"Delight in book collecting, and in showing off one’s book collection, is common, if not universal, among readers and would-be-readers. The biggest reason we spend money on books is because we want to read them (eventually), but that isn’t the only reason: we also like to look at them, and to look at other people looking at them. While moving into my new apartment this month I found myself casting long, admiring glances at my full bookshelves, straightening out folded pages and making sure the spines were perfectly lined up. I have devoted most of my moving time to arranging these shelves; books accounted for probably 90 percent of the weight I had to lift up three flights of stairs into my apartment. When I move out in two years, I will have to do it all again. Why do I—why do we—devote so much time, energy, space and money to these $15 hunks of paper? Why do I risk compressed discs every time I move into a new apartment? Or, to put it another way: Why don’t I just buy a Kindle?
Because I love books—or so I tell myself. But what exactly am I talking about when I talk about “books”? When I say I love Tao Lin’s Taipei, for example, am I talking about the enriching experience of reading that novel? Or am I talking about my physical copy of Taipei, whose glittery spine looks especially dazzling sandwiched between Primo Levi and David Lipsky? In order to distinguish my hobby of collecting books from, say, my mother’s hobby of collecting ceramic iguanas, I have to claim that it is distinguished by the experience of the reading itself. I have to claim that in collecting and reading all these books I am doing something productive, constructive, worthwhile. This, at least, has been the argument made by the various defenders of literature that have been mounted of late in, to give a far from exhaustive list, Slate, Time, the New York Times, the Atlantic, Popular Science, and the New Republic. These articles have either championed or criticized recent scientific research that supposedly proves that reading literature makes one a more empathetic person. I tend to agree with Leo Robson in feeling that this scientific research is probably bullshit, but even Robson comes around to the idea that reading literature does something positive for the reader, even if that thing may have little to do with morality.
But if all this reading has improved me somehow, you wouldn’t know it from the way I behave around my books. In fact, when I spend hours arranging my bookshelves and buying books I won’t read any time soon, I’m acting like the only thing I want to get out of reading Taipei is the chance to show off its shiny cover on my bookshelf. The way I treat my books shows that no matter how important they are to me as things to read, they also exist as decorative objects and status symbols."