I’ve been thinking about acquiring books lately. On Tuesday my coworker said that what she really wanted was a really well-written book, Lit’rature she said, with a compelling plot and interesting characters. I thought about it for a while, threw out a couple of ideas, and ultimately said, “Stop, stop, call off the hounds. It’s Fingersmith. Read Fingersmith.” And that evening she went and bought Fingersmith. This is an example of something I would almost never do, buy a book because someone I knew said it was good. I especially would not do it if, as in her case, I worked a few blocks away from a branch of the public library.
For someone who loves to read, I do not buy books very often. The problem is that I can only very rarely — and this was true even when I had lots of spare money — justify the expense of buying a new book for myself. I’m not sure where the mental block comes from, but it’s pretty strong. If I desperately want to read a book, and can’t get it at the library, and can’t live without it, I cast around to think of someone I can buy it for, then buy it, read it, and send it to them. I think the last time I went to the bookstore and bought myself a book just for me at full price using actual dollars was Nox in February 2011.
Part of this is the money thing. I am cautious of money and even cautious of gift card money, which — failing awesome book sales — is the main way that I acquire books for myself. With gift cards, I have this mindset that what if there is a book emergency and I don’t have any book budget and I have to have that book, and I can’t because I’ll have spent all my gift card money on other things that I didn’t really need! What if that happens!
I have conflicting emotions about owning books, both rooted in firm convictions from my childhood. The first is that I like to have lots of books around me. When I was a little kid and we would ask our parents if we were rich, Daddy would say “We’re rich in love!” and Mumsy would say “We’re rich in books!” So having lots of books makes me feel comfortable and safe and frankly rather affluent, and it also gives me lots of choices when I am brushing my teeth.
The opposing thing is that I don’t like clutter. This is the result of a highly successful parenting strategy by Mumsy. She did not want us to become hoarders as hoarding is somewhat in our genes, so periodically when we were children, we would have clean-up days and go through all our things and throw stuff out. Mumsy would say, “Have you used it in the past year? No? Then free yourself!” And we would get rid of all sorts of things. As an adult I think it feels glorious to get rid of stuff. The opportunity to get rid of stuff is the only compensatory aspect to the nightmare that is moving.
What all this means is that I often have major buyer’s remorse if I buy a book just for myself using regular dollars (or even, frankly, gift card dollars), so if I’m going to do it, I have to be close to completely confident that I will want to have that book forever; i.e., that I’ll want to read it more than twice or three times in my life. Otherwise I’ll get my new book home and look at it and think, “I could have gotten you at the library, and used that $20 to get dinner with work friends, thereby expanding my New York social circle and investing in my long-term happiness.”
The huge exception to this, of course, is book sales. Again I think it’s rooted in childhood. We didn’t get new books willy-nilly throughout the year (just at Christmas and birthdays, oh my God those were amazing, one time my grandmother sent me a set of all the Edward Eager books at once), but when we went on vacation and hit up the library book sales and used book stores in Maine, we bought a ridiculous number of books. One year we bought so many books our car broke down on the drive home because it was too heavy, and the mechanic was like, “What do you have in there, rocks?” So I have this mindset that if you are on vacation, at a book sale, or both, you can buy as many damn books as you want. These are the principles that guide my book-buying life.
But I will say that as the years have gone on, I’ve gotten more strategic about what I will purchase, even at book sales and on vacation. I live, of course, in New York where things are crowded, so instead of saying “I want to buy ALL THE BOOKS,” I’ve moved to a point where I’m always trying to identify holes in my book collection. I have fairly specific notions about what I need — comfort books, volumes of poetry, books I had as a kid but don’t have now, collections of letters, stuff for reference — and when I’m at a book sale, I always find books that aren’t at the bookstores, books or editions of books that are out of print but eminently desirable. The happiest day of the year (at home) is the first day of my university’s book sale, when I stagger out with my massive canvas bag full of books and show them off to the Family. I feel happy just thinking about that.
So what about you guys? What makes you decide to acquire a book? How sure do you have to be that you’re going to love it before you’ll buy it? Under what circumstances are you most likely to go out and buy books (vs getting them at the library or whatever)? I am curious! I feel like my book-buying habits are weird, so normalize for me, please!