Books, Self-Improvement

A Month Without Book Shopping

A few weeks ago, I announced my intention to take a break from acquiring new reading material in the month of November – no buying books, borrowing books, accepting free books… etc, etc. If you like, you can read my reasoning in full here, but it pretty much boiled down to me realising that I had become a book glutton, and being disappointed and embarrassed at how far removed this behaviour is from my attitude to materialism and consumption. I realised that acquiring books had become as important to me as reading and enjoying books, and that my rate of acquisition vastly outstripped my rate of reading and enjoying. So, this month has been about getting back in balance.

I’ve mentioned before that I work in a bookshop, so temptation to break my intention lurks around every corner. In fact, lurks is the wrong word. Temptation wears an oversized Spongebob Squarepants costume festooned with Christmas lights, and dances a polka while smoking a cigar and fondling itself inappropriately right in front of me all day long. Hard to miss. Going into this, I was expecting things to descend pretty rapidly into the detoxing scene in Trainspotting. You know, sweats and tears and dead babies on the ceiling. I was surprised to find, then, that I felt peace rather than deprivation.

My desire to buy came and went, and I found it surprisingly easy to sit with those feelings without acting upon them. I made a list throughout the month of books that I might want to revisit once the ban is over, and now that is it, there isn’t much I’m desperate to run out and buy. Once that initial, chemical propulsion towards a new object has exerted itself, there isn’t much left. The blush of new acquisition, and the pressure and guilt about my new possessions that usually followed it, were replaced by a sensation of calm. A feeling of spaciousness, expansiveness. My constant browsing was set aside and replaced with actual reading, and I was pleased to find myself able to pay greater attention to the book in my hand, not distracted by the pressure of what to read next. It was a fresh pleasure to pull long-neglected titles from my own bookshelves and make time for them, instead of constantly looking for something to own outside of my own collection.

Today, the 1st of December, I gave myself a free pass to buy any of the books on my list that I desired. I looked over it and found I didn’t really need any of them, nor did I want to go crazy with shopping right away. I wound up buying two titles – the new Gayle Forman (one of my favourite romance writers for teenagers), which was released in early November, and Thornyhold by Mary Stewart (a recommendation from a friend). I was also tempted by The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley, but I thought that the pre-Christmas rush probably wasn’t the best circumstance to enjoy an 800-page saga about subsistance farmers in medieval Greenland. Old me would’ve just bought it and put it aside for later (years later, probably), but post-November me left it on the shop’s shelf, knowing when I’m really ready to read it, it’ll be there waiting for me. Maybe in January, maybe not.

Given that I gained so much peace of mind from this experiment, I’m going to carry it on for the month of December. No new books. Easy peasy. In fact, because I was surprised about how easy I found it, I’ve decided to extend the challenge. No discretionary purchases at all until 2014. I’ve learned that I can live without new books, and in fact live better without new books, and I believe that I can also cope without new clothes, new ink for my fountain pen, new essential oil blends from Perfect Potion (my wallet’s achilles heel). I am enough in and of myself. I don’t need to buy stuff to increase my sense of worth, scratch an itch, cure my boredom, or bolster my self esteem. I am lucky to have so, so much already, and it is only by stemming the tide of new things that I can truly see and value how much I have. How liberating! I’m looking forward to it.

Books, Self-Improvement

November: A Moratorium on Book Acquisition

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!