It's time for true confessions: I have books, proudly displayed on my groaningly overloaded living-room bookcase, that I've never read. I've moved them with me (for years) from apartment to apartment to apartment—across international borders, even.
But I've given their pages, at best, a flickering glance.
Some of them I think of as decorative—for instance, three volumes of a philosophy encyclopedia, The World's Greatest Thinkers, published in 1947. I like their spines; I probably picked them up at a garage sale somewhere. Their bookplates announce that they are from the library of Ethel M. Ziegler. I don't know Ethel, but (just between you and me) I don't think she read these books either. Their pages look untouched.
Some of them I've intended to read for years but probably won't. A compendium of Irish literature, say—I like that book's spine, too, and I bet I've read (or tried to read) a lot of what it contains, but I've never opened it.
Don't misunderstand me, though. I have read most of the books I own. Many are books I've read and loved so much that I couldn't bear to part with them. Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go; a biography of Mary, Queen of Scots; and Bury Me Standing, a history of Europe's gypsies. And on and on the list goes.
I have a whole different bookcase with reference books (many of which I use—but a lot of these are "only for show," too: a 1965 thesaurus with a gorgeous mod cover, for instance). I suppose that I think I might need them again. One never knows when I'll need to refer to a QuarkXPress user's guide from 2001 or my second copy of Words Into Type, right? Or a 1999 Lonely Planet guide to Bangkok?
I know, I know. I will never need these books again.
I keep books and display them (or keep them in boxes in case I want to display them in the future), in part, because I like what they say about me: they say that I'm smart, that I'm a reader, that I'm a person who likes books. A library is a vain thing. The books say, "This is a history of my thoughts." I even chose the aforementioned titles with this notion in my head, asking myself, "Should I mention the biography of poor, doomed Queen Mary or poor, doomed Marie Antoinette?" And keeping books just became a habit.
Not too long ago, I divested myself of a "professional collection": most of my collection of etiquette books (and this blog post from 2009 is about the history of that collection). Now, as I prepare to move again (into a substantially smaller space), it's time to ... unburden myself of these books that I don't need anymore. I'll keep a few favorites, necessary reference books, and a few decorative books. I need to make room in my apartment for new books and new thoughts.
It's not going to be easy, but I bet it's going to be good for me.