A few years ago, during my annual ritual of dusting all the books in my personal library, I had an epiphany: I will be dead before I read all of these.

I have never counted them, but I estimate I have more than 3,000 books in what I grandly call my personal library but is actually lines of books, many of them unread, spread out on shelves in almost every room in our house.

Included in this collection is a stack of unread books by the bed. My friend, the writer Laura Palmer, has a similar pile of books in her bedroom, which she calls her “tower of shame.”

I call it my “personal library,” but its contents are actually scattered all over my house. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

Despite knowing I will never get through all the books I own, I keep buying more. When I volunteer at the Friends of the Library big book sale at McKinley High School, I walk back to my car balancing a stack of newly purchased books.

The few remaining bookstores in town call out to me like a tavern calls out to an alcoholic: step in for just a nip, come in for just a glance at the new books, and walk out with more.

A recent essay in the New York Times by Kevin Mims makes the case that owning books still unread should summon a sense of honor, rather than guilt or shame.

He cites Jessica Stillman’s article in the website of the magazine Inc. titled “Why You Should Surround Yourself with More Books Than You’ll Ever Have Time to Read.”

Stillman talks about the value of what writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “an anti-library,” rows of unread books that serve as a visible reminder of what a person does not know.

“An anti-library is a powerful reminder of your limitations — the vast quantity of things you don’t know, half-know, or will one day realize you’re wrong about,” Stillman says. “By living with that reminder daily you can nudge yourself toward the kind of intellectual humility that improves decision-making and drives learning.”

“All these books you haven’t read are an open sign of your ignorance, but if you know how ignorant you are you are way ahead of the vast majority of other people.”

This kind of open admission of ignorance stands in contrast to nonreader Donald Trump’s regular boasts that he knows more about most topics than any expert.

“The most incompetent people are the most confident of their abilities,” Stillman says.

Unread books are a sign of a reader’s curiosity, his or her openness to surprises — a book owner who sees adventure in confronting the vast unknown.

Taleb, a writer and former options trader, is the author of 2007 best-selling book “The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable.”

“A private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool,” Taleb says. “Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there.”

Mims says maybe a better term than Taleb’s “anti-library” is the Japanese “tsundoku,” a word that dates to 1879, meaning a pile of of unread books. Tsundoku does not have a negative connotation in Japanese.

Mims says his own library is about one-tenth read and nine-tenths tsundoku. Besides the two categories of books in any library, read and unread, he adds a third category: unfinished books.

I have many such unfinished books in my library. One is “Hawaii Pono: A Social History.” Lawrence H. Fuchs’ political, economic and social history of modern Hawaii.

Even though “Hawaii Pono” was written 57 years ago, reading a chapter now and then offers an understanding of why things turned out the way they did when Hawaii became a state. My copy is tattered from being opened and reopened so many times.

Another unfinished book is Jim Dooley’s “Sunny Skies, Shady Characters.” This is Dooley’s behind-the-scenes look at his decades of reporting on organized crime and political corruption in Hawaii. I like to read it slowly to savor each chapter, having been a reporter who covered some of the same stories.

I would add still another category most readers have in their personal libraries: books read over and over.

“The Sorrow of War: a Novel of North Vietnam” by North Vietnamese army veteran Bao Ninh is a book I keep returning to for its beautiful writing and understanding of an “enemy’s” perspective of a war I covered as a reporter.

Ninh’s  powerful writing puts a reader in the footsteps of his soldier protagonist Kien walking through a haunted battlefield he calls the Jungle of the Screaming Souls as a survivor sent to retrieve the remains of his fellow soldiers mowed down by American helicopter gunships: “Broken bodies, bodies blown apart, bodies vaporized. No jungle grew again in this clearing. No grass. No plants.”

This is in Ban Me Thuot in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, an area where I spent much time during the war.

Another book I have read many times is “Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii,” which was compiled from newspaper articles written in the 1860s by Native Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau. At first, I read “Ruling Chiefs” to get names of chiefs and their retainers straight in my mind; later readings were to enjoy the personal stories of Kamehameha I and other alii told by a native scholar.

A more lightweight book in my library in this reread category is Nika Hazelton’s poetry- and recipe-filled “The Picnic Book,” which I bought more than three decades ago for $1 in a bin of bargain books in the former Walden’s bookstore in Kahala.

I like reading about the picnics the Roman-born author put together everywhere from a graveyard in Switzerland where she and a friend honored poet Rainer Maria Rilke buried there to a picnic she had as a child on the beach at Fregene, Italy, where she and her father and her uncle finally arrived after traveling by train and bus from Rome, hauling all their gear to set up a tent and make a thick minestrone soup on the sand.

It is comforting to know that buying more books, even if they are unread, partially read or read until they are in tatters, can do no harm.

Before you go

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?

About the Author