CC Issue 29 / Literature

Why a Good Library is Bad

Like most avid readers I’ve met, I buy books. It’s a compulsion. If I can imagine myself reading the book tomorrow, and I have the funds, I’m likely to bring it home.

It’s to the point where I have seven IKEA bookcases full of books I’ve read. It’s a number that represents only about half the total volumes I’ve ever owned. The rest have been traded for store credit, or permanently loaned because I wasn’t going to read them a second time, or culled because I didn’t want to move them.

Books are really heavy to haul up stairs.

But when I buy a new book, I probably won’t actually read it tomorrow. When I bring one home, it goes on my “unread shelf”, joining other recent acquisitions, from where I’ll select it as the mood strikes me. In most cases it’s six months to a year from purchase to the final closing of the cover. It used to be rare that one would linger without my attention for longer than that.

It used to be a great system. Unfortunately, something’s happened to upset the balance.

Now I live next-door to a first-rate library.

It’s a small-town library, too. All those books you’d wait months on a list for in the city are here on the shelf. I can order in requests from any library in the province and have them in my hands in less than three weeks. It’s so close-by. It’s an amazing resource. But access to an institution of this quality has a hidden, sinister downside.

The library’s “New Arrivals” shelf is staring me in the face every time I walk through the doors. When a friend recommends a novel, it’s two mouse-clicks away to reserve online, with delivery by Saturday. Even if the books are just sitting quietly, with their shiny plastic binding, I can’t help myself.

There is too much selection.

Today I went in to return one and borrowed four. This is not a rare occurrence. As a consequence, my unread shelf is growing at a rate far beyond what it can sustain. The books I own are piling up. I can’t get to them.

There are currently 57 books on it and, instead of one shelf, it’s two. I don’t have space for a third.

I’m a fast reader, but there is a limit to how many pages I can get through in a finite amount of time.

The library imposes a three-week limit, plus one renew. I’m forced to read at their pace, unable to slot my own books into the rotation, driven by the ticking clock. I feel that I have to read the borrowed volumes first and, with unlimited supply, they won’t go away.

Mine wait for me, collecting dust. Probably judging me for taking them away from someone who’d read them immediately.

I’ve tried valiantly to chip away at the unread shelf. There are faint glimmers of hope.

I’ve cut back on purchasing. I don’t bring library books on vacations. In the winter it’s far more attractive to stay home and read what you’ve already got than to go out and brave the cold.

But even with these efforts, there’s still two going onto my shelf for every one that comes off.

Worse, just when I think I’m getting ahead, the library goes and puts on a book sale where you can purchase an entire box of discards for five dollars.

So my problem continues to grow, even as I’m reading constantly.

A good library represents an entire building full of unread shelves, so mine will have to wait.

Appendix A: My Current Unread Shelf


Alexandre Dumas, The Vicomte de Brangelonne

Alexandre Dumas, Twenty Years After

Anderson and Moesta, Jedi Shadow

Anderson and Moesta, Jedi Sunrise

Brad Meltzer, Dead Even

Carrie Fisher, Surrender the Pink

D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Drew Karpyshyn, Darth Bane, Path of Destruction

ED. Martin Greenberg, The Further Adventures of Batman

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

Frank Herbert, Chapterhouse Dune

Frank Herbert, Children of Dune

Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune

Frank Herbert, Heretics of Dune

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

G. K. Chesterton, The Innocence of Father Brown

Iris Murdoch, The Nice and the Good

J. D. Salinger, Raise the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction

James Joyce, Dubliners

James Joyce, Ulysses

John Grisham, Ford County

Joseph Conrad, Nostromo

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent and Almayer’s Folly

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Lincoln Child, Death match

Mack Maloney, War Heaven

Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

Matthew Kneale, English Passengers

Michael Crichton, A Case of Need

Michael Crichton, Next

Michael Reaves, Darth Maul, Shadow Hunter

Richard Preston, The Cobra Event

Rudyard Kipling, Kim

Timothy Zahn, Cobra

Timothy Zahn, The Green and the Gray

Voltaire, Candide

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury


Alexander de Seversky, Victory through Air Power

Anthony Brandt, The Tragic History of the Sea

Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle

David Alexander, Star Trek Creator, The Autobiography of Gene Roddenberry

ED. Charles McCarry, From the Field, A Collection of Writings from National Geographic

Frank Welsh, A History of Hong Kong

Gary Kinder, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea

Jeffrey Meyers, Joseph Conrad

Joseph Persico, 11th Month 11th Day 11th Hour

Judith Belushi, Samurai Widow

Kenneth Cambon, Guest of Hirohito

Michael Drosnin, Citizen Hughes

Moseley and Browning, How to Satisfy Your Wife Every Time

Robert Ballard, The Discovery of the Titanic

Robert Morgan, The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle

Roy Macskimming, Cold War, The Amazing Canada-Soviet Hockey series of 1972

Simpson and Burger, Ghost Boat

Steve Davies, Red Eagles

T. W. Paterson, British Columbia Shipwrecks

5 thoughts on “Why a Good Library is Bad

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