Why I’ve Stopped Buying Books (For Now) The unthinkable has happened

If the world as we know it came crashing down and I happened to be trapped some­where indoors on my own (with some water and food, please) and that place just happened to be a book­store or a library—I’d be a happy camper. Books are one of the great plea­sures of life. And yet I’ve just decided not to buy any new ones.

Am I going mad?

I might be, because usually this is what happens when I walk into a book­store: I walk out with at least one book. Books are among the most deeply satis­fying objects I know. The weight of them; the way they flex in your hands; the antic­i­pa­tion of having an undis­cov­ered world open up inside your brain; the soft, almost corpo­real rubbing of the paper against your finger­tips; the frisson of seeing those opening phrases; the way your read­ings linger in the back of your mind throughout the day… Books are a love affair.

A Change of Heart

So why decide to close the gates and stop buying new books? Here’s the thing. I buy more books than I have time to read, and have been doing so for decades now. My book­shelves are popu­lated in large part with books that I would love to get started on, but never get round to. And as long as my library keeps growing faster than I can read it, this will never change.

The only way to start catching up, I real­ized, is to invert the situ­a­tion: read more books than I buy. Unfortunately, I’m a slow reader, so that means I have to become a really slow, slow buyer. A no-buyer.

Hence my deci­sion, a few months ago, to stop buying books. For now. Ouch.

A New Perspective

Surprisingly, this change of focus has also had its bene­fits. I’ve discov­ered that the body of unread books in my own home now feels like a kind of book­shop in its own right. And do you know what? These books are free (or at least: pre-paid) and instantly avail­able! Best of all, they’ve all been hand-picked to match my personal reading preferences—by me, no less.

It’s a bit like discov­ering old acquain­tances that have been somehow lingering almost invis­ibly inside your home for years, and getting the chance at last to finally strike up a conver­sa­tion with them. In some cases, I’ll remember exactly where and when I bought a book, or when it was gifted to me, and opening it up feels like making good on a long-kept promise. In other cases I’ll find a book on my shelves and have no memory what­so­ever of how it got into my collec­tion. A stranger among friends that is still most welcome, a book-sized fortune cookie.

My favorites, I think, are the classic works of liter­a­ture that I secretly feel I “ought to have read” at some point, but never did. This is a delightful exer­cise in catching up that has finally intro­duced me to the likes of Animal Farm, The Lord of the Flies and The Brothers Karamazov. With friends like these, who needs new books?

The Mirror of Spines

Maybe the best thing about this new book policy of mine is that is often feels like a explo­ration down memory lane. I’ve always felt that a book­case is a trea­sure trove of memo­ries, just like a photo album. It’s just that the items don’t depict events and places from the past; they repre­sent ideas and expe­ri­ences from your inner life. Standing in front of my book­shelves, I see myself—a more accu­rate portrait, perhaps, than any photo­graph could ever capture.

This mirror of spines reveals joys and hopes, surren­ders and sadnesses, insight and oppor­tu­nity. Some of the unread books are a chance to fill in a gap in the greater story that created this mirror. Reading them is an educa­tion and a home­coming.

Still, in the back of my mind, there is that little voice, demure but persis­tent: “No… new… books?” Yes, it does hurt a bit. But so far, the bene­fits outweigh the discom­fort. I’m making new old friends, or making old friends new again. And if one of my human friends should decide to, say, give me a book for my birthday—well, I’m not a funda­men­talist.

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Image credit: British Museum (source) (more info)

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