In 2011, my mom and I decided to stop buying books for one year. It was born of a desire to curb a thoughtless habit (her) and a deep frustration with the cost of academic books (me). As lifelong readers, we both felt like this was an absolutely insane step. Like many other readers, being a reader and having books is a significant part of my self-identity. I read. I think about reading. I talk about reading. I set annual reading goals. I keep a regularly updated list of my top five favorite novels in my head (and you better believe it was a huge scandal up there when, after years of stability, Anathem knocked The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay out of the top five in 2015).
To stop buying books, then, was a statement both about how we wanted to spend our money and also about how we wanted to live and who we wanted to be.
It was, of course, quite difficult at first. I was just so used to buying and having books. I was in the midst of my PhD program and was buying dozens of books per semester (that I only read once). I was picking up anything that looked good at thrift stores and book sales and was surrounding myself with the enticing mysteries of unread books. But after a while mediocre books and unread books start to weigh on your psyche. So I stepped off the book buying carousel for a time. It turned out to be unbelievably freeing. I stopped buying books for class and instead found them at the library and borrowed friends’ copies. At least one friend was deeply shaken to the core by my refusal to buy a book in order to write notes in it, but to me it was absolutely worth it for the hundreds of dollars that stayed in my pocket and the pounds of literal weight that stayed out of my house.
When I say I stopped buying books I mean all books - both physical and digital. I know it’s very hip and minimalist to move one’s book collection completely to digital, but that wasn't my goal. A digital book may be smaller, but it still costs money and it creates mental (and digital) clutter. I also hold an old school opinion about digital books - they are a great convenience, but they aren’t a replacement for a physical book.
The hardest thing about not buying books, however, was the weird feeling that I had stopped doing something good. People regularly criticize the vanity, greed, and consumerism that surrounds buying clothes, tech toys, beauty products, shoes, and other accessories. But rarely do people talk about the temptation of buying books. There’s something about books that, I think, makes them the final frontier of frugality. Books at their core are wholesome and life-giving and buying books is viewed with indulgence.
Because of this hallowed status of books, I tended to think that everything in my life related to books was fine. I didn’t need to challenge that habit in any way and books always got a free pass. My mom said that before the ban she had really just never thought about her book buying habits. She was a reader so she just bought books. The book buying ban finally made her consider the impact and results of her book buying choices. Just because we have something great in our lives doesn’t mean we have a healthy relationship with it. Yes, reading for work and pleasure is a sustaining force in my life, but having a lot of overstuffed book shelves is not. Spending money on more and more books did not make me happier and did not make me a better reader. Eventually I realized that my relationship with the physical copy of the book was somehow superseding my relationship with the ideas and the stories within the pages. And participating in a book buying ban helped me realign that relationship.
After the year was over there was no going back. I had readjusted my thinking so much that I didn’t want to indiscriminately buy books any more. Even more surprising to me - I wanted to get rid of the books I already owned. I wasn’t re-reading them. I wasn’t sharing them. I just had them. Readers are fond of sharing pictures of beautiful (and extensive) home libraries with each other and sighing dreamily into space. Every reader’s favorite Disney princess is Belle. But when I looked at my collection of books I stopped imagining the Beast’s magical library and just saw a lot of heavy paper. My books had become a burden. They were just dust collectors. Instead of representing potential they signified failed goals. I looked at my books and I felt guilty - I wasn’t reading that book that came highly recommended by a friend, I wasn’t reading that book that cost $25, I wasn’t reading that book I’ve kept for years because it’s a “classic.”
I also learned that what I thought was “essential” in my life was not. When we went to China for the 2012-2013 school year I took two of my favorite comfort books - The Blue Sword and Beauty, both by Robin McKinley. I re-read them both while we were there (for the dozenth time each), but when we were packing to come back to the US, I did something that seemed very rash at the time. I gave both books away to a Chinese friend who wanted to practice English. Those were my comfort books! I read them on a bi-monthly basis all through grad school! I thought for sure I would have to buy new copies within a year. Guess what? It’s been four years and not only have I not re-bought the books, but I haven’t read either of those books since. I still feel shocked that I so easily let go of something that I thought was so important to me. That one act has made me question everything I thought I knew about myself! If I am capable of successfully giving away something that I took such pleasure in (and didn’t miss it), then what else am I capable of?!
So I kept up the book-buying ban, albeit on a more relaxed scale. I still buy books from time to time, but I’m far more intentional about what books I buy and what I plan to do with the book. Hence - my book buying rules:
My Old Book-Buying Rules
Buy whatever books I want second-hand (thrift store, book sale, yard sale, etc.). I’ve always balked at the list price of books, especially hardbacks, but at a dollar a pop it was pretty hard to control myself.
Curate a list of fascinating-sounding books to put on my Christmas list (usually ones I can’t find second hand or were pricey).
Complain bitterly about the price of new textbooks/academic books and then buy them anyway.
Purchase books as gifts willy-nilly.
Give up quickly if I can’t find a book second-hand and buy it on Amazon.
My New Book-Buying Rules
Buy fun books for myself only if I find them very cheaply ($1>) and plan to re-donate them when finished. Examples: A book that will take me a long time to read (like Bleak House or Grapes of Wrath). Books to read while traveling internationally (these are left in airports or hostels).
Thoughtfully curate a very limited list of reference-type books to put on my Christmas list (i.e. A Dictionary of 400 Knitting Stitches, Birds of North America).
Do whatever it takes not to buy academic books or other required books for classes or workshops (library, inter-library loan, share with friends, borrow from classmates, make copies from the class edition on hold at the library).
Purchase specific books as gifts (typically second-hand or from Better World Books if possible).
Buy a book full price on Amazon if I can’t find it any other way (for example - we read a newly published book for a small group that I couldn’t find any other way, but then I re-sold it on Amazon when we were done).
Six years into the book buying ban I no longer feel excited about owning and keeping a lot of books. Instead, I feel excited about participating in the global jet stream of books. I go to the public library almost every week to check out books and movies. I’m obsessed with the Little Free Library world in DC and regularly take and leave free books around my neighborhood. I love to have someone put a book in my hands and tell me “this is great” with an expectation that I will pass it on when I’m done. I love to add my handful of thrillers and mysteries to the shelf at a hostel when we travel. I’ve grown downright poetic about the whole thing.
Books, as the physical manifestation of ideas, should move freely and organically through the world and should be accessible to everyone (*cough* libraries *cough*). While the years of notes in my copies of the Jewish Study Bible and the Divine Comedy keep those specific books tethered to my life, I’ve found that I am slowly but surely freeing most of my books out into the wild to touch the lives of others. I’m learning to embrace my memories of books instead of the actual book itself, which turns out is just as, if not more, rich and rewarding. I don’t own a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude (see list below) but that doesn’t keep me from re-living the memory of the glorious shock of discovering Marquez’s magical realism for the first time. I’ve found that owning books is not at all related to or has an impact on my love of reading or my growth as a reader - and that has been the most wonderful part of the experience.
How do you all approach buying (and keeping and storing) books? Do you find it harder or easier to deal with your books than other categories, like clothes or hobbies? Do you have particular books you’ll never part with?
My current top five favorite novels-
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin*
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Runners up: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon; Beauty by Robin McKinley; 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff; Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny
*This is the only book in my favorites list that I own. I love my kitschy 70’s edition and I also feel bad donating this book because at one time it was the victim of an exploding sink filled with orange peels so it is extremely warped (but smells nice).
Also, if you’d like to join me in book nerdery I’d love to be your friend on Goodreads!