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Bought and Unread Books (lolindrath.com)
27 points by lolindrath 1354 days ago | hide | past | web | 40 comments | favorite

"Many years ago," Gaspar said, taking out a copy of Moravia's The Adolescents and thumbing it as he spoke, "I had a library of books, oh, thousands of books -- never could bear to toss one out, not even the bad ones -- and when folks would come to the house to visit they'd look around at all the nooks and crannies stuffed with books; and if they were the sort of folks who don't snuggle with books, they'd always ask the same dumb question." He waited a moment for a response and when none was forthcoming (the sound of china cups on sink tile), he said, "Guess what the question was."

From the kitchen, without much interest: "No idea."

"They'd always ask it with the kind of voice people use in the presence of large sculptures in museums. They'd ask me, 'Have you read all these books?'" He waited again, but Billy Kinetta was not playing the game. "Well, young fella, after a while the same dumb question gets asked a million times, you get sorta snappish about it. And it came to annoy me more than a little bit. Till I finally figured out the right answer.

"And you know what that answer was? Go ahead, take a guess." Billy appeared in the kitchenette doorway.

"I suppose you told them you'd read a lot of them but not all of them."

Gaspar waved the guess away with a flapping hand. "Now what good would that have done? They wouldn't know they'd asked a dumb question, but I didn't want to insult them, either. So when they'd ask if I'd read all those books, I'd say, 'Hell, no. Who wants a library full of books you've already read?'"


See also Umberto Eco's Anti-Library, c/o Taleb:

“The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and non dull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with 'Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?' and the others - a very small minority - who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. 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 read-estate market allows you to put there. 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.”

I upped my amount of reading taking the opposite approach to the author: buying more books that I don't read.

The mechanics work something like this:

- its easier to read a book you're motivated to read

- you're not sure what you will be motivated to read until after you've finished your current book(s)

- so, buy books you might be interested in advance, they'll be there and ready when the motivation hits

I buy books in theme areas: pragmatism, biographies of creative people, mythology, etc. That makes a smooth transition from one book to the next easy. You tend to read your current book with an eye to what's coming up on your shelf this way.

Also consider that you don't always want to read dense books. So having more books on hand helps you regain motivation in the down times by having easier stuff on hand. Jonathan franzen had a really nice essay on this about how pulp mystery novels kept him sane.

It helps that I have a used bookstore nearby where I can buy books for a dollar or so. But, anyway, there's so much cheap stuff on amazon that anyone can apply this approach without breaking the bank.

Hope this helps other folks read more. Reading has helped my coding and business more than any other habit.

Can you give some examples by what you mean by pragmatism as a theme please

Anything by William James. A Rorty and Dewey book are on my shelf. A few authors mentioned by James that I liked: JS Mill, is one. Interestingly, Jack London treats themes in pragmatism (in the Sea Wolf, for example)

I have maybe 5 to 6 thousand books. Of course it's quite impossible to read them all. But it's fun sometimes to just poke through them, and there's never a shortage of "what do I take on the next airplane ride".

I have maybe half of them scanned in. It's marvelous that I can carry this library with me on a trip, as it's about 75G.

Can you explain your scanning process? Are book scanners affordable?

I use a fujitsu fi-5120c hopper fed scanner. It's a destructive scanner, i.e. you have to slice the spine off. 400 dpi gives a satisfying result.


(About $1,200 for anyone else curious.)

There are many hopper-fed scanners on Amazon, from about $700 up.

I used to have a stack of unread books. I still do, but now everything is on the Kindle.

In fact, the Kindle has the best solution for this ever - every time I come across a book I want to read, I simply go to Amazon and click "Send Sample to Kindle". Then, I have a sample of the book on my Kindle.

Whenever I decide I need to read a new book, I open the Kindle and choose from the hundreds of samples that are there. If I like it, I also buy it.

This way, I don't have to pay so much money on books that I'll never read, but I still have them available for whenever I do get need to read a new book. Best of both worlds.

Kindle is good but I prefer a solution I've been working on for a while. I use an app called QuickReader (speed reading app) to read all books my books at about 500 words per minute. The app takes ePub format. You can very easily send it to the app with Calibre (and also convert PDF to ePub).

I had the book Future Perfect in hardcover sitting on my shelf for 3 months. I loaded it in QR and because the app tells you how long it will take at your WPM pace to finish that chapter and the book, I know I will finish this chapter in 6:53 and the book in 1:50:49. It makes books much less intimidating and I usually do 15-30 minute sessions. You don't get bored or distracted because the words are being pushed in front of you. It's amazing. I've never read more books in a shorter time with this system.

I think I will write a full post on my system. Also protip: Get the audio if available and listen to that when you can't read.

I don't buy as many books as I am gifted books. My in-progress pile is daunting and the count of unread books in the house dwarfs that.

Sadly, I don't think I've completed a book this year, only started more. When do people find the time? I drive, so the daily commute is out unless I turn to audiobooks. I have a young child, so the mornings and any time before 7pm are gone. Cooking and cleaning chew up a bit more time in the evening and I'm increasingly keen to get to sleep earlier than past years because the cat will wake me at 4-5am and then my son from about 6am. Not to mention social engagements and then weekends given to gardening, fixes around the house, etc. I don't really watch much TV, so there's little time to regain there.

I am interested in all the books in-progress and don't want to abandon any, so Fogus' tips don't help. I know someone who gets through audiobooks faster by playing at 1.5 speed, so maybe that would help...

Reading of people who get through a book every day or even a book a week absolutely amazes me.

I am in much the same predicament as you. The only time I get to read my books is during holidays, and as such much of my holidays turns into reading holidays (even when not at home). Though with kids even that can get difficult.

Ah, yes... my pile of bought and unread books. Still much less scary than my reading list, which threatens to collapse into a black hole if I continue adding to it.

That being said, and more related to the source post, it looks doable. SICP really isn't all that scary. I finally read it last year, and both enjoyed it massively and got through it relatively quickly. Expecting yourself to do _all_ of the exercises would change this perspective, of course. Then it would be fairly scary, I guess.

I got a chuckle seeing volumes from The Art of Computer Programming in a pile before I realized they were in his pile to "skim through so I know what is in them so I can use them more effectively." Reading through those in detail in a year would be surprising, not to mention the other books in the post.

Good luck! Hope I see your follow up post at years end with how many you actually read. Let me add a vote for "Ruby Under a Microscope," I read it shortly after it came out and enjoyed it very much.

I try to do the opposite. I ignore the books I have when selecting the next book to read, and try to determine what's most important. Then, if I already have it, I'll read it, and if not, I'll get it.

It takes a relatively long time to read a book, so it's worth it to me to get the one I want to read most, and pay for it if I have to.

Totally. The cost of the book is often so much less than the cost of the time spent reading it (am assuming a developed country's perspective here). So one should optimize for the time rather than the cost of ownership of the book.

I have a huge library of books (and I have read many of them), and still find pressing topics I need to know which are not covered by any of the books I have (and neither seemingly by the Internet at least till I discover some relevant keywords).

An additional thing is that I have read through the introductions of a lot more books, and that by itself gives a first understanding of the subject.

There is the old quote about

"We can buy books but we can't buy the time to read them."

I think the main issue is that people ge excited about a topic and buy the book. They enjoy few chapters but soon they come across something more interesting on internet and then buy that book too. Almost all non-fiction has some boring bits which you just have to struggle through to reach interesting parts. Its in this struggle stage I find myself most vulnerable to start reading another book and leaving the current one. Do this for years and you end up having lots of unread books. I thought this is what OP was referring to.

I'm not sure why you should buy so many books, given that you know you are not finishing them. I can understand novels, and story books and stuff like that. But its not wise to buy technical books when things change so rapidly in our area of work.

I currently have to two books to finish. One is Ulysses. Reading that book is really more like a project. Tried chewing through the first chapter, everything went over my head. Its nearly unreadable. I guess I need a guide book along with it.

I disagree on your technical books point. Things may change, but most of the technical books I buy (I can't really speak for anyone else), and those in the post, are, for the most part, going to be relevant for years to come. Most of the books are fairly old, and based on the titles they're generic knowledge, even if they implement something using a specific language that may die, the ideas and concepts they contain are still usable.

Even the "Work Shelf", which contains the most specific books, probably won't go out of date.

The more that you know about the setting of Ulysses, the more sense it makes; yet with very little context you can get a great deal from it. Early on, a character remarks that Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of minds that have lost their balance; if Joyce aspired to supplant Shakespeare there, he did pretty well, which is to say that there is a thriving Joyce industry. I haven't read much of its production, but I recall Hugh Kenner's Joyce's Voices as pretty good. If you haven't already done so, read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners, for many characters from both crop up in Ulysses.

My pile of unread books is kinda terrifying.

On the upside, I do manage to get through all of the books related to my field, so the stack mostly contains the remaining works of Kierkegaard that I've missed, the complete works of William Blake, Russian literature (translated), mathematics texts, and small stack of untranslated Japanese novels.

Some of this I'm saving for my "cargo freighter around the world" trip.

> Some of this I'm saving for my "cargo freighter around the world" trip.

Do they still have tramp steamers?

Not that I've seen anyone offering service on.

I have Programming Pearls and it's one of the books that made me realise I know nothing.

I pick it up every now and then to see if I can get further than before.

It's a great book to pick up "every now and then". Most of the chapters can be read as independent essays, and even the ones that continue ideas from before stand on their own pretty well. It's also a good book to bring along on a flight.

I used to have a to-read pile.

Then I had a to-read shelf.

and then... and then...

Ended up with about two and a half 6 foot bookshelves full of stuff I hadn't read. Which is currently sitting in storage.

For the last few years I've had the rule that I don't buy a book until the point that I'm going to start reading it. Which the world of digital books has obviously made a lot easier.

Made my life simpler - I'd recommend it ;-)

Very nice set of technical books. I own at least 60% (some are about 20 years old).

My 2014 goal is 10K pages read not including technical or maths. This year I will keep accurate records and keep a burn down chart to make sure I reach my goal. Last year I had quickly fallen behind and keep poor records (a read stack pushed around by a young child.)

> If I don’t find Black Swan interesting I should probably just donate it instead of suffering through it, for example.

I'm not only willing, I'm eager to give up on a book I don't either enjoy or find interesting. But I know a surprising number of people who force themselves to finish any book that they start.

Unless a book shows an actual lack of skill or intelligence behind it, I will persist and finish it, because many of my favorite books are books I didn't realize were as amazing as they are until I got quite a distance into them.

Skipping few pages always helps. Sometimes some concepts are hard to chew through. Black Swan in my opinion is a great book!

I didn't say that I stop if I find a book difficult. I stop if I decide that I don't like the book. But you're right, some times skipping some pages can get you going again with a dry spot in a novel.

(And I wasn't commenting on Black Swan, just on the concept of not finishing a book. I'm unfamiliar with Black Swan.)

The size of my unread book pile is only dwarfed by the recognition of the missed opportunity for knowledge.

I won't call it a resolution, but I will read through as many as I can this year (there are a lot)

At present i have almost 25 books in my kindle collection called 'To Read". Impulse Book buying is so easy with Kindle i buy every time some book is mentioned in a blog post or an article.

If I were to sit down and listen to all the books I have not yet listened to on Audible 8 hours a day it would almost be Valentine's day. I hear you.

The good news is that SICP is an illuminating experience, the bad news are it took me 1 year to go through it, doing all the exercises along the way.

If you just 'read' SICP, you are wasting your time. You read it in the best possible way.

Putting math and perl into the same category is an interesting choice...

Must be the funny symbols.

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