My office is a converted spare bedroom which faces the front of my house. In it is a large, L shaped desk which I designed and built myself. On three of the walls and in the now doorless closet are floor to ceiling bookcases, likewise built myself from the same oak plywood. Upon those shelves are books, which fill up every inch of the shelving, arranged in less order now than they were sixteen years ago thanks to the children that have inexplicably entered my life. As infants, and then as toddlers, they took great delight in pulling the books off the shelves and making stacks out of them. As a consequence, they’ve never quite been returned to their proper places; additionally, over the years, more and more books have accumulated, seemingly on a weekly basis. My Kindle has staunched the flow of physical books to some extent, which is just as well since there are frankly no more places in my office to put them, and the floor to ceiling bookcase on one wall of my family room is likewise full. I’ve contemplated building more bookcases, but it’s getting difficult to find empty wall space left to fill and really, my wife and kids don’t want to get rid of the television and frankly, I rather like it on occasion, too.
When visit my home for the first time, they inevitably comment upon the floor to ceiling wall of books in the family room. When they discover even more books in my office, they eventually get around to the question, which always puzzles me to some extent: “have you read all those books?”
Given that the average American reads but one book a year—and sometimes not even that many—the over three thousand volumes that fill my home may seem a daunting impossibility for one person to consume. But yes, I have read them all—except for the dictionaries and the encyclopedias. The books are not just decorations that we set up on our walls because we couldn’t think of anything else to there.
Reading all those books was not done on one lazy Sunday afternoon, any more than writing a book can be done in one day, either. The author Anne Lamott has a book entitled Bird by Bird in which she talks about what goes into being an author. In it, she relates the story of a bird watcher who has an enormous lifetime list of the birds he has seen. When queried on how he managed to see all those birds, his answer was simply that he did it, “bird by bird.” Lamott says that writing a book is done the same way, bird by bird—or sentence by sentence. It’s a matter of desire and discipline: of putting in the time each work day, until you finally arrive at the end. (Personally, I prefer to liken writing a book to eating a cow: I do it one hamburger at a time).
Likewise, reading three thousand books in half a century is not such a daunting a task. Certainly if you read but one book a year, then you’ll have made but a small bite in such a stack. But I’m one of those people who reads two or three books a week, sometimes more. In half a century of life, I’ve easily surpassed the three thousand book mark.
Reading is not drudgery. It is not like finishing the round of machines at the gym three times a week, or vacuuming the carpet or mowing the lawn. Instead, reading, at least for me, is like watching a movie, playing a video game, or staring at the TV: a lot of fun and incredibly easy. It’s something I want to do with all my spare moments. When I have no time for hobbies, I still manage to find time to read. When I haven’t the time for the television shows I’ve recorded on my TiVo, I still find time to read. In fact, I’ve frequently chosen to read a book instead of watch TV. I usually enjoy it more.
The three thousand books in my house are simply a symptom of the illness with which I suffer: an inordinate fondness for the written word. Ever since I learned to read, I’ve loved it and prefer it to all other forms of entertainment. As a boy, I often chose to stay inside with my nose in a book instead of going outside in the sun to play.
Going outside, going to the gym, running a 5K—I do enjoy those things. But they all require a conscious effort and to me feel more like work than real fun. Only reading comes naturally and easily to me, so much so that visitors to my house are not alone in thinking me a bit strange. To this day my inlaws still won’t buy me books for Christmas or my birthday. They think I have too many already.