Buying less: an audit

Just over a year ago I wrote a post titled “Buying less“. It was about my desire to stop having an ever-increasing TBR pile, with books being added to it faster than I read them. I talked a little bit about my personal history; I set out some rules that I planned to apply to cut down my book buying; and I wrote about the issue of dematerialised clutter – of how by moving purchases from the physical to the virtual space we can delude ourselves into thinking we’re buying less than we actually are.

Since then, I’ve learned that rather wonderfully there’s a Japanese word for the act of buying a book and not reading it, for letting books pile up unread: tsundoku. I’m not sure whether the word has any history or is simply a very recent neologism, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s too useful a word not to be used.

The rules, revisited

I mentioned I’d set out some rules. 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, a year on, how have those rules worked out for me?

I’ve broken rule 1 once only. I haven’t read any Denis Johnson yet, but Amazon had two of his in its Christmas kindle deal at incredibly reduced prices and I bought both. That’s a risk, as I may not like either, but at least I didn’t spend much. Other than that, I’ve kept to this one and so avoided that experience of buying multiple books by a new author and then sadly discovering that I don’t like his or her writing.

Rule 2 I’ve stuck to pretty much religiously, despite frequent temptation. This is an important one when you’re a blogger, because it’s very easy to read about an author you’re already into and then get tempted to buy more by them. If you already have unread books on the shelf by a writer, it makes no sense to be buying others – presumably you were once just as excited about the ones you already have.

The third rule has I think been touch and go. It’s the most important of the three, it’s the one I identified last year already wasn’t quite working, and over the past twelve months I’ve struggled to stick with it, or indeed even to remember it.

The outcome


In physical terms I have fewer books than I did a year ago, and more of those I have have been read, so in that sense it’s been a success. It’s not a lot fewer though, so it’s a very limited success. In virtual terms I’d say I have more unread kindle books a year ago, I hadn’t taken account of the Christmas sale Amazon does, the 2op book promotions or the daily 99p kindle deal (usually useless to me, but not always).

In my previous post I talked about realising that where I had thought I was buying less, instead I was just buying less in physical form:

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.

I talked about how the rules needed to work for both the physical and the virtual, and a year later it’s fair to say they haven’t entirely. I’ve acquired some good habits, but not sufficiently so. I note that in mid-April 2012 I posted a comment on that blog entry summarising how it was going, and the answer then was very well indeed. That means the slippage all came later – essentially the habits didn’t quite stick and so as time went on my application of them became less rigorous.

One of the easier mistakes one can make is to assume that one’s immune to the common failings one sees in others. When someone commits to do something over the coming year, whether it’s losing weight, exercising more, buying less, whatever, we pretty much know that they’re almost certainly going to let it slide after a while. Why should we be different? Why should our plans be more robust than everyone else’s?

It’s a hard question, and not one I have any good answer to. Part though of the solution is I suspect timeliness. A year is a long time, few of us can remain focussed that long. Perhaps then with all these resolutions, the trick is not to make them for a year but for three months, six months, no longer. A period where we can remember them and keep them fresh in mind. I don’t know. Suggestions welcome.

I still haven’t watched Fish Tank. I did at least though watch The Golem. It’s very good.

*Picture may not represent my actual reading space.


Filed under Personal posts

22 responses to “Buying less: an audit

  1. Is that not your house! How disappointing.

    I think you’ll love Denis Johnson.

  2. I’m pretty confident about him, I admit. Perhaps that should be my next book, though with a backlog of three titles already waiting to be written up I’m not sure I want to start another 100 pager immediately.

    The Simon Crump is up for reading soon by the way, even as we speak it’s swimming languidly to the top of my TBR pile.

  3. I didn’t have hard and fast rules for book buying in 2012, but I intended to cut down. No success there, I’m afraid. Blogging brings out suggestions. If I cut myself off from the world–say solitary confinement for the year, it would be easier to not be tempted. I made some reading decisions and have carved more reading time out of the week.

  4. Nice photo. Since when does Ian Rankin come in rich Corinthian leather?

  5. Oh great! Hope you enjoy Crump.

  6. “audit”? Wow, what a word!
    You managed to stick to the rules, more or less. Congrats!

    You know I’m in the same kind of decrease-the-TBR program (btw, a TBR in French is a PAL -Pile A Lire) I aim at 0 purchase in 2013 and so far I’m doing good, mostly by avoiding bookstores. It’s hard to resist sometimes after reading a good review on another blog.

  7. Guy, you’re among the prime culprits for adding to the pile, not that that’s remotely a complaint. More a comment on the interesting books you cover.

    Scott, ah, well, that would be the Edinburgh Classics edition. I kid, actually I have my dedicated staff recover each book I buy, which does add a bit to the cost but I think the result is worth it.

    Emma, blame my profession. City law leads to a certain kind of vocabulary.

    I do remember your 0 objective. That is hard core, harder than I could be. Good luck!

  8. That word reminded me of work too, that’s why I noticed.

    Well, I’m not sure I’ll manage the whole year without buying a book unless I stop reading your blog or Guy’s. (not that I complain either to read interesting reviews)

  9. Back to that solitary confinement again…

    Of all your rules, the one I most identify with is the not buying multiple books by one author. I have a lot of unread Rankin too.

  10. Ah, I’m also disappointed that that isn’t your library, because I was drooling over it! It resembles the rare book library I once worked in!
    I relate to your problem, because during the years that family problems caused me to stop writing, they also caused me to stop reading, and then when I began to write again, I was too busy and enjoying myself too much to get much reading done. But I found myself still buying books, which I put on a TBR shelf and then never read. That worried me – I don’t like unfinished business – so I simply stopped buying books for years. Now I’m buying again, but only what I plan to read. However, now that I’m on Goodreads, I’m accumulating a “to-read” list there. At least, I haven’t spent any money!
    And now a bit of shameless self-promotion – your next read could be my novella that you got free on Smashwords. It probably wouldn’t take up more than a couple of hours of your time. And then if you liked it, you’d be free to buy something else by me, according to rule no. 2!

  11. Mary Gilbert

    I suppose if you used a Kindle you could at least disguise how many books you’ve bought. Don’t you find browsing in a bookshop one of the great simple pleasures of life? Also slavering over a TBR pile is another harmless pleasure surely? Why the puritanical self castigation? I’m more ruthless about chucking out books I’ve just read and pruning the groaning shelves these days. Disposing of these books often means a multi bag dispersal raid in the smaller provincial towns. Monmouth for example where there are umpteen charity shops. The Red Cross shop in Leominster also benefitted from a recent cull of cookbooks. I rather like to imagine the serendipity of the person who found my bargain Nigellas and Moros.

  12. leroyhunter

    Rules 1 & 2 I try to stick by. Rule 3 not so much.

    I agree with the need to have rules, as otherwise I’d spend far too much and have no room left at home. But I also agree with Mary that I don’t feel particularly guilty when I bend or break the rules. There’s something so pleasing about coming across a book you’ve thought about or been interested in for a while, and it just ha to be picked up. Serendipity outweighs asceticism.

  13. Lorinda, I really liked your post on moving with stuff and how it related to your mother. Sorry I didn’t comment at yours.

    Nicely played with your book, I will read it, I promise! I have a Lars Iyer though sent to me which is so long unread that he’s just published the sequel to its sequel. I am a bad blogger.

    Mary, I talk about the problems of disguising what you bought by use of a kindle in the original post. I think that’s an error to be honest, it’s a way of kidding yourself as to what you’re doing. You should either buy happily, or not buy, but I don’t think it’s right to pretend you’re not buying.

    I don’t think I’m self-castigating here. I don’t wake up nights terrified by the TBR pile. It’s more that I like having less stuff (I always have done really) and I don’t like consumption for its own sake. Book browsing, like many things, can become a hobby in itself. Buying books replacing reading them, a sense of cultural engagement which is actually false. All that said, I do of course enjoy browsing in bookstores, but it’s less fun when I know I have a couple of hundred unread books at home because I’m aware that anything I buy I probably won’t read for an aeon.

    Put another way, the older I get the more I find I want to own less. When I was younger it wasn’t such an issue, I did own less.

    Leroy, I feel guilty about very little, and certainly not this. The point is that I want to change some habits, but I don’t feel bad about not having done everything I wished. I just think about why and what I might change.

    Besides, I like ascetism, provided it’s comfortable and comes with a decent whisky. Also the rain, and the sea. I occasionally dream of living in a small cottage on a windswept and rainy island, provided it has good wifi and easy access to the theatre and some decent restaurants.

  14. Mary Gilbert

    Like you I find I want to live a sparer more stripped down life as I get older I’ve got rid of a great deal of stuff recently. The books remain a problem hence the give aways in charity shops. It hasn’t removed a lifelong obsession with bookshops when I have the opportunity.
    I actually live in the windswept and rainy place you dream of. It’s great for escaping the hurly burly and the interenet provides contact but nothing happens and after nine years I feel the need to reengage with the world and not just read about it.

  15. well done I suppose ,I don’t get this buying less stuff things my self cutting tbr challenges etc ,I just buy as I see and chuck usually read books or books brought by mistake only problem I got is storage at mo but hopefully have more later this year as we want to move ,all the best stu

  16. I’m pleased you enjoyed my blog post on the problems of packrats! I just put up my second post on the other blog with my analysis of Evangeline Walton’s The Prince of Annwn (her retelling of the First Branch of the Mabinogion). I think you might enjoy those posts, also.

  17. Thanks Lorinda, I’ll follow up on those.

    Stu, there’s no TBR challenge. It’s more that I like to have less rather than more. I don’t find things comforting, rather I tend to find them slightly oppressive. It’s also a cost issue though – it’s just bad budgeting to buy stuff I’ve no realistic prospect of actually doing anything with.

    Moving does focus the mind. One pays to have things moved (this one does anyway), and that raises the obvious question of whether whatever item you’re currently looking at is actually worth paying to transport.

    Mary, nine years is a fair while anywhere. Often what drives us is less the search for a specific thing, as the search for something different and interesting. What that is depends where one starts off of course.

  18. Alex in Leeds

    I am an enthusiastic goal-setter and have acheived some fun, long term goals (including a three year book buying ban which I need to write more about) but the ONLY way I’ve ever made any goal stick and become habit rather than chore is with regular check-ins somewhere, somehow. Even tally charts on a piece of paper blu-tac’d on the wall helps. I also find I get rebellious if it feels like a restriction rather than ‘an experiment’… 🙂

  19. You should write more about that three year ban Alex, I don’t think I’d even want to do that but it would be interesting to read about.

    Regular check-ins do seem the key to forming a habit, and forming a habit is definitely the key to any lasting change.

  20. I tend to have a relatively small to-read pile but recently I faced a different problem. How to choose what books you keep when you move? I recently left Paris, spent some time in Bristol, now I’m in Korea. I did sell/give away/ a lot of books. It was simply practical. I had 13 boxes sent to the UK of stuff I kept and was still left with a whole stack of books left over.
    My main criteria was this: Am I going to read the book again in anyway? This includes dipping into it or reading short stories again. Also: was there
    any sentimental value to the book – present, handed down etc.
    I think there was a blog on the Guardian recently when someone said it was ‘morally wrong’ to get rid of books. Of course this is poppycock. It wasn’t as though I was throwing them away, and if I do decide that I’ve made a mistake and sold or given away a book that i want to read again then I can always buy the book again.

  21. The only books it might be morally wrong to get rid of are those which couldn’t be replaced. Original historical texts, that sort of thing. Otherwise it’s a question of taste and practicality. Does one wish to keep them? Can one keep them?

    Moving is a great motivant, Our last move led to us giving away and ultimately throwing away a great many books. The best tests I think are those you mention: will I reread this? Does it have some peculiar sentimental value? If the answer for any given book is no then its presence is essentially decorative, which is fine as far as it goes but no more something to be proud of than chucking it would be something to be ashamed of.

  22. Pingback: My #TBR20 | Pechorin's Journal

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