Buying less

The TBR pile

Like many people who enjoy reading I have a TBR (to be read) pile. In my case it’s a large pile, even though when I moved home in December 2010 I got rid of an awful lot of excess stuff. I have several hundred books I haven’t yet read (though in fairness that’s counting some of my wife’s books that I’m unlikely to read, such as her Spanish literary fiction or scholastic titles about the Italian renaissance).

I also have trade paperback comics I haven’t read, DVDs I haven’t watched, RPGs and boardgames I haven’t played and computer games purchased through my Steam account that I haven’t played. The vast majority of them cost money (some are gifts or review copies), and they pretty much all take up space (though I’ll return to the space issue since increasingly they’re in electronic form).

For various reasons I’m not particularly happy about this. TBR piles aren’t entirely bad because a home library offers a world of potential books to explore, meaning whatever my mood I likely have something to suit, but there’s also an oppressive element in seeing past interests abandoned and the knowledge that some of it never will be read.

When I started blogging I started buying more books. It’s natural. Blogging is about sharing enthusiasms. Blogging isn’t broadcasting, it’s conversation and in comments on your own blog and reviews on other people’s you inevitably discovers new books that are genuinely exciting. Couple that with online shopping and soon books can be coming in faster than you’re reading them.

That’s either my TBR pile, or possibly the library at Trinity College in Dublin. Hard to say.

When I first moved in with my wife we lived in a one room studio. I had my own place, but I soon got rid of it, so everything I had was in that room along with her stuff. It was cramped, I don’t want to romanticise it, but it was possible. We now have vastly more space (our place isn’t huge, but it’s comfortably big enough for two) and of course more stuff. Some of that stuff genuinely adds to life, things like the bread maker and ice cream maker which let us do things we actually couldn’t before. The shelves of unread books though? Those don’t add so much.

The rules

As a result I’ve recently instituted some rules on how I buy books. In no particular order, here they are:

1. If I’ve not read anything by an author I don’t buy more than one book by that author as my first purchase.

This avoids my Joseph Rathbone experience where I thought his work sounded great, bought three of his novels, read the first and hated it and so ended up giving them all away (two unread).

2. If I have an unread book by an author, I don’t buy another book by that author.

This is sometimes tricky. I have an unread Echenoz, and keep reading reviews of other Echenoz novels which sound tremendous. It makes no sense though to buy them if I haven’t read the one I have. That kind of thinking led to my having everything Richard Yates has written (hardly a tragedy, but not really necessary given I read about one of his a year typically). It lead to my owning all Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels of which I’ve read the first five or so and then ground to a halt. Tastes change, and while at the time I bought them I was reading a Rankin a month it turns out that wasn’t a good predictor of how I’d carry on reading.

3. I can’t buy more books in a month than I’ve read or permanently removed from the house.

This isn’t working well for me. Not because I haven’t stuck to it, I largely have. It’s not working because if I read four books and buy four books then I now have four more books on the shelves, and the same number of unread books as I started the month with. I may need to institute a firmer one in-one physically out policy or change the ratio (one in for each two read say).

So, three rules but at least three fairly simple ones. Of course the much simpler one would be cold turkey. Just stop buying books for some (probably arbitrary) period. Absolute bars tend not to work well for me, but I can see the temptation.

Oddly enough with other media it’s been easier. I barely buy computer games now as I recognise that I have some seriously good ones yet unplayed. I no longer buy DVDs unless I plan to watch them pretty much as soon as they arrive (though even with that Star Trek sat around for nearly a year unwatched and Fish Tank still remains to be watched). Comics I mostly now buy on Comixology, an iPad app.

Dematerialisation and the ease of excess

That mention of my iPad neatly brings me back to the question of space. I have a Kindle, I have an iPad, I have various other electronic devices. A book bought on Kindle takes up no space. A comic on my iPad likewise. They do though still cost money, and they do still potentially sit there unread. They add to the TBR pile, even if they don’t take up shelf space while doing so.

When I first started buying fewer physical books I realised after a little while that I was buying more on my Kindle. I was, without realising it, still buying as much as before. I was just doing so in a less apparent way. The three rules above then need to not distinguish between physical and electronic books. If the goal is to reduce my TBR pile I’ve achieved nothing by merely dematerialising it.

There’s a danger in fact with ebooks and ecomics and so on. We can think we’ve decluttered (very much a buzz word that) our homes, but in fact we’ve done nothing of the kind. A hard drive full of unplayed RPGs in pdf format, a Kindle full of unread books, programmes bought on iTunes but unwatched, none of its obvious but it’s all still there. It’s all still cultural material which is being accumulated faster than it’s being experienced. It’s purchase in place of participation.

All of which leads me to that classic first world problem, too much stuff. How very hard it is to be Western and middle class. Still, whether a serious problem or not (not, clearly) it’s still there and the rules above are my attempt at the moment to fix it. Please feel free to share if you’ve had any similar thoughts, how you’ve addressed the hosepipe of culture we’re all trying to sip from and how it’s worked out for you.

Finally, by way of acknowledgement, the idea for this post by the way came from a blog post by an old mate of mine in which he asked the question of why people purchase cultural works that then just sit there. It’s a good post and I’ll be adding some thoughts of my own in his comments section. If you have thoughts which go more to his points than what I’ve written above I’d encourage you to post them over there so he can respond.

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24 Comments

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24 responses to “Buying less

  1. Great stuff. And of constant relevance to me. I must take heed.

    PS watch Fish Tank! It’s brilliant!

  2. My consumption rule, applicable to any media, is to dispose of more than I consume, on a month-by-month basis. Thus, my library is constantly being refined to reflect my adapting literary tastes. This is the theory, adhered to more often than not.

  3. I just stoped buying stuff until I finish my TBR, unless is needed for work. I expect to significantly trim the pile through this year, though I don’t expect to finish it.

  4. you guys are a lot more disciplined than me.
    i say, if you have no financial or space constraints, what the hell, go for it. life is short, and too often you think why didn’t i buy that….now i want to read it and it isn’t there… i had books for more than 10 years unread and after all i read them and was glad i did buy it in the end….
    also the idea of a growing library that sort of reflects your personality, what you read when etc, and it would be a pity just to erase it and give all the read ones away too…

  5. Lee, I’m sure it will be. Perhaps this weekend, though I was planning to watch The Golem this weekend as part of my rediscovery (re, there’s no re, my discovery) of German expressionist cinema.

    Anthony, a good rule and one I may adopt. I just looked at your blog. Very nice and congratulations on the 3am award. Have you read any Ann Quin? I covered her Berg here and will cover her Three soon. I think you’d like her work.

    Imperator, my TBR pile is too large for that to work, plus there’s stuff there that’s more Emma’s but which I may at some point read. That said, I do definitely want to trim it back.

    flowerville, some lovely pictures at your blog. Very nice. I’m not badly off and I have a reasonable amount of space, but there’s always constraints of some kind. That said there’s also an element of puritanism. Some find great comfort in having things around them that become an extension of self, a cosy space expressing years of love and interest and personality. Some perhaps no longer relevant, but full of memory. That actually does all make sense to me, but it’s not who I am. I’ve always found a kind of comfort in getting rid of things. I’d be minimalist, but I lack the discipline.

  6. Thanks on two counts, Max. I haven’t read Ann Quin but intend to, and will read your thoughts on Berg.

  7. Well, I don’t know if my pile is too big to clear it in a year :D I prefer not to think too much about it, really.

    If you cannot stop buying, at least you can use a rule like Anthony proposes. I used that rule throughout 2011 with great success, so at least my TBR pile is smaller now than a year ago. Dent by dent, the shelves are refined.

    As I said, the only exception I make is with psychology and other work-related books, as I need to keep up to date with new developments, being a teacher and all that. Also, I don’t count RPG books as books :P

  8. Thanks Max. I feel better about my TBR now, which isn’t nearly as out of control as yours! Sorry. I was intending sympathy, but schadenfreude comes more naturally.

    I have no hints or tips on how to get the habit under control, but I think you make an important observation: having a range of choice is important. Books look less attractive when they are the leftovers from the bottom of a very large heap. Whereas if the heap is constantly changing (growing) that situation does not arise. I’ll stop now. I can see this isn’t helpful. And I won’t be laughing when my husband (who is less relaxed than I am about piles of books everywhere) forces me to have a Kindle.

  9. You’ve had this in mind for a while, haven’t you?

    There are two things in what you write:

    1) our TBR, we all have one, and honestly, I’ve felt less strange since I started blogging. Mine seems under control compared to yours but I’m the only one reading in our home. However, I buy less books since I created my goodreads account. I use it as a reminder, I don’t have the impression that I won’t remember to read that wonderful book – so I don’t feel the urge to buy it right now – and it’s low maintenance. This virtual TBR is getting out of control. But I can’t deny that I have a lot of pleasure in book stores, that I can hardly visit one without buying at least one book. I’m like a kid in a candy store, what can I say? I already have a new Besson.

    2) our habit to consume too much, I don’t think it’s only for cultural goods. We, literary bloggers, have a problem with cultural goods because that’s what we’re interested in. Some have hundreds of pair of shoes or fall for purses, we’re tempted by books and dvds. Our curiosity is endless and our appetite is bigger than our stomach, ie our free time. Personally, I don’t buy DVDs, I rent films. I don’t play video-games, so I can’t relate to that. And for the rest, I think I just hate shopping, the crowd, the noise. Clothes sales for me? one clothes store, one shoe store and I head home.

    We are in an environment where companies want us to believe that buying things makes us happy. But it doesn’t in itself, except maybe for a fleeting moment.
    I’m leaving a comment on your friend’s blog too, his entry is fascinating.

    PS: I also think that bookworms who couldn’t afford all the books they wanted as a child never get over this. We’ll never have enough books.

  10. Max: Second Fish Tank. And I also recommend The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari if you haven’t seen it. I think it’s superior to The Golem.

    I started the year (yes just a few brief weeks ago) with the idea that I would cut back my book buying. Your number 3 rule came into play here. I broke that sometime around Jan 1 or 2 and have been unleashed since. I’ve kept in mind your very common sense rule number 1 ever since you mentioned it some time ago, but broke that recently too with the purchase of 3 books by one author.

    I have space considerations. The “official” shelves are triple packed. I have various piles elsewhere. Charles Lambert recently let slip that he had a pile behind the sofa, and it sounded like a good idea to me.

    Now I’m in my justification mode: what the hell, it’s better than booze/drugs/binge eating. Name your poison. Then I think I’ll lighten up and perhaps get to the unread books one day and not worry about it. Sometimes I come across an OOP author that I want to read and I’ll grab several titles while they’re still halfway reasonable. That’s usually paid off in the long run.

    I remember reading some statement that Bezos made about people will buy MORE electronic books. I’ve been very disciplined with the kindle daily deal and have only bought 2. One was a gift for someone else. (Cheap, I know).

    Emma makes a very good point about never getting over early childhood deprivation of books, and she hit the nail on the head.

  11. I’m struggling just like you and have now tried a lot of different approaches. Cold turkey does not work for me at all. Some of your rules sound wise. I have a tendency of buying more than one book by an author as well.
    Only buying as much as I read would still alow me to buy 2 books per week. That is still too much. I don’t care about the CDs and DVDs.
    Bah…
    I think I should order less. The books I buy in book shops have a higher chnace to be read.

  12. I have to add something to the early childhoo deprivation theory.
    My mother bought me 50 books in one go once. And gave them to me as well in one parcel…. I think I try to relive that over and over again….
    Nah… deprivation can’t be a reason in my case.

  13. If I can address Caroline’s comment on childhood deprivation, I wasn’t especially deprived as a child but obviously there were limits and I would have been lost without the local library (and, for me especially, the record library) but I came from parents who both came from poverty and were acutely aware of the value of possessions not that they were especially materialistic because they weren’t but you valued what you had. Once I became an adult and started to have a few quid to spare I did tend to spend all my extra cash on books and records, then cassette tapes and finally CDs. I now have enough tapes and CDs to fill two floor-to-ceiling bookcases and yet I still have a desperate urge to hear new music and I ache that I cannot afford to buy more than I do. Books I have a similar problem with but not as bad and DVDs even less so but I do enjoy when I walk into my office and am surrounded by packed bookcases (even if they don’t all contain actual books). I’ve only ever thrown out a handful of books in my life and I still feel guilty for doing so; the same goes for photographs.

    My problem with books these days is that I have now got several publishers offering me more review copies than I could ever hope to read and so I never have to buy book; they come to me. And that’s all good and well but there are still lots of books I’d like to read and never seem to get round to. Some I buy and put on the to-read shelf but I do wonder when I’ll find time for them. If I was a voracious reader it would help but I’m not; a book a week is about my limit.

    I do find some security in having as many books around me and it is hard—really hard sometimes—to turn down free books but I’m learning to be more selective. The idea of not having a book available to read does fill me with a bit of a panic. I don’t have to read it but I like it to be there in case I feel like reading it. But I am a hoarder there’s no denying it. I still pick pens and pencils up off the street when I’m out even though I have a drawer full of pens and pencils and rarely use either implement these days but it pains me to leave them lying there. I picked a bag of books up once. God alone knows what it was doing there but there was no way I could just leave it lying.

  14. glad you like the pictures. all these thoughts made me ponder my own relation to books and the acquisition of them….
    i understand the purity aspect too, i guess it’s a question of personality or character…. and getting rid of things is not a bad thing…

    if it is fish tank the movie i can recommend it too…

  15. mrs stu Amanda would agree with buying less for me ,I buy less albums now got itunes than I did and less dvd as at some poit I want to get a blu ray and may as well wait as I ve sky go to watch films online now ,books are my Achilles heel I can’t stop buying but need to cutback as space is a issue at the moment we have a very small house ,all the best stu

  16. Apologies all, I’d missed that I had so many unanswered comments.

    RPGs are their own category Imperator, but as subject to culling as any other. I have far fewer than I used to, amd generally if it doesn’t get played it’s out the door.

    Sarah, there’s an old saying about the difference between comedy and tragedy being whether something happens to someone else or to oneself. Not that this is tragedy of course. Anyway, always happy to provide some schadenfreude (what a wonderful word that is, thank you German).

    Emma, I’ve long had a desire to cut down on stuff. As long as I recall in fact. At times it presses more, but it never wholly goes away.

    I use Amazon wishlists as you use Goodreads, and cull the lists from time to time. I have a list for literary fiction, another for crime, another for sf and similar and yet one more for blog recommendations which takes priority over all the others. I try to keep them all manageable.

    Your point on overconsumption being a common problem that expresses individually according to interest is an excellent one.

    Guy, I watched Cabinet the other week and was blown away by it. A superb piece of filmmaking. Quite astonishing.

    Early deprivation is an interesting question. I grew up extremely poor, with mother and stepfather both on benefits. Perhaps it does have an effect. Certainly it does on other parts of my life, so why not here?

    I hate having books double stacked. I had to do that with the (limited) sf shelves for a bit and it’s far from ideal. If I have shelves I do like to see easily what’s on them.

  17. Caroline, I tend to think that things easily bought are sometimes easily ignored. They can be bought on a whim, so may not be pressing. If one actually goes out to buy a thing, or even just leaves it in a virtual basket for a few days before purchasing, it’s more likely one actually wants it now.

    Jim, my issue is much more one of money than time. I follow a lot of new music, and I’ve had to artificially restrict how much I buy because I found I could buy it quicker than I could listen to it. The same issue as with books of course. I don’t now feel guilty chucking stuff out though, not even books. As with many things the first time is the hardest.

    Not having a book available would fill me rather with panic too, but I’m far from that risk.

    flowerville, they were a delight. Fish Tank is definitely on my to watch list.

    Stu, Blu-Ray’s day is already passing isn’t it? It’ll be streaming soon, with hardcopies only for high quality imprints of classic releases. A bit like the future of books in fact. Virtual for the mass, physical for the few we actually revisit.

  18. I thought it worth a quick update.

    In February I bought three books: Militant Modernism, which I’ve read; All that is Solid Melts into Air, which I haven’t; and Monday or Tuesday, which I also haven’t. Not amazing progress, but some.

    In March I did better, buying only A Season in Sinji, by JL Carr.

    In April I bought nothing at all, physically. That’s actually a bit odd, as I thought I’d bought an Australian novel that Guy had reviewed, but appear not to have. Not sure what happened there.

    Physically is a key word above, I’ve also bought three or four books on Kindle, mostly on sale. That’s something to watch. Kindle makes it easy to keep buying without reading, without necessarily noticing you’re doing so.

  19. leroyhunter

    I’ll be interested to see what you make of Sinji Max. Overall you’ve been much more disciplined then me.

  20. This is the highest year of my mortgage. That helps with discipline…

  21. Emma pointed me in the direction of this article, which I missed first time around. It’s something I’ve always struggled with, at least with books – don’t tend to buy too many other types of cultural product. In theory, shouldn’t the internet make it easier? It’s not like the old days, when coming upon a rare book in a bookshop was a serendipitous occurrence, and you had to buy the book because you didn’t know when you’d see it again. Now, you know when you’ll see it again – next time you log on to Amazon. There’s no scarcity, so the purchase could in theory be delayed until you’ve caught up with other reading. But then, theory’s always rather different from practice, isn’t it? I’ve tried all sorts of systems and the result is always the same – a steady accumulation of books. Hope your system is going well – sounds as if you made a good start!

  22. Hi Andrew,

    The internet as you say should make it easier, it doesn’t though does it? You’re quite right. I agree with your whole comment.

    I’m still sticking to the above rules and they’re actually working pretty well. Most months now I only buy one or two books, which could be reduced yet further but it’s a big step ahead of where it used to be.

  23. Pingback: Buying less: an audit | Pechorin’s Journal

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