Our Reading Lives

Empty Shelves: My Weird Relationship with Book Buying

I just moved back home after two years of grad school. For the first time in ages, I’m not planning on moving in the near future. This changes everything, particularly my book buying habits. As long as I can remember, I’ve been very strict with myself about buying books. I’ve moved back and forth across Canada enough times to know the cost of moving a large book collection. My rule has always been: only buy the book if it’s not available at the library, or if I’ve taken it out of the library at least three times. Every time I move, my collection gets smaller.

When I first moved back to Victoria, some generous friends offered me a capacious set of old bookshelves. Unpacking the precious books that had traveled more than 10,000 kilometers with me, I realized how few I actually own. My friends’ bookshelves swallowed them up with oodles of space left over. I am a book lover without enough books to fill even a quarter of my shelf space.

Zoe's Bookshelves!

My (mostly) empty bookshelves.

As it happens, I just started working at the best used book store in the world (I may be very slightly biased), and I get a great staff discount. It’s the perfect time for me to break all my book buying rules. Sounds like a dream come true, right? I’m reading constantly, getting through a book every few days, and enjoying myself immensely. I’m also buying more books than I ever have before.

However, I’m beginning to notice that my book buying and my book reading are not linked. In fact, they’re inversely related. All of my actual reading material is still coming from the library. If I see an intriguing book at work and buy it, the moment I bring it home and put it on my shelf I lose my desire to read it. Something about owning the book flips a switch in my brain. If I take a book (physical or digital) out of the library, odds are good I’ll have devoured it within a week. But the majority of the books I’ve been buying and placing proudly on my new bookshelves have not been touched since.

What’s wrong with me? Have all those years of self-deprivation scarred my psyche? Am I no longer capable of both buying and reading a book? I’m having a book nerd crisis of faith.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that for me, buying books has never been about reading books. Buying books is about surrounding myself with beloved friends. At book stores, I don’t gravitate to that new sci-fi I’ve been meaning to read – I gravitate to Pride and Prejudice, because I know I’ll always want to re-read it at least once a year. I gravitate to Emily Dickinson and Rabindranath Tagore, even though I already own volumes of their poetry, because I feel more like myself when I touch their spines.

Adding books I’ve never read to my bookshelves feels like inviting a random stranger off the street to join a party with my oldest and dearest friends. The stranger might look attractive and interesting, but it’s bound to be a bit awkward.

My friends buy a lot of books, and have tall to-be-read piles. I know a lot of people who hoard books like magpies, planning to read them all one day and constantly adding to their collection. It’s a big part of bookish culture, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m not that kind of book nerd.

I’ll keep buying books, but I’m going back to my old rules. For now, I’m going to fill the holes in my bookshelves with potted plants and driftwood. My personal library will gradually grow, as I encounter old friends on the shelves at work and bring them home.

Fellow book nerds, do you read all the books that you buy? Or do some of them sit there, waiting patiently, while you acquire newer and shinier books? Do you follow any book buying rules? Am I a complete weirdo, or do other people have these feelings? Let me know in the comments.