You may have noticed a particular affliction among some of your friends, especially common in people born between 1981 and 1991. I call it Belle Library Syndrome.
Belle from Beauty & the Beast is an incredibly aspirational character. She’s smart, beautiful, self-sacrificing, brave, and demands respect from all the condescending men in her life. And she’s got the most amazing library in the world. It’s four stories tall and full of rounded walls and spiral staircases. Belle’s insatiable need for the written word finally meets its match when the Beast gives her free reign of the royal library. And as a little kid you watched her face fill with joy, and you had only one thought: I wish I could have a library like that.
I want to make something abundantly clear right now: if owning hundreds and hundreds of books truly brings you joy, then by all means fill your shelves with them. You know the costs of ownership and you’re fine with them. This article isn’t about you.
For the rest of us, the problem with Belle Library Syndrome is that we strive to match her library without nearly the same benefit. We collect more and more books, buying additional bookcases or at least wishing we could. We spend thousands of dollars on the books themselves, and thousands more over time on moving and storing them. And instead of joy, they bring guilt. Guilt because there are so many we still haven’t read. Guilt because we just bought more anyway. And if ever we dared to do the math, we’d realize that the rate at which we are acquiring books far outpaces the rate at which we read them. The sad truth: most of the books on our shelves will never be read at all.
Sometimes we place a sort of impossible reverence on books. Don’t get me wrong, books are an important and vital part of a learned, civil society. But not because of the physical object. They matter because of what’s inside: the stories, the wisdom, the ideas. It’s the reading the matters, not the books themselves. Books exist to spread knowledge. And I would argue that keeping a huge personal library that no one ever touches is, at its heart, antithetical to the idea of spreading knowledge through books.
If your concern is to revere and honor books, consider that sitting on a shelf, never to be opened or picked up again, is not the true calling of any book. Books are meant to be read – ideally read often and by as many people as possible. Books get read when they are out there in the world, getting bought and sold and donated and gifted.
I’m reminded of a different part of Beauty & the Beast, when Lumiere is singing to Belle at dinner:
“Life is so unnerving
For a servant who’s not serving
He’s not whole without a soul to wait upon
Ah, those good old days when we were useful
Suddenly those good old days are gone.”
Your books have hopes and dreams and purpose just like you. They want to be out in the world. They want to be passed from person to person. They want to be read. So if you aren’t going to read them, considering letting them go free. Let them run out into the world to find a new love.
Create a personal book policy. This is a set of principles you set for yourself that make it easier to decide what to hang on to and what to let go. Personally I have a few sentimental books, a few active reference books, and a set of principles to guide everything else. They are:
1) If there’s a book you want to read, get it from the local library. If it’s a particularly popular book, just request a hold on it and read it whenever it becomes available.
2) Don’t buy books for yourself. If you want to own a book or there’s a book you want that isn’t at the library, put it on your Christmas list for someone else to get you as a gift.
3) The moment you finish a book you own, decide its future. If you didn’t love it, put it in the donation box. If you enjoyed it so much you feel confident you will re-read it within five years, it can go back on the shelf. If you liked it but won’t re-read it soon, decide immediately who in your life might like it, and give it to them as gift next time you see them.
These are just my personal rules. You can use them or change them or throw them out to match what you want from your books. The point is to sort your books with intention, and be willing to let some of them go.