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Even before the idea of relocating 15,811 kilometres to the other side of the world entered our minds, we realised that we had an excess of books. Two separate, ruthless culling episodes pared the total down significantly. But the tall, dark bookcases still loomed over us, the unread books insistent and demanding.
Thankfully, now we have only one chest-high bookcase here for a family of four. Nothing menacing there. The books no longer feel overwhelming even though there are more than enough…there’s still some hand-axes among them.
In his TED talk, philosophy professor and author of The Art Instinct Denis Dutton suggested that Acheulian hand axes, developed by early humans over a million years ago, functioned largely as works of art and objects of status rather than tools. There were too many hand axes for practical use, they often show no signs of wear and aesthetics outweighed function:
…the sheer numbers of these hand axes shows that they can’t have been made for butchering animals. And the plot really thickens when you realize that, unlike other Pleistocene tools, the hand axes often exhibit no evidence of wear on their delicate blade edges. And some, in any event, are too big to use for butchery. Their symmetry, their attractive materials and, above all, their meticulous workmanship are simply quite beautiful to our eyes, even today.
Books might be the modern-day equivalent of hand axes. That there is an excess of books is clear – not just on a personal scale in household collections but in the world. The recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that the average number of books read per adult in the previous year was 12 (and 15% of adults read more than 20 books in the preceding 12 months).
Reading an average of 12 books per year, an adult will therefore consume nearly 1,000 books in a lifetime (from say 10 to 90 years of age). Statistics from 2011 show that public libraries typically stock between 1,500 and 6,000 books per 1,000 people, and can therefore easily accommodate reading requirements (because not everyone needs to borrow their lifetime’s 1,000 at once). So it could be argued that, like Acheulian hand axes, there are many more books in existence than are required for actual reading purposes, and that privately owned books are excess to need.
Given that many books in private collections will only be read once, if that, they are likely to lack evidence of wear, much like the Acheulian hand axes. This is all the more pertinent given that a book doesn’t lose value in being read, and a single book can potentially be consumed by hundreds of people.
The current global stock of nearly 130 million books in existence should suffice. But new books continue to be published (nearly 330,000 new titles and editions in the United States in 2010), and people continue to purchase books (over $32 billion was spent on recreational books in the United States in 2011).
Obviously, then, books are not just functional objects, and the world as a whole is driven to create, collect, and occasionally consume them.
Maybe it’s because of their aesthetic appeal – you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge the covers, as the Design Observer Group do. And a home without books seems Spartan and only quasi-inhabited.
Or maybe it’s the potential that unread books represent – the anti-library that Nassim Taleb proposes in The Black Swan:
Read books are far less valuable than unread ones … You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.