During my only year in French higher education, my literature teacher imparted two pearls of wisdom to me: by the end of the curriculum, I would have enough reading to last a lifetime and there was no clever way to organise one’s bookshelves.
Bookshelf sorting has been a pastime of mine ever since I was a child. I’ve tried the by-author method, the by-collection method, the by-topic method, sometimes getting into quite anal Excel spreadsheet cross-referencing during the Summer holidays. On Sunday afternoon, I tried a new method of sorting: the books I have read vs. those I haven’t.
Book buying has been an ongoing budgetary issue. Books are heavy. Books take up a lot of space. Books are expensive. But books are also so easy to justify. I could be spending the money on less worthy pursuits, like drinking or smoking. On less lasting ones, like going out. On less educational things, like so many things available for purchase.
Books, on the other hand, are perfect. They teach me and they talk to me. They entertain me. They feed my writing. They help me fall asleep and busy the hours in between segmented sleep cycles. Books can be bought from charity shops and then it’s not just buying a book, it’s donating For The Greater Good (although not the good of the publishing industry).
Yet in 2014, I won’t buy another book until I have read all the unread and half-read ones on my bookshelf. This will be my new year’s resolution. No more book buying. My Sunday afternoon sorting was to see exactly how many unread books I have at my disposal. My estimate was around 40. I stopped counting after 52, when I realised that, unless I read one book a week, this new year’s resolution would have to carry on into 2015. Possibly long into 2015, since quite a few books are over 750-pages long. And we’re talking Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln here, not Harry Potter 750-pages long.
My decision not to buy anymore books had two catalysts. I feel quite shameful about sitting on this pile of books, which is essentially a pile of cash and knowledge, and not reading any of it. I might discover I hate some of them and that they should have been donated to the charity shop a while ago. I need to save money and my estimate is that I can save between £10 and £200 a month by not buying books. As I said, I am a big book buyer.
So how do I not buy a book? As stupid as this question might sound, and as obvious as the answer might be, I need a strategy. Even though I won’t be buying books, I will be reading them - and reading calls for more reading. The second I finished The Sense of an Ending, I had to find as much Julian Barnes as I could. Laura Jacob’s feature on The Group in the July issue of Vanity Fair prompted me to buy it. Hearing Lionel Shriver talk last September resulted in my buying two more novels of hers on eBay. After going to see the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris in August 2010, I bought my first biography of the couturier. One thing led to another, and now there are five biographies about him on my bookshelf, not to mention one of Pierre Bergé. Just minutes ago, looking on the Oxfam Books site for the sole purpose of linking to it in this article, I got thoroughly tempted by some Ian McEwan and The Future Homemakers of America, and I don’t even know what this novel is about. Nothing deserves to be called a rabbit hole more than the world of books.
To not buy books, I will stay away from eBay, Amazon, the paved street next to work which has both an Oxfam bookshop and a normal bookshop, Waterstones…in fact, any place where books are sold. I will also refrain from the Amazon wish list or the Amazon basket, because not buying any book for 52 weeks and then bulk buying dozens on 1 January 2015, isn’t exactly the point of my new year’s resolution. I might sign up to my local library. I’ve registered on Read It Swap It, a website which enables users to swap books with others. My sister introduced me to the concept in October through Bibliotroc, its French equivalent. Except on Bibliotroc, you collect points for each book sent, which you can then spend on any book available. No need to wait for an alignment of book desires between you and another user, which makes the journey slightly better (though both sites have terrible UX). I might ask my friends more often if they have a book I am looking for. And lastly, I might just use this blog to ask some publishing houses if I can review books.
So here’s to 2014: a year of reading books, but not buying them.