It’s time for me to make a confession. When it comes to book shopping, I have a bit of a problem.
There, I said it. No taking it back. The problem isn’t limited to shopping, either. As a bookseller, I also acquire advance reading copies or manuscripts from publishers, and books damaged or otherwise written off from the store, not to mention all the sharing that goes on among my colleagues and I. Bibliophilia is a common ailment (and not one that I think should be entirely cured!), but having spent pretty much my entire working life in either a bookstore or a publishing company, my case may be further advanced than those seen in the general population.
Firstly, let me clear the air and say that I believe my book habit is far more defensible than, say, cocaine, or even expensive shoes and handbags. Literature is the food of our spiritual, intellectual and emotional lives; without it, I’d rather not be here. I’m certainly not giving up my love of books and reading, but for the month of November, I am abstaining from the acquisition of new reading material. This means no purchases, no special orders, no reserved books, no loans, no free books, and no requests on Net Galley. I am permitted to write down titles I come across for consideration at a later date, but that’s it. I’ll be joined by a few bibliophile friends, so we can sweat it out together. Full disengagement from the library-building impulse.
Because that is what my book habit has become – an impulse. My desire for new reading matter far outstrips my capacity to read (although I will defend having a small home library of unread books to draw upon (small being the operative word here) – you never know what you might feel like picking up, and it’s a pleasure to peruse shelves that have been curated especially for your interests and tastes). Over the past few months, I have been thinking a lot about materialism, ownership, and the emotional investment we have in things, in novelty, and in the thrill of acquiring possessions, and I can recognise where my passion for literature and reading has tipped over into a passion for consuming books as objects, rather than as… well, books.
An interesting way of thinking of this is the notion of fantasy selves, put forward in an excellent post over on the blog Miss Minimalist. She proposes that much of our clutter accumulates as a way of creating fantasy identities – the unused treadmill for our fantasy trim and fit self, or the endless balls of yarn for the fantasy version of ourselves who ever finishes a knitting project. Many of the objects we acquire don’t serve us in any practical way, but they function to bolster identities and notions of self that are too flimsy to exist in reality.
I must clarify this by saying that, when it comes to books, fantasy me and reality me aren’t quite so far apart. Reading is my main hobby, and one that I dedicate an hour or more to each day. In order to keep up with my book shopping habit, though, I would need to give up my day job and read full time. Therein lies the fantasy! To get a sense of how far my fantasy-full-time-reader-self has departed from the realm of the real, I decided to do a quick count of all the unread books in my house. I have two bookcases dedicated to unread fiction, and keep unread non-fiction scattered about, loosely by topic, and not separate from non-fiction that I have read. Without rummaging through ever pile and every corner, I uncovered two hundred and seventy-nine books yet to be read (for the purposes of this count, I didn’t include reference volumes or other books one would be unlikely to read from cover to cover, like complete poetry collections). Two hundred and seventy-nine. I’m not sure if that’s more or fewer than I expected.
In any case, it is probably too many. Given that I read seventy or eighty books per year, on average (I keep a list going back to 2003, when I first entered the book industry, so I have the hard data to back this up!), I have no need to acquire any new books for several years to come. Of course, this is never practical for a reader, much less a bookseller – one’s interests constantly evolve and change, and new books that demand our attention are endlessly appearing on the horizon. However, there has to be balance between our limitless curiosity and the neverending publishing schedule, and our ability to grant real, undivided attention to the small number of books that really matter to us. Confronting the data like this, I wonder if it will have a deeper, longer-term impact on my approach to consuming literature? It’s probably too soon to say, and for now, I’m just focusing on taking November one day at a time.
The purpose of this month of abstinence is twofold. Firstly, the practical: to save a bit of money and catch up a bit on the backlog. Secondly, the spiritual: to spend some time acknowledging that what I have is adequate. I am adequate. Practice at being satisfied with what is, instead of constantly dreaming of what could be. I need to break the habit of incessant browsing, incessant lusting and desiring, and just exist.
I left the store after my final shift in October with the last of my purchases in hand – I’m on a Paris kick right now, as my last post will attest, and I purchased Cheri by Colette, A Moveable Feast by Hemingway, and The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, by John Baxter. That should see me through the week, and get Paris out of my system. As I left the store, I had a moment of panic. Had I purchased everything my little heart could possibly desire before the lockdown set in? The lesson in that moment was that I had not, because what the heart desires is limitless. Of course, other resources, like time and money, are not so infinite. This project is designed to bring the heart back into alignment with the clock and the wallet.
Today, only one day in, I feel calm. I have nothing on hold at the shop, and nothing calling my attention but the book in front of me (actually, there are two – I’m reading Billy Collins’ poetry, and Baxter’s book about Paris). I’m sure the panic and the urge to acquire will set in over the next few weeks, and it will test me to calmly acknowledge that and set it aside. My hope is that this month will be a challenge and an opportunity to learn, to test my will and to align my actions with my values. Wish me luck, and for god’s sake, don’t recommend me any books!