A question about unread books was posted on twitter today. It gave me pause for thought:


There’s little doubt that this question has more to do with hoarding than reading, but for me it soon became a question about ownership.

Wisely, Octavia (@ReadSleepRepeat) was careful to include e-books. If she’d just said ‘books’, I could have cheated by trying to interpret that as ‘paper books’, before walking around my house counting a few dozen unread books*.

Thinking of all my copyright-free e-books, I asked Octavia whether her query was also about books you get for free — the answer was a resounding yes.

Uh-oh.

With that answer my slightly-smug feeling of  ‘I don’t have too many unread books’ started draining away.

library, black and white photo

Books, beautiful books
National Library of Norway

Here’s my problem. When I’m bored I’ll trawl through places like Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive, searching for things that sound curious, intriguing or, at least, eminently readable. There are now hundreds and hundreds of tiny, little book bibelots, stored on my kindle and computer, waiting my possible perusal or swift reference.

Do I own these books? Of course not. Not in any financial sense. Do the ones I love belong to me as much as any book I’ve paid money for? I guess the answer has to be yes.

The question then becomes one of whether these great hoards of digital books can be counted. And to that I can say a resounding ‘not in this lifetime’. It’s just not possible. While I’m at it I might as well try and count all the pages on the internet. These books keep going out of copyright, getting uploaded and being downloaded.

It’s around about now that it all gets a little philosophical. Just who owns what anyway?

Octavia’s question was a good one as it got me to thinking. A wonderful outcome on any day. But, ultimately, it’s just not the question I want to answer. Ask me this:

What’s still out there that you haven’t yet managed to read?

The answer is, of course, everything. I can’t ever own all of it, but it’s all there. And, so, here I am. With the universe and everything in it still left to read.

 

* Is it just me or does the phrase ‘unread books’ conjure up images of story-less books roaming the midnight streets looking for words to devour. … No? Just me, then?