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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