The Bookshelf Challenge: Are My Shelves Bullshit?

When I lived in Miami, Florida, I loved visiting Books & Books, a locally-owned, independent neighborhood bookstore. All over the city, Books & Books reigns as the ultimate source for literary events and the book-buying experience. The Bell has tomed for me (😳)  many times at Books & Books, and I’ve spent my fair share of money. And I’m well aware that with every single purchase, the bookseller placed a bookmark that had the following Borges quote:

I cannot sleep unless I’m surrounded by books.

I must have taken this quote literally, as I purchased many items from Books & Books. We weren’t living in a large apartment in South Beach, so I stacked the books on the wall and ignored the small but increasing debt. It was like I was playing Sim City, creating skyscrapers made from books until one day the city went bankrupt and there were riots in the streets.

My wife and I were in graduate school, and I probably shouldn’t have been buying so many novels, but I felt compelled to have words surrounding me in my house. And somewhere in the depths of my mind, I might have rationalized they were a tax right off. 🤦‍♂️

Whenever we moved, I had to lug the books with me. I would usually stop at a liquor store and ask for boxes, as I was too cheap to buy them, and I would carry them from one apartment to the next. They were heavy, and my wife would always ask: “Can’t you just throw them away?”

It was a constant discussion (I wouldn’t call it quite an argument), because she understood how important books were to me. But she certainly challenged my thinking on why they were essential. I remember one day she asked: “How many of them have you actually read?”

The question was hard for me to tackle head on. Besides buying books, I would acquire them any way I could. If one of the professors at FIU left a box of old books outside their door to be thrown away, I would go through the box and most likely take half, even if I hadn’t heard of them. I would buy books in used bookstores that I thought were deals. I couldn’t not take them in, as if they were some lost puppy.

My book hoarding obsession has continued over the years, and recently, my wife asked me to really think if we needed so many works. I examined my shelves, and I began to ask some tough questions:

  • How many of these books have I actually read?
  • When people come over to my house, do I like them looking at my shelves? Do I want them to think I’m more intelligent than I am?
  • Or do I actually love being surrounded by them?

Ultimately, all these questions led me to one central question

Are my bookshelves actually full of shit?

Well, in order to answer these questions, I had to do some research. I needed to first know how many books I have on my shelf. So, I counted how many books I owned.

Turns out that I own almost exactly 400 books, many of which have been with me since I moved from Florida in 2011. That means I drove across the country with many of these books. Out of the 400 books I have on my shelves, I tallied that I have read almost exactly 300. (This doesn’t count the many I have given away or donated already — or the audio books I consume on the regular.) That means I have read 75 percent of the books on my shelf. Some of them I legitimately plan on reading, some of them I would say are collectibles, but some of them, yes, are for the mere presence. I have realized that my bookshelves are actually 75 percent authentic, 25 percent bullshit.

After tallying up the numbers, I’m actually kind of happy with the result. My goal over the rest of my life is to ensure that my bullshit-bookshelf number is closer to 0 percent, but for now, that’s a good start.

Honestly, I’m curious if anyone else would accept this bookshelf challenge and share their results.

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