Where The Lost Books Are: Confessions Of A Compulsive Buyer
I buy books that I never read. I buy them from The Strand, or from Amazon, or from Green Lantern Books, or from stoop sales. I pick them up when I’m ‘just browsing,’ when I’m looking for the perfect gift, or when I’ve dedicated an entire afternoon to perusing their pages. I buy classics, I buy obscure old texts, I buy amazing deals with catchy covers featuring edgy (and effective) design. I buy them on a whim, or after spending hours thinking about them.
Then I take them home. They collect in the corners of my bookshelves.
This habit of mine became painfully obvious when my roommate took it upon herself to outfit our living room with a trio of light pine shelves on which she arranged most of my collection lovingly, and beautifully. Helping her sort titles by color and style, I realized that I had picked up these volumes and never sat down to read them. I meant to read them; I even got a chapter or two in. But I never finished.
When thinking about wasteful, useless things that I do with money, this vice might be one of the more disappointing. Not only have I spent hundreds of dollars amassing a collection of books that I have not had the time to read, I have wasted countless hours browsing for these items I won’t use, and have spent even more time painstakingly whittling down my pile into ‘donations’, or ‘re-sells’.
I know the guilt of bringing bags of books to the Strand selling counter which have never had their spines cracked, and which I sell back to the very place I bought them from without so much as a single dog-ear or coffee stain. I have whispered “I’m so sorry” and then traded my refund in for another set of books that would meet a similar fate.
My motivation for collecting unread books comes from a belief that books are precious and the pain of having had to part with many as a child. Growing up as a weird kid who was often bullied, books were some of my closest friends. My mother, an avid reader, introduced me to the potential for books to transport me far beyond the limits of my small bayside community: to Pern and Arrakis. She brought me Shel Silverstein, who celebrated my weirdness with me. We laughed and we cried about Harry Potter together. I learned about China and the Romans. I wrote fanfictions, and built my own versions of the stories that I loved as a way to escape a world that I did not believe understood me.
When our family almost moved, many of my friends were given away to the local library or packed in boxes and shipped to a home that we never made. When I moved to college, what little of my collection was left had to be whittled down even further. I brought Pablo Neruda’s 100 Love Sonnets, Shel Silverstein’s A Light In The Attic, a copy of Cyrano De Bergerac, and select other titles. The rest were dispersed between my childhood homes and grandmother’s basement.
Rebuilding my library in New York was not difficult given the volume of reading required for college and later graduate school, but many of these books were required. Pleasure reading was difficult at best, increasingly done in small spurts on the internet: the blog post, the listicle, and the short fiction dominated my new literary landscape. I always wanted to read, and always hoped I would find the time, or make the time, or DAMMIT I AM GOING TO READ ONCE AND FOR ALL. So I picked up books like other people pick up flowers, and over the years my collection grew.
I bought books because I used to think that buying books was a good investment. They don’t ever go out of style! Books smell good; they feel good in my hands, a comforting weight to prevent boredom or the need to acknowledge the sweaty person next to me on the train.
Books are also a badge: your collection of books says a lot about who you are. I have absolutely been disappointed to find a narrow or unrefined selection of books on the shelves of potential partners. I will never forget the time a dear friend chided me for Eat, Pray, Love,* as a title in my collection for if I wanted to read about what it is like to be desperately unfulfilled and wealthy enough to escape my problems in entertainment, I could just open my copy of Anna Karenina. I collected books that I wanted to read because I thought they would make me look smart (the classics), or edgy (Palahniuk, Pynchon), or deeply in touch with the human condition (Eggars, Foster-Wallace). I picked up books-turned-movies hoping the book would be better (The Road), or books-turned-movies that I loved (Children of Men).
Even as I write this list I wonder what you think about these books.
Every year the list of books I was finally going to read grew, but my free time continued to be spread ever more thinly as the demands of my professional and social life grew too. Sometimes I sat down with a book, began it, and got bored or quickly lost interest. I am a different reader than I used to be. I hunger for new words. Audible and Kindle have greatly increased my access to reading: they are portable and convenient in a world that demands I adapt to the digital era.
I have had to learn how to let go: of the books I have never read and won’t now easily find the time for, and even the books that have brought me joy but are of better use to someone else. Denying my habit of wasting money to collect physical copies I won’t read has meant that I finally stopped being one of those, ‘But I could never read a digital book’ people. I downloaded the Kindle app, I got an account, and let me tell you: finding the time to read now is 100% easier. Sneaking 15 minutes when friends are late for dinner, a solid 1.25 hours each way for long commutes … even finding myself with a free hour between clients and classes in the city.
This summer alone I read 17 books on my Kindle app, more than I was able read for pleasure during college and graduate school combined.
Books: the paper, the spine, the glue, and the typeface are still beloved to me. But I have had to admit that an ever-expanding library of them is impossible in my mobile life, and my limited square footage. Yes, the floor to ceiling library of my dreams still exists as a lifegoal for a time and place that I can afford to pack handsomely bound volumes from the greats to the groundbreaking into my dedicated study. For now, this space has to exist in my head, and my friends and I have to hang out in the cloud.
*I cannot speak to the content of this book, as I resold it to The Strand without so much as glancing at the introduction.
This piece is part of a series examining our financial vices.
As a self-employed freelancer, Roxanne has only fired herself the one time. Check her out on twitter @razzley, and http://roxannerolls.tumblr.