Is there such a thing as too many books?

I am trying to lose weight. Actually, I’m a good 15-18 pounds lighter than I was in November, when I first resolved to trim up. I’d still like to take another 20 pounds off, so I’m only about halfway to my goal. When people ask me how I’ve managed to lose the weight I’ve already taken off, I always shrug and say that I have no particular diet: my basic game plan is “eat less, move more.” In other words, I try to be mindful of my portion sizes and I try to keep exercise and physical activity as a priority.

I’m still thinking a lot about the conversation I had last week with a monk who suggested that I need to be spending less time reading and more time engaged in my spiritual practice of prayer and contemplation. I literally have a house full of books, and the vast majority of them I have not read, or only read in part. This, I know, is not unusual for educated, reasonably affluent American writers, particularly since once the publishers discover someone like me (who often blogs about books), they start sending out free books in the hopes that I’ll mention them in my blog. Even worse (as my wife likes to remind me), if I ask a publisher for a complimentary copy of a newly published book, often they’ll send it along. The moral of the story: I have a book addiction, and I acquire the things faster than I can usefully read them. I am book-fat.

If the way to lose excess flesh is to eat less and move more, then it seems that the only way to overcome the problem of book-fat is to acquire fewer books and simply set about to reading the ones I already have (which, frankly, will probably see me through to the end of my life). But instead of “moving more,” the process of abandoning compulsive book acquisitions probably will indeed require contemplating more. Engaging in the silent process of seeking and resting in the presence of God is probably the only real antidote to the rather materialistic (read: gluttonous) habit of continually buying (or begging for) still more reading material.

None of us can read our way into the presence of God. The only real point behind spiritual reading is to encourage us to, finally, put the book down and get on with the business of prayer, meditation, contemplation, and the work of loving one another. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that spiritual reading should be abandoned altogether (that would be silly, considering that I have just finished writing my own book on Christian spirituality), but I do think that reading is like eating: it’s possible to both over-do and under-do it. I suspect that book-anorexics probably are not much for reading blogs either, so I don’t imagine too many of my readers suffer from that particular problem. But if you, like me, have too much book-fat in your life (warning signs include acquiring books faster than you can read them, and rather compulsively reading pretty much every spare moment of the day), then perhaps my monastic friend’s advice would be useful for you, too. Read less, pray more. Read less, meditate more. Read less, contemplate more.

Here are a few quotations from to ponder as we consider how to find the perfect balance between the right amount of reading and a meaningful practice of  contemplation in our lives.

Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.

— Albert Einstein

Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I’ll have a long beard by the time I read them.

— Arnold Lobel

Readings is sometimes an ingenious device for avoiding thought.

— Arthur Helps

Never read a book through merely because you have begun it.

— John Witherspoon

The multitude of books is making us ignorant.

— Voltaire

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Robin

    “Excuses be gone” Dr. Wayne Dyer
    Good Morning,
    I read your blog almost daily. I have never responded but you spoke my story. So many books, so little time….Dr, Wayne came to mind I had to share!!
    Thank you for the time and energy ,heart and thought you put into your writing.

  • Yewtree

    I’m all for contemplative practice but books are very much a part of that for me. After reading the excellent Into the silent land by Martin Laird (which I think you would like), I have spent less time reading compulsively and more time contemplating, though.

    I think one should read discerningly and meditatively, however, not just any old thing. And I agree with the quote above about not needing to finish everything you start. Sometimes I buy a book and it turns out not to be what I thought, so I don’t finish it.

  • henfre

    I’ll have to agree with that quote by my good friend Albert.

    I think that books can lead to lazy thinking… so think when you read! A good page-turner or two isn’t all that bad, but they’re like sweets and you don’t do much deep-thinking when you read them. There isn’t much mental exercise in that.

    As for finishing books… I think it best to let the book finish itself. If I get bored with something in a book, I’ll skip ahead until I find something interesting. Deeply reading books you’ve read before is almost always good exercise.

    Nice blog, too.

  • Terri

    Too much of anything is not good. You gave me a great incentive to donate some of my books to the church library!

  • Carl McColman

    Yes, Into the Silent Land is one of the more popular books at the monastery where I work, so it’s one of the many books in my “to read” pile. Certainly, books have a vital place in the contemplative life; after all, what is lectio divina if not meditative reading? You hit the nail on the head with the distinction between contemplative and compulsive reading, and I’m struggling with the fact that my book acquisition habits tend, alas, to the compulsive side.

  • Steven Waldman

    Though I have never met you, Carl, your problem probably isn’t your poundage, it’s your height. You may be just a bit short for your weight. Same thing with the books. Your not book- fat, your time-challenged. I too have amassed such a huge library of books I still want to study and read, including hundreds of esoteric books in Hebrew where one needs to spend hours mining each dense page , that I’ve had to move stacks of them to my dental office in order to maintain marital harmony. It’s a shame that I don’t believe in reincarnation, for I figure that I will have to live again at least 35 times over in order to read the ones I have to this date, before my upcoming shipment from Amazon. Problem is that in each subsequent life I will probably have forgotten that I already own all these wonderful books, and will no doubt buy them again. I think I will let Amazon know that maintaining my purchase records for just one lifetime just isn’t the kind of service I demand.

  • Gary

    So true, all the above. A great opportunity to meet both challenges – the effort physically expended in lugging the books to any willing library, or prepping for shipment to ‘ready and able to receive them elsewhere, such as overseas’ persons, helps with the weight loss, and shortens the wait for reduction of book-fat. Alas, as is clear from all the responses, writers are not the only afflicted people group. Our medical clinic is actively pursuing ways to purge medical texts to needy places as we improve our access to multiple up to date electronic information sources. Maybe a shelf of books at a doctor’s desk will soon be what a cigarette in a doctor’s hand has become, foolish hypocrisy at it’s best?! This has given me ideas on my family’s library as well. Thank you, all.

  • elizabeth

    and don’t forget the classic:
    And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
    Ecclesiastes 12:12

  • Sherry Peyton

    Oh do I plead guilty to this! I too write reviews and now and again get unsolicited ones beyond those I have requested. I seem always on a schedule to keep my reading up to get them done, but the pile of those to read, never gets shorter, though the titles do change. I am always trying to squeeze in just an extra few minutes here and there. I am though trying hard to meditate an hour a day. Not enough, but one can only try to add in small doses given one’s other responsibilities. Thanks for making me feel not alone in my addiction! lol.

  • rob culhane

    I try to avoid the bloating library syndrome by purchasing the big books and leaving the little ones to take care of themselves. (Adapted from the Methodist preacher of the 19th century, W E Sangster.) What causes me to buy the books I don’t need and don’t read is due to the actual experience of being in the bookshop. The quietness and time to ruminate is addictive, especially when I’m had a busy week. But I’ve also noticed that many of the books for sale are merely recycling the same pool of ideas. A recent trend due to the cut and paste ability of word processing has been the construction of chapters with quotes from other authors with a little padding in between. The book by Sara Maitland: A Book of Silence is one such example. Not much originality has been the result. I’ve decided that if its worth buying, then its got to be worth reading several times, and if its worth reading several times, then its worth lending to someone else to read or buying them a copy. One book I’ve done this recently with has been “Toward God” by Michael Casey, an OSC here in the state of Victoria, Australia.
    It’s good for the beginner (like my daugher aged 20 who enjoyed it) but also for me (52 yrs old) just to settle my mind before entering a period of prayer and contemplation. I gave a copy to a person who comes for spiritual direction and he loved it.

  • Annie

    ouch, ouch, ouch.

  • Bob

    My book reading addiction drove me to AA 12-steps groups. Book reading can be as destructive as substance abuse at least relationally. I was reading without writing trying to find the key to unlock life’s mysteries and paradoxes. Healthy reading seems to lead to good writing like Carl’s situation. But maybe Carl’s new book is the final book on mysticsm!!

  • Joe

    Before I write something you’ll hate me for, allow me to point out that my own recovery as a alcoholic has been greatly helped by substituting books for booze. Of course, that’s a very lame excuse.

    Fetishizing books, when we are striving to be contemplatives, reveals not only slavish consumerism, but also (in my view) a streak of idolatry far more harmful than mere distraction from contemplative practice. I think we want books to serve as what the Scholastics called the “signum efficax” or effective sign — where “effective” means having the capacity to bring about a desired change on the soul. Books are significant, not in the sense of being important, but in the sense of pointing to other things; but God is not a thing, and thus books can at best allude to divine realities, but cannot bring about knowledge of them. There is simply no way in which they can be causal of the kind of knowledge we might want to call mystical.

    Aquinas wrote about the concept of the signum efficax in the “Summa Theologica” in Pt. III, Q. 63, especially Art. I, on the question of whether the sacraments are effective, where he claimed that “It cannot be denied: the sacraments of the New Covenant in some fashion cause grace” where a sacrament is held to be a kind of sign, a semiotic bond.

    A sacrament, in other words, is a sign that causes what it signifies, specifically (for Aquinas) the character of Christ. A book is not. Would that it were — our troves would have saved us already!

  • dFish

    Thank you again, this time, for the truthfully side of it. I received my new copy of Into the Silent Land from a friend. It belongs to the troika of my Bible and Breviary now…

  • dFish

    “Truthfully humorous”…

  • Bob

    What are most addictive are books on prayer and prayer techniques. What is Carl reading that he can be in the dark night of the spirit? Like I can read my way up the mystical mountain. Yet most of us (I think) will be in the purgative stage during our lifetime

  • Yewtree

    Further thoughts on the subject of contemplative versus compulsive reading (though I actually meant I am practising contemplation rather than contemplative reading) – there’s an excellent chapter on how to read novels in Voices from the Attic by Robertson Davies. And I must put in a plug for his novels too, if you haven’t read them. Here is a man who really understood the spiritual atmosphere and cultural and theological nuances of the various denominations available in Canada in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. And he writes from a Jungian perspective, in elegant prose.