It's a pretty common fantasy among readers, and one you probably have yourself: that dream of one day having the "ideal" library. In these daydreams, it most often resembles Belle's reading room, straight out of Beauty & the Beast, with its floor to ceiling shelves, endless books, and of course, a rolling ladder to reach them all. But when did this massive collection of books actually become the end goal of so many of our reading lives? Was it really from our childhood cartoon watching, or is there something decidedly more psychological at play?
I have spoken before about my own experience with getting rid of books, and how it took time to retrain my mindset from one of collecting and hauling, to one of reading and experiencing. And I've often thought about what pushes me to want to buy a brand new hardcover rather than, say, borrow it from the library — especially knowing that I only have one small bookshelf to hold all my books. It turns out, some of the reasons behind my impulse to physically collect books are ones that a lot of us share.
According to an article in the Guardian by psychologist Christian Jarrett, there are many psychological motivations behind collecting, including love, anxiety and desire. Of course, there are theories that point to the happiness of collecting: the thrill of the hunt, and the excitement of sharing our collections with others. When it comes to readers, after all, most of us love nothing more than peeking at people's shelves and TBRs, desperate to know what everyone else is reading, and seeing the books that they love enough to keep close by.
But many psychologists look at the darker side of collecting, the idea that it is motivated by filling in something we lack, rather than adding value to our lives. Some theories put forth in Jarrett's Guardian article, for instance, include the endowment effect, which describes our tendency to value things more once we own them; and existential anxiety that leads us to collect tokens as an extension of our identities, a way we can live on even after we're gone.
And according to a New York Times article by cultural historian Philipp Blom, who is also the author of To Have and To Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting, we amass stuff we don't need because "collected objects have shed their original function and become totems, fetishes." And while Blom is mostly referencing one-off special collector's items, it's hard not to see this reflected back to us in our bookish lives: signed copies, books with limited edition covers, all of these special things I have found myself insisting I just have to have.
Of course, as a reader you might be thinking that the love of collecting books doesn't actually apply here; you buy books because you want to read books, not because of some existential crisis; and that is probably true. But when we take a look at the places where readers gather online these days, particularly on Bookstagram (the bookish community on Instagram) and BookTube (the collection of book-based channels on YouTube) we see, among the book reviews, reading excitement, and vibrant community, an endless amount of huge book hauls, unboxing orders and subscriptions, extensive wish lists and more. It can be all too easy to get sucked up in the idea that reading equals collecting. And, it turns out, social media has been a huge driving factor in retraining the consumer parts of our brains... especially for millennials.
And, it turns out, social media has been a huge driving factor in retraining the consumer parts of our brains...especially for millennials.
According to a Deloitte Insights report, 47% of millennials say their purchasing decisions are influenced by social media. Beyond that, the article continues, "Consumers who include social media as part of their shopping process are four times more likely to spend more money on purchases. They’re also 29% more likely to make a purchase on the same day when using social media to make purchase decisions."
47% of millennials say their purchase decisions are influenced by social media.
So, it stands to reason, that social media makes a lot of us want to buy things. Combine that with the psychological ideology that some people use these collectable items (clothes, makeup, books) to solidify their identities and their value; and its easy to see how there are people, like me, who have let themselves equate "being a reader" with "buying lots of books" and less with the actual fact of reading them.
If you count yourself among us, what can you do about it? Well, it looks like lots of readers are already turning away from a culture of consumerism, at least when it comes to books. We're seeing just as many book unhauls as hauls these days, not only as people try to live more minimally, but as they start to prioritize reading more books over buying more books. And according to the Pew Research Center, millennials are the most likely generation of Americans to use their public libraries, with 53% of people age 18 to 35 using the library at least once a year.
Of course, this doesn't mean we should all stop buying books completely. Supporting brick and mortar bookstores and the booksellers who work in them is incredibly important, particularly at indie bookshops. But when it comes my own personal life as a reader, it's more crucial to me to make sure that I am actually reading — diverse books, Own Voices books, feminist books — rather than just collecting tomes on a shelf, wearing an extensive physical book collection like a badge of honor, when the real honor is experiencing the stories themselves.
After all, I can get my collecting wiggles out with every new cover that makes its way onto my Goodreads Yearly Reading Challenge whether I own a physical copy or not... and now the books that I do buy, or receive from friends and family, mean so much more to me; because they are part of a curated collection of books that have changed my life as a reader and beyond, the ones I want as physically close to me as the stories and characters are in my mind. And that's the kind of book collecting I can be truly proud of.