Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Lessons Learned From Not Buying (Many) Books

I was having tea with a former colleague, and we were talking about books. Her friend was 'kind of snobby' about what he read, and would only read the classics. He had worked out that if he had fifty years left to live, and he read one book a month for the rest of his life, he only had time to read six hundred more books in his lifetime. Hence, only the classics. 'It makes you think, doesn't it?' said my friend. 'I have way more than six hundred books on my shelves already!'

Sigh. Personally, if I were left to my own devices, I would be like the kids in the Road Dahl poem, 'Television':

What used the darling ones to do?

'How used they keep themselves contented

Before this monster was invented?'
Have you forgotten? Don't you know?
We'll say it very loud and slow:

THEY ... USED ... TO ... READ! They'd READ and READ,

AND READ and READ, and then proceed

To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!

Matilda, by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake
If I could, I would spend one half my life reading books. When I go on holiday, I've been known to average a novel a day (record: south of France, 2009). But as it is, I'm gainfully employed writing a DPhil thesis, I occasionally experience a social life, my shelves hold books galore, books clutter up my bedroom floor, and in my kitchen, on my bed, more books are waiting to be read. So for six months, I tried not to buy any more books. I did quite well. I probably managed on average to buy only one book a month, which makes the vast numbers that ordinarily creep up around me make a lot of sense. They don't just magically appear: they accumulate because when I'm not attempting to exercise self-control, I buy many, many more. 

Take my first trip to the Oxfam book-shop at the end of my experiment, in early March. I had not bought a book from Oxfam for six months. It had been a long time coming, so I took my time. I perused the fiction, slowly, carefully; I did the thing where I first check for the surnames that I usually look for, the authors I love but have not yet exhausted. Patchett. Irving. Tartt. Then I did the thing when I look through everything else anyway. Then I visited the travel section - and the social science section...and the religion section. I bought three books that day: Jon McGregor's Even the Dogs; Alice Munro's Lying Under the Apple Tree; and Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. A few days later I returned and bought two more: Donna Tartt's The Little Friend, and Ian McEwan's Solar. This past weekend, I bought three of those beautiful tiny black and white Penguin 80th Anniversary Classics. That's just March, and March still has a few days standing. This is how it happens, I realise: this is how I have so many books. 

Penguin's 80th Anniversary 80p Classics

What I noticed, beginning to buy books again in earnest, was what makes me buy books. We often hear that consumerism is about filling a void, meeting a need. People shop to get something that they don't have. Shoes become proxies for love, earrings for friendship, cars for status. I'm sure that's often the case, and maybe it is often the case with me: I've written before about how books are more than just tangible comfort blankets; they are portals into other worlds, and when I buy them I feel the rules and regulations, the assumptions and prerequisites of my world loosen and become opaque, the possibilities become multiple. It's fair to say that I buy books when I feel stuck and confined, as much as when I just feel ignorant or in need of entertainment. 

But my book purchases in March have looked different. Before Oxfam trip number two, I had just had a lovely long lunch with a friend. Before that, I had been to an interesting seminar, and over the previous two days I had written almost six thousand words on my thesis. I was about to go to Devon on retreat for five days. I was feeling decidedly upbeat; I was tired but buzzing with the pleasures of good company, good food, intellectual stimulation. My book-buying felt celebratory - it was the cherry on the cake. I felt happy and free, and so my books were an affirmation of how interesting life was. Look at this slightly experimental novel! Here is this world-renowned Canadian short-story writer! Feminism makes life better for everyone! 

This weekend, when I succumbed to the Penguins, I was feeling the residual joy of having settled and stilled within the deep-tissue metaphysical massage of insight meditation in the green hills of Devon. My tired brain had recouped enough energy to start throwing out creative ideas again. Lots of things looked possible. It sounds exhilarating, but it felt tranquil. I rested deeply in the slow-moving promise of the present moment, and part of that promise was: you could read a new book today - one you've never even heard of

I reached for the books. 

So, in the end, it's fairly simple: trying not to buy books has made me pay more attention to why I buy books. It's not just that that one has a nice cover, or that I know that author, or that this one is cheap, or that this one is about something that interests me. It's that books are both a promise and an affirmation of the complexity and multiplicity and possibility of the world I live in. When life gets a little monotonous, I buy books; when life is wondrous and textured, I buy books. In the act of acquiring a book, the timbre and texture of my own world feel enriched, even before I actually read the book.

I've learned in these past six months of reading but not buying (very many) that like they always said, much of it is about the journey, not the destination. What's strange is that buying and reading have slipped unexpectedly between the two: sometimes one feels like the journey, at other times the destination. It's a main critique of consumerism that to possess the shoes feels ultimately empty, unless you actually wear them, need them, make use out of them. Is it possible that buying and reading books sit on an inchoate merry-go-round, in which each are an end, but also a beginning? It's not that we have to read a book to make the purchase worth it. Sometimes we realise fifty pages in that it's a bad book, and that's just that. We don't have to struggle on regardless - especially if we've only got six hundred books left to live. Sometimes we cut our losses and walk away from the book. We were still delighted when we got it. 

Lingering over my books in Oxfam, I noticed that curiosity - that hinterland before knowledge - is rich and deep enough to make book-buying in itself an inherently pleasurable act. Curiosity is therefore, often, psychologically functional. It lifts an exhausted student out of flatness; it stimulates a happy one to creativity. It feels like a journey that in the micro-moment has some defined efficacy. Yet the pleasure of purchase passes if the book remains unread, static, dead weight. It can even become oppressive, a reminder of curiosity unfulfilled, and there is something slightly unsettling about an expansive library of the unread. 

I guess the slippage between buying and reading, journey and destination, promise and fulfilment means that all we can do is have good intentions, see what happens, and work from here-on-in. If I don't manage to read a book, it doesn't make me a fool for purchasing its promise. I will always buy (too many) books, and I will always enjoy buying books. But If I'm being very honest, right now - despite the delights of bookshops - I have a horrible cold, and the destination looks like a good book open in my lap and a cup of tea. I'm hoping to keep ahead of my purchases, and average two books a month for the rest of my life: I'll race you to it. 

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