back to those days when my library was full of treasured friends, not neglected prisoners, captive of my flighty and unconsidered actions.