On the buying of books

I recently moved into a new house. One of the things about moving home is it suddenly becomes apparent how much stuff one owns. More to the point it becomes apparent how much stuff one owns that one doesn’t really need.

In my case a lot of that excess stuff was books. I’ve always had an attraction to the idea of a well stocked home library. Because of that books once read were very rarely discarded. When it came time to move though I realised that many of those books were ones I was highly unlikely to ever wish to read again. My shelves were in part a collection of books I wanted to read or reread, but also of books I’d read but wouldn’t return to and books that once appealed but that no longer do.

Like many book bloggers the problem was worsened by the fact that I was buying books faster than I was reading them. My blogging statistics have shown me that on average I read about a book a week. That’s not nearly as many as most bloggers I suspect, but work commitments limit how much free reading time I have.

An average of a book a week means that if I buy more than four books in a month I end that month with more books unread than I started it with. That’s no longer really acceptable to me. It’s a waste of money, but more importantly it means my home is clogged with unread books which isn’t really how I want to live any more.

In recent months I’ve been trying to buy less and read more of what I already have. On top of that I’ve now been thinking about my personal canon posts. Working on the second one has brought the issue of which books I want to read even more into focus.

All this got rather broken this February though. Penguin released its pocket book series and I picked up several of them. With those and a few purchases inspired by other blogs my list of purchases for February was as follows:

Ports of Call by Amin Maalouf
Chess by Stefan Zweig
The Last Demon by Isaac Singer
La Grosse Fifi by Jean Rhys
Flypaper by Robert Musil
The Sexes by Dorothy Parker
Short Treatise on the Joys of Morphinism by Hans Fallada
A Life by Italo Svevo
Quilt by Nicholas Royle
Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka
9tailfox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky

The first six there are Penguin shorts but even so that’s a lot of books. From and including this month therefore I have a new rule. No books come in unless in the same month I’ve read or discarded at least an equal number of books. That still means the overall number on my shelves could increase but increasingly I don’t keep books I’ve read unless they particularly stand out so it should see a stop to the bloating of my library.

Books read on the Kindle don’t count for the purposes of this rule.

I thought I’d mention this partly as others may have their own ways of balancing books desired with books one has time to read and partly because my personal canon posts got me thinking more about the issue. I don’t intend to start doing posts which aren’t connected to a specific book as a regular feature, but since V is taking a while (a rewarding while) there seemed no harm in a more general post for the time being.


Filed under Personal posts

38 responses to “On the buying of books

  1. We’re about to buy a new home (and you’re welcome to visit), and I have the exact same problem, aggravated by the massive amount of stuff I need to read for work.

    I’m on 2 books a week, and barely reach what I need. And as you say, most of them are “one-read-only”.

  2. We found we had way too much stuff generally. A lot of CDs and DVDs went too as well as clothes.

    It’s amazing what one accumulates over the years. None of it seems to add much to life. I was no less happy when sharing a studio with Emma and owning a fraction of what I do now.

    It just all rather stacks up over time. Every item useful or potentially so but in aggregate a vast mountain of pointless stuff little of which one would replace were it to be lost in a fire.

  3. Good luck with the move by the way. Still in Barcelona?

  4. Oh, definitely. Victoria got a superb deal with the mortgage due to (a) being an employee of the bank and (b) the huge stock of housing that the bank currently has, and that amounts to huge losses, so they’re selling them with hefty discounts.

    Basically, we’ve got a bigger, newer house, better in every way (just a little bit further away from downtown, but well communicated nonetheless), paying the same amount we currently pay as rent, and with such conditions that the monthly fee will never be more than we can reasonably afford even in the worst conditions. We’re happy. The cats will love it, I hope.

    On the stuff: I ripped in MP3 my whole CD collection and I gave it away / sold it / threw it away. As soon as I get a huge portable HD, DVDs will probably go away too, but for a selected few. Books are the main problem, because we have trimmed our wardrobe a lot, and we do n0t buy that much stuff. We’re getting more minimalistic by the years.

  5. GB Steve

    We’re thinking about moving because there’s not enough space for all our books to be easily accessible. I might be marginally cheaper repurchasing them all on Kindle, but actually, I’m not sure about that. Perhaps, in the spirit of the Big Society, we ought to start our own subscription library but then I’m not sure I could bear to part with many of them, or risk having them trashed irresponsible readers.

  6. Very nice on the house front there. On CDs we were doing that, but my hard drive had problems and I then discovered the backup was faulty. It made me a lot less keen on actually throwing out all the CDs and going digital only.

    Multiple backups are the way forward, but a pain to manage.

    Steve, I don’t think one should lend anything unless one’s prepared never to get it back. That’s not an argument for not lending – I lend stuff quite often – I just see it as a bonus if it returns rather than as an expectation.

    The Kindle is handy. If you’re prepared to go with that though you don’t need to rebuy everything. If it’s available on Kindle you only need buy it when you want to read/reread it. Until then it may as well stay on Amazon’s servers unpaid for.

    Moving to house your books is a big step though. Are you quite attached to them then?

  7. Good luck with your buying policy, I’m impressed you can follow the rules, I couldn’t.

    I love moving in, starting to live in a new place. But I can’t give away books, that’s why I still have the HG Wells I got for Christmas in 1989 and that I promised to read in Not Rat’s A Chance in Hell’s Challenge, despite 7 moving out. I can give clothes, DVDs and lots of stuff but not books.

    My room at my parents’ was full of all the paperback books my Mom had bought and I loved reading the titles, picking one on the shelves, reading a few pages, trying to figure out if I’d like it. So I can’t give books away, I’m creating a library and if I don’t fail, my children will love it.
    Or maybe it’s a waste, because they’ll only read on kindles…

  8. GB Steve

    My attitude to books is probably unreasonable and unsustainable. As a child, in France, I read everything that was available, to the extent that I ran out of books in English (and was partly traumatised by my Mum selling some of my books to a second hand bookshop which I bought back). So I cherish each volume and enjoy just having them around me. Certainly looking for something in a book is much less easy than Google finding it for me but I enjoy going to an authority and getting context as well as the bit I was after. And then each book is surrounded by its friends who can also help. It’s a hopeless romance.

  9. Perhaps the only upside to being an empty nester is the additional space that comes for the library. However, books have now inhabited all that space and more. So I do need to adopt an acquisition policy similar to yours. I’ll start today.
    Sometime within the next few years, I will need to downsize but my exit strategy is ready. Determine my core library (the volumes that will remain with me all my days), then call in the second-hand book shops. What they don’t take from me will be donated to the library (assuming they still exist). It shouldn’t take more than a week to sort out. Until then, I shall enjoy my unpruned collection to the max.

  10. Actually, Lizzy Siddal’s advice is more than sound. In Apartment Therapy, an excellent book in dealing with clutter, the author talks about how his grandma deciden on pruning her collection, asking herself the question “Is this a book I will read and re-read again?” She kept about 10% of the stuff.

  11. I don’t know if I can follow the rules yet Bookaround…

    There was a time I couldn’t give stuff away too, but paying to have it moved rather cured me of that. It just seemed so wasteful. Also we were starting to need bigger places just because we had so much stuff which was silly when much of that stuff wasn’t of any real value to us.

    It’s hard for a booklover not to be romantic about books. I don’t think anyway one need be reasonable about everything all the time. That would be rather dry. If they still provide comfort and pleasure Steve there’s no real reason to get shot of them.

    How will you determine your core library Liz?

  12. leroyhunter

    We moved about 4 1/2 years ago, from quite a small house to quite a large one. The previous owners were obsessive minimalists, and had nothing in any of the rooms bar flat screen TVs (about 5 in total IIRC). Viewing the house was quite unnerving, but the set-up sure emphasised the space we were getting. Just as well, because having kids certainly ups your “stuff” levels exponentially.

    I have about 150 unread on various shelves and in various piles, it’s kind of nice to have a choice when you finish something but it also provokes bouts of selection-paralysis. Add another 100 on the Book Depository wishlist and there’s well over 3 year’s worth of reading there, which is a crazy backlog. So I’ve cut down drastically since the new year on purchases, I’m aiming to buy nothing for a period (worked in Jan, not in Feb) or at least less then I read.

    I love having books around, I grew up in a house like that and I’d like my kids to do the same. Space isn’t yet an issue (and the buying slow-down should prevent it being one for a while) but there is definitely stuff I’d be happy to cull. I’ve done that periodically in the past and it’s nice to think the books go back “into circulation” rather then just being binned.

    When you consider the seemingly ever-growing number of new titles published each year, and the print-runs involved, there is a “world-level” version of the kind of debate being had here. I guess eBooks will ultimately solve that but it’s not a format I’ve warmed to yet.

  13. Minimalists rarely have children. Children are not by their nature minimalist creatures from what I’ve seen. I wonder if minimalist parents spend their entire lives putting toys in boxes and chasing children to clean up their rooms.

    Much like other parents come to think of it, but with even less prospect of a result they’ll be happy with.

    I do like having books around. The thing is though I could cut half of what I have and still have plenty. There’s no risk of running short anytime soon. I’m sometimes attracted to that flat screen tv in a white room thing though I suspect if I had it I’d feel like I was living in a hotel or office building. Books are an extension of ourselves (as are many other things). Having none of that stuff could make for a curiously impersonal space.

    As you say there is a world-level version of this debate going on. I’ve also noticed tons of (particularly US) blogs and sites about decluttering/minimalism similar to that Apartment Therapy one that Imperator mentioned.

  14. LaurencePritchard

    I like your book buy/read ratio. Good call.

    I read about one book a week, I travel a lot in my job, so I read a lot on public transport. As I don’t have a fixed salary every month I tend to buy books when I can afford a new batch, so for the last few years or so I haven’t had a large backlog.

    I do, however, have a ‘corner of shame’ of the books I haven’t read yet. Some of them have been there quite some time—not sure when Le Livre des Questions by Jabès is finally going to get read, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get round to Gass’s Tunnel; I’ve dipped in to it a couple of times and not made it past about page eight.

    There are a few other titles that have escaped the unread corner and are hiding in between already read titles by the same author – The Enchantress of Florence is one such escapee.

    What’s the biggest gap between buying and reading? For me that would be Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. On the syllabus at University and read about twenty years later. Absolutely superb it is too.

    Good luck with the rest of the move/moving in.

  15. It is only a guess on my part, Max, but I suspect about three-quarters of the recent purchases that you list are a result of positive “blogger” reviews. When I look at my purchases of the last few months, I’d say a similar percentage were motivated by bloggers as well. And I think I could fairly say that 10 years ago, I would have been aware of few of those titles — perhaps one or two from scanning shelves in a bookstore. So…all of this is the fault of good bloggers. 🙂

    Mrs. KfC and I have moved three times in the last 10 years (Calgary to Pittsburgh to Toronto to Calgary) so we have shipped the library (it’s about 3,00o volumes) across the continent a couple of times. We do tend to have more space in North American houses and in the last two houses did renovate to provide appropriate book storage space — my reading library has about 60 feet of shelf space and there is another 300 feet downstairs. And of course the library move is not just expensive — even if you could afford it, movers don’t know how to properly order books when it comes time to shelving. I can report from experience that it takes about four days.

    Since I’ve left the work force, I don’t feel guilty about this — reading is no longer just an avocation, it is now my major vocation. And, since I do enjoy following contemporary work, I still do a lot of buying (I try to predict and read both the Booker and Giller longlists, so that alone probably produces more than 50 new books a year). Since I have started blogging, some of those are free review copies — although I am very happy with the North American practice of only sending requested titles rather than bombarding me with unsolicited ones, which seems to be a common UK practice.

    Obviously, I’m not going to reread all of those titles in the rest of my life, but the problem is I’m not sure which ones I will. We did do a major cleanout a couple years back (about 40 boxes worth) but I have to admit most of those weren’t fiction — I kept pulling books out to get rid of and then putting them back on the shelf.

    So, for those of you who are younger, accept this as notice that the problem is not only not going to go away, it is going to get worse.


  16. lizzysiddal

    “How are you going to determine your core library, Lizzy?”
    Ouch! In my defence I said I had a strategy. I now need to work on the fine detail. I suspect it will go something like this: collections (signed 1st editions, Folio Society, Two Ravens Press, Pereine Press, Melville House (Art of the Novella), Pushkin Press, Everyman and Oxford Classics; a capsule of non-fiction necessities (art history, Arthurian legend, cook books, dictionaries, theology) and others not so neatly categorised which I consider masterpieces. For a first pass effort that’s not bad. That’ll cut the library from about 2000 to 600.

  17. It sounds like you read as I do Laurence – I do most of mine on public transport too (it’s one reason I like living a little further out. I get a seat and a clear 45 minutes to read in).

    A corner of shame. I fear mine would be two corners of shame. Possibly more. I had heard The Monk was good but I’d feel positively embarassed if I bought a book in consequence of this post.

    Kevin, you guess correctly. I doubt I’d even have heard of the Schalansky and I only knew about the Penguin pocket books thing because I saw it on some blogs.

    Ports of Call and 9tailfox (sf that latter one) are the only two I think owe nothing to other blogs. I’ve read another Amin Maalouf and blogged it here actually – Balthasar’s Odyssey. Marvellous book and a wonderful writer.

    Were I retired I imagine I might feel differently. I’d likely have more space and I’d definitely have more reading time. I don’t see myself retiring any time soon though and even then space is always at more of a premium in the UK than in North America.

    Non-fiction is easier to get rid of. It dates sometimes and sometimes I lose interest in an area. I’ve yet to lose interest in well written fiction and I hope I never shall.

    Lizzy, that’s pretty good as plans go. Remind me, have you read Antal Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend? If not then with Arthurian myth and Pushkin both making your cut you really should.

  18. lizzysiddal

    I haven’t read The Pendragon Legend, Max. Though it is in the TBR and as a result of your recommendation, now quite close to the top.

  19. That is a great selection ,we re looking to move at some point later this year or early next so I can have a room for my books as my wife say I ve tried to keep a read /coming even but to no avail always buy more than I read I ve seven of the small penguins already threre so handy and the selection is just wonderful ,all the best stu

  20. It was you I think that may have put me on to the Penguins Stu, certainly if it wasn’t just you your blog was still a major contributor.

    Your wife’s not a reader as I recall so it’s nice of her to devote a room to books. Emma, mine, is though she reads mostly French, Spanish and Italian literature in the original as her language skills are rather better than mine.

    That said, while Emma also has a strong interest in literary fiction she reads neither crime nor sf so those sections of the shelves are entirely down to me…

  21. In the loft, there are 14 plastic boxes of books. There are three big boxes of books that I can’t remember the content of at a friend’s house. There are ‘several’ black bags in my mother’s loft full of magazines and books etc. My wardrobe has about 300 books stashed topple-ready in it, though if I arrange my clothes just so I can delude myself as to the sheer number. In a downstairs cupboard there are around a hundred; in an upstairs cupboard another 200. There are three plastic containers under the bed with 50 or so in each. The bookcase has on it around 200. I only catalogue this ridiculous farrago by way of saying: you have prompted me to act. It’s beyond ridiculous and you have convinced me, not that I should need such persuading, that it will be a cleansing escapade. I will never read them all; I will never re-read a hefty number. But you simply don’t realise the extent until you gesture a quick head-count…

  22. I am now having a quick look for a new purchase. Well, if I’m getting rid of a hundred or so…

  23. It was buying the same book twice that originally started me thinking about how much stuff I had Lee. Once it gets past a certain point it gets possible to not know whether you have something or not…

    Arguably you need more bookcases even if you do get rid of some stuff. I now fear that one day you’ll stop commenting and blogging – buried by books while trying to get a jumper from the back of the wardrobe.

    100 out for every one in? Hardcore.

  24. Yes, when you end up buying the very same book for the THIRD time and only find this out over time it all gets a bit desperate and you have to make a stand. So two go in the exeunt bag. It gets embarassing. I always forget how many Carver’s I have as well, but I keep any surplus and pass them on rather than lob them out. You can never have too many.

    I’d love an enormous room with nothing but bookshelves in it, Max, but it’s just not remotely feasible. I will never stop blogging and commenting (as long as I don’t get buried in the meantime – I may take a photo and put it on Facebook – but the shame factor….), I need to share my idiotic hoarding with someone.

    100 out for one in is hardcore but is just a one-off. I have a new plan beyond that. I will get in one book a week and remove two. I am evolving.

  25. kimbofo

    I’m 41 and my attitude to material goods — including books — is the same I had when I backpacked around the world aged 28. Travel lightly!! I live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment with my partner, who is a hoarder (ggrrrr), so space is very precious — too precious to be taken up with books I’ve already read. Every couple of months I sift through the books I’ve read, determine which ones I want to keep (generally only one or two) and the rest get dispatched — to family, friends or Oxfam. I did a major cull of the collection before I went to China and took more than 250 books to my local Oxfam. I’ve now done a major cull of the TBR and decided that a lot of them, sent as freebies, I will never ever read — they are all piled up in supermarket bags ready for my next trip to the charity shop! And yet, I still keep buying books, whether new ones or those I’ve found while rummaging in secondhand shops. The thing is, I don’t view buying books as a waste of money: I could easily spend twice as much purchasing shoes or clothes or cigarettes.

  26. Space isn’t really my issue and my book-buying habits aren’t completely out of control, but they’re getting there. I recently started following a fairly similar policy of minimizing book purchases, telling myself that until I didn’t get the shelves under control, no more book buying. In a few more months, I should have everything under control again and will joyfully return to the world of book-buying… but with the exact rule you’ve now set. Buy as many as have been knocked off. These books aren’t going anywhere – it’s okay if not all of them live in my home right this second…

  27. Nick

    In my not-so-humble opinion, V. is good but it’s nothing in comparison to ‘Against the Day’ (which takes even more time).
    I guess my next Pynchon will be Gravity Rainbow (I’ve also read Inherent Vice and the Crying of lot 49).
    Have much fun with it!

    About your book problems: I’m also a compulsive book-buyer and buy more than I can read but I really don’t see this changing. Even if I manage to buy books less often than previously (I try to refrain myself), I still go on book-buying sprees once in a while… and as I read only 1 book a week like you, it stacks and stacks.
    Buying book is just part of my mental equilibrium. It soothes me (although now I’m starting to feel guilty when I buy a new book since I think of all the books I already possess and really want to read).

    My name is Nick and I’m an addict.

  28. Nick: Against The Day is one of the most brilliantly sustained examples of authorial mastery I have ever seen. It’s epic, almost unbelievably so, and a paragraph of it is worth a chapter of most anyone else’s work. And to quote Bono from a few years back (I do apologise): It’s madness – but it’s a grand madness.

  29. It’s a bit of an age thing isn’t it? I’ve converted to mostly digital music – and now buy only a few CDs a year. Mostly I buy digital. I never thought I’d get to a point where I’d think the same about books but I am now starting to feel a bit overwhelmed particularly by books that have a sentimental value but that I really have no interest in. I’m starting to think about moving them on! We moved into a large house 13 years ago, but are now empty nesters and will downsize in the future, though not for a few years yet as my parents are alive and live within short walking distance. I’d like, though, to have done some decluttering way before we downsize so it’s not done in a rush. Like you, I imagine I’ll always have some books around – the precious ones I like to re-read or that have some other value.

    I reckon the first ones to declutter are the reference books as the Internet has really reduced my use of those. You know those Enclyclopedias of Music, Geography etc that you just don’t use anymore. Cookbooks too. I now use the Inernet…

    BTW, as I’m sure you know, I think the odd non-specific-book-post is perfectly OK. Enjoyable even!

  30. A local charity shop would be a boon. As it is all we have is a shop literally called “Charity Shop”. I popped in there and asked which charity they were part of and after quite a bit of hesitation the assistant said “uh, disabled children”. I should get round to reporting them to trading standards I suspect as I’m not remotely persuaded they’re actually genuine.

    I could easily spend more on worse things. Biblibio’s right though, the books generally aren’t going anywhere while they’re not on my shelves.

    Hi Nick.

    V is a lot of fun but it’s not necessarily an easy read. It’s not that it’s difficult – it isn’t. It’s, well, it’s hard to say.

    I’ll have to try harder when I write it up. There’s a lot there. I’ll get to Against the Day in due course I reckon. Inherent Vice is hugely tempting too if I read out of sequence (and it’s not like the order they were written in matters for anything really, or does it?).

    The encyclopedias and so on are gone. So are many travel guides we have. A lot of the sf is going and some of the crime. I’m also buying more digital though there is an issue about backups there – if my computer gets fried have I lost my music?

    As you say though, there’s no hurry. It’s a process. If I were about to move house again that would be different.

    Next post will probably be the Maile Meloy some time tomorrow. I’ve also read some Dorothy Parker short stories when I didn’t have V to hand so those will likely be later this week. There’ll be the odd non-book post, but only every now and again as whim takes me…

  31. You have backups of course! If so you haven’t lost your music! You do have backups?

  32. Inherent Vice has more of a Vineland feel about it; those two don’t feel particularly Pynchonian. And yet they do. I’m sure you know why I’m fumbling with this, Max…

  33. I do have backups WG, but a while back after a crash on my PC lost me many of my music files I discovered my backup hadn’t worked properly. I had to reload literally hundreds of CDs.

    It made me keener on hardcopies. When cloud backups get cheaper I’ll probably dump the CDs.

    I do Lee, I do.

  34. Oh poor you… But, this cloud computing stuff is pretty exciting isn’t it?

  35. A fascinating list of February books there – I’ve looked up more than a couple to find out more.

    I’ve had to give away some fantastic books in order to clear the shelves. The Kindle is making life easier – but I hate paying so much for new books when I can’t lend them to someone afterwards

  36. I think it is. I already use Dropbox to a limited extent. Obviously there are downsides. You’re giving some corporation access to your data. If they go bust you might lose it. That sort of thing. For me though the benefits outweigh the drawbacks and I do expect it to get cheaper and easier (if that’s possible). Right now storing large volumes of data is still quite pricy, but I think that’ll change.

  37. Tom, apologies but you got spamfiltered again. I’ve no idea why that keeps happening.

    They’re all good purchases. That’s sort of the problem though isn’t it? I actually prefer to buy on Kindle now because it allows me to save shelf space (lending’s not an issue – none of my friends have the same literary interests as me and while Emma does she can always borrow my kindle).

  38. Max, Tom, some kindle books can be lent, according to Amazon Kindle Support.
    I’ve never tried, nobody has a kindle around me.

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