• Literary Albatrosses: Books I can’t get rid of

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 24 comments

    While writing last week’s post on reading retention I scanned our bookshelves for titles to discuss and spotted some books that I’ve never read but have carted all over creation.

    The Autobiography of Mark Twain, for example, all 4.2 pounds of it, which I have packed four times now and never cracked open. From Florida to a different place in Florida to a different and worse place in Florida to Austin to New York, this giant book has come with me, spiking my moving costs (it almost needs its own box) and then collecting literary dust until I move again.

    I always manage to convince myself that, someday, I’ll read it. But when I finish a book and scan my shelves for the next, my eyes skip past this Twain monster every single time. It’s to the point where I am about 97.5 percent certain I’ll never read this book.

    But when it becomes time to pack up and move, I become more than 97.5 percent certain that I will.

    Do you do this too? What is it?



    All of these books that keep coming with me, none of them are rare in any way. I can check out any one of them from the library any time I want to. And neither do they hold sentimental value; again, haven’t read ’em, and there’s nothing special about the circumstances under which they came to be in my possession.

    I should note that I’m not a book hoarder. I buy plenty of books, but after I read them — or once I realize I won’t ever read them — I give them away, unless I’m certain I’ll want to reread them. Besides these books I’ve never read, there are about fifteen, maybe even fewer, books I’ve read that move with me from apartment to apartment.

    One commonality of these unread books is that they’re all a little more highbrow than what I typically read. Or at least they’re more intense, commitment-wise. Like the 800-page Twain book. Or the nearly-as-large Best American compilation of short stories that I’ve never actually sat down with, though it’s been in my life for more than a decade. Or the big stack of NYRB Classics, mostly novels in translation, from when I belonged, years ago, to the NYRB Classics book club and opened not a single entry.

    Maybe these books represent how I’d like to see myself, or be seen, as a reader. Dedicated, I suppose. Willing to put in the time it takes to read an 800-page autobiography from a writer I mildly admire; eager to sit and read through 100 short stories, or the latest 19th century, 417-page novel from Bulgaria.

    Or maybe I just like how these books look on my shelf; i.e., my imagined perceptions, of me, from the people who see them.

    I’d explore this theory more, but… I really don’t want to.

    Instead, I’ll close by nothing that the Mark Twain book is the first of three volumes totaling more than 2,000 pages. If I were to read the first and buy the other two, we could never move again.


    Your Turn

    Do you own books you’ve never read but continue to move with you from house to house or apartment to apartment? What are some of them, and what do they represent to you?

    And let’s come up with a name for this peccadillo. Something better than my original idea, which was “hopeless readmantic.” Humiliating.

    Our favorite answer wins a book. Something you can take with you anywhere you go.

    Answers go in the comments below.

    (Don’t subscribe to notifications; they’re still not working. Just check back for replies.)


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”


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    How about “libera non grata?” Or, if you hate Latin, “brick” will work. You gather enough of ’em, you have a wall. Or, “wishbooks,” because you wish you didn’t spend the time wondering if you’d ever get to it. Wait, how about “wishbricks?”

    david lemke

    Years ago I had about 2000 books. Then I moved! I had to reduce. Some friends got some. The library got 500. Now I don’t have an albatross. No I have an invasion fleet of them, about 3000!. If I ever have to downsize or move to assisted live or some other awful situation, all my friends who have in the past have suffered the misfortune of helping me move, will run screaming:) I’d post scary pictures of my office/library if I could.

    David Duhr

    Send me those scary pictures and I’ll drop ’em in the post.

    Where/how do you get so many books? Half Price?

    And do you keep up with them, or do you buy stacks of books at a time and don’t read them as they come in?

    Jerry Schwartz

    Mine tend to be souvenirs. I have a reference book my mother used when she was doing engineering; a copy of “Marjorie Morningstar” that my great-aunt lovingly protected with a book cover made of wrapping paper (I never intend to read that); some prayer books, printed in the 1860s, that must have belonged to my great-grandfather; early computer manuals; and stuff like that. None of my heirs would be interested in any of them. I, too, had to do some serious winnowing when I moved. My old place had a finished basement that was lined, floor to ceiling, with bookshelves… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Some of the ones I keep are souvenirs too, I suppose. My childhood copy of Johnny Tremain. A novel from an undergrad lit class that I probably won’t ever read again, and could find for $0.99 in any bookstore or website. Sentimental value. It’s too bad your heirs wouldn’t be interested in your souvenir books. I’m sure plenty of historians & collectors will, but I understand that that’s not the same.

    Jerry Schwartz

    As I spun around in my chair, I noticed that I have the Harvard Classics Five Foot Shelf of Books. I don’t know if it’s a complete set or not, but there are about fifty of them. I have no idea where or when I got them.

    Talk about lugging stuff around!

    Kenneth Harris

    I dragged Irving Howe’s weighty “World of Our Fathers” around to various addresses in Ohio and Texas for three decades. Of 780 pages bound pages, my total consumption of it at this time has been limited to front flap of dust jacket, informing me that this was a fine novel, and back flap, informing me that Irving is a fine writer. Looking at its broad shoulders leaning alongside other unread doorstops, I knew I’d been overcome with the scourge of most home libraries: “tome-age”, the purchase of books by gross weight for strictly decorative purposes. Were I more enlightened, I’d… Read more »

    David Duhr

    So you never had interest in the book, even when you bought it? Or it began as something you intended to read, and never got around to, but you came to like how it looked on your shelves? Does it have some measure of sentimental value by now, or could you replace it with an identically sized book and not care?

    Larry Stueck

    “Lucha Libro,” because I often fight with myself over which books to keep and those that should find their way to a thrift store. Unfortunately, I keep more than I should like Jack London’s multi novels and stories book, which I attempt to read each year during the Iditarod.

    David Duhr

    I have this lucha libro anytime I decide to make a Goodwill run. I make a large stack of books to donate. The next day, I pull out about half of them in a fit of sentimentality. The day after, I put most of those back to the donate pile, and then I stuff ’em in a bag and run to Goodwill before I can change my mind again. With a book like your London, I usually try to dip in and out rather than do one sustained reading. Like every month I’ll choose one story to read from it.… Read more »

    Barbara A Mealer

    Like others here, I’ve had a library of over 3K books which I downsized to five boxes. I also have a revolving library of close to a 1K paperbacks. (Oops forgot the say the 3K were hardcover books, some rare) Yes, I have some albatrosses like the books on Disraeli, Benjamin Franklin, Abe Lincon (3 books from 1800s) and the big Albatross is the one from 1920 Chicago which I know I’ll never read…ever. I love books, so it’s hard for me to get rid of hardback books. Paperbacks, not so much. When I moved to Arizona, I left a… Read more »

    David Duhr

    I used to keep, and relocate, a lot more books than I do now. I remember ten years ago living in a small bedroom in Cambridge, no bookshelf, and having about ten stacks of books on the floor, along the walls. But somewhere along the way, I stopped wanting to keep them. I’m not sure I can remember a turning point.

    But it sounds like, like others here, a lot of your books contain some sentimental value.

    What other kinds of stuff belongs in the Dregs section? And what keeps you from chucking those?

    Lisa Marie Michener

    I am so glad to hear that I’m not the only one who keeps moving and sometimes dusting off books I’ll never read. I don’t have thousands, but I have enough. I spent last Sunday afternoon winnowing through my section on Catholic theology, etc… 40+ and that’s not all of them. And now they are sitting in bags waiting to go to the car to go to library or Goodwill. I have a similar section on US history. I haven’t studied US History since 2003… clearly these books are not even current scholarship. But I keep thinking… oh but I… Read more »

    David Duhr

    “Should” can be so nasty. My therapist and I have spent entire sessions on “should,” and we’ve even covered “should” as it relates to my reading and (far more often) my writing. Have you thought much about these books and what the sense of obligation is about?

    When you’re done winnowing books, do you go through those bags the next day and do some opposite winnowing? (de-winnowing?) That’s one of my more silly specialties.


    How does anyone get around to reading a book on overcoming procrastination if they have the tendency? Books on procrastination make me laugh. I think I have one somewhere…

    David Duhr

    And if they do read it, what are they putting off?

    Loren Stein

    Yes …… the Paris Review interviews four books box set. They have come to maybe five or seven apartments with me and I never crack them open—-but I always think I’m going to.

    Literary albatross

    Walt Mahany

    Gift books and those I thought might be interesting. No real problems with the latter if I keep pace with periodic culling, much with the former, and impending unfortunate questions: “How did I like it?” “Err …”

    Jerry Schwartz

    I don’t remember.

    Jerry Schwartz

    I don’t remember where I got them, let alone when. I also have a pile of the Waverly novels, many of which I have read. I was well into a binge when I realized I was starting to acquire a burr, so I had to stop.

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x