On Psychology Books: Can't Live Without Them

Books are necessary, even essential, to life, aren't they?

Posted Mar 06, 2012

I love books. I've always loved books. I feel much the same way about books as Thomas Jefferson did. In a letter to John Adams in 1815, Jefferson wrote that, "I cannot live without books..."

I still remember the upset when I returned home from my first-year of college to find that my mother had donated dozens of my books to the public library. When I got over the shock I asked her why she cleared my shelves—she pointed out that I wasn't reading them, that others could now enjoy them, and that if I wanted to read any of them again I could borrow them whenever I wished. When I pointed out that I couldn't have taken the books with me away to college—there were just too many—she thought I had made her point for her. I spent quite a few years hunting down copies of works I didn't think I could live without. Yes, she had a point about sharing the knowledge contained in them with others but I still wish she had asked me first, if only so I could cull my very favorites from the donation.

But I'm not sure most students hold books in the same esteem. For example, I am still a little puzzled when students visit my campus office, glance at my bookshelves wide-eyed (one entire wall is filled with books), and say something like, "Wow, you have a lot of books—have you read them all?" The answer I give is true: I've read most but not all of them, probably somewhere around 85%. And the word "read" is subject to clarification. Does "reading" mean I've read the book cover to cover, the way most of us read, say, a novel? Or does "reading" mean that I've read a key section of a book, say, a chapter or two on a topic that I need or want to know about?

The latter distinction is important. Many of the books in my office are edited works or what we might also call "reference works." Each book may have 20 or more chapters written by different psychologists on narrow topics relating to some overarching theme. I might only use a few of the chapters in the book for research, writing, or teaching, yet I still have a copy of the entire book (this practice is akin to pre-MP3 player days, where one had to buy an entire album to have a favorite song or two—iTunes has changed that game, as you can now download that one perfect song and neglect the rest of the album). Of course, I may end up consulting the other unread chapters in the book at some point.

When students visiting my office comment that I "have a lot of books," it always makes me wonder how they have been exposed to books at home. As education researchers and sociologists will tell you, educationally speaking, there is not much more important than having reading materials visible and available in the home—it's right up there with having parents who read themselves and read to their young children. The obvious presence of books in a home is always a good educational sign, just as their absence is a bad one. As one interior designer is reputed to have said, "Books make a room." I'd change that to "books make a mind and a home where it can roam happily." If children aren't exposed to an ample supply of books in the home (and yes, I am including books borrowed from the library) they will never become interested, motivated, and constant readers. Alas, many college students, including psychology majors, fit this profile.

(Time out: Take a mental walk through your childhood home—do you see a lot of books or other reading materials scattered about? Now, take a mental walk through your own home and think about your current relationship to books—what's your conclusion where your own reading habits are concerned?)

Which leads me to another point students sometimes raise—why keep a book once you finish reading it? My answer is simple: I don't know when, if ever, I will be finished consulting some books. Just as some people read treasured novels over and over again because they love them and cannot part with them (I just read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for the umpteenth time, for instance), as a scholar, I need to refer to certain research texts over and over again. Why? To (re)learn a specific fact, to locate and cite a key reference, and to remind myself about what I've forgotten (a sad but not infrequent occurrence). In short, books are relatively permanent and helpful external memory aids. What we forget they retain—and maintain—for us. I have some books that I need to consult over and over again, and I have others I might look at once in 10 years—and a few that I've not touched since college or before (such as my copy of Leaves of Grass, but I hope to read it again soon)—but I can see them and derive comfort from knowing they are there, waiting to be used.

In case you are wondering if I hoard books, the answer is no. I do clear my shelves of books that I don't think I will ever use. As a professor and book review editor for a journal, I receive promotional copies of new books all the time, sometimes 2 or 3 a week. If they are not relevant to my teaching, writing, or research, I either donate them to my college's library or I give them to colleagues or students who I believe can use them (and books are meant to be used, even if—as we've established—only infrequently). I don't sell books and I would never, ever throw one away. You?

What's missing from this discussion? eBooks, of course. I will try to tackle the impact and meaning of eBooks for psychology education next time.

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