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From Buying to Borrowing: How to Break a Book-Buying Addiction

Jen Sherman

Staff Writer

Jen is an urban and cultural geographer who did a PhD on public libraries and reading. As a researcher, her interests are focused on libraries, reading, book retailing and the book industry more broadly. As a reader, she reads a lot of crime fiction, non-fiction, and chicklit. And board books. All the board books. You can also find her writing about books for children and babies at Instagram: shittyhousewife / babylibrarians Twitter: @jennnigan

It is with some guilt that I write this: I have pretty much stopped buying books. Every book I have read this year so far has been borrowed from the library (mind you, I have only read six books so far, but still), and the question of buying versus borrowing has taken on a new focus.

When I was interviewing readers and library users for my PhD, one of the questions I asked them was how they decided whether to buy or borrow a book. The answers were interesting. Some readers only bought books and rarely or never borrowed from the library. Some readers didn’t really buy books because they were expensive (and in Australia, where I did the PhD, books ARE considerably more expensive than here in the States), and only bought if it was heavily discounted. One person I interviewed bought a lot of books but borrowed what was considered “lower” types of fiction from the library because, as she put it, she didn’t want “some trashy chick lit wrecking her bookshelves.”*

As with all the questions I asked my participants, I thought about my own answers. What made me buy a book versus borrowing a book? In the past decade, that answer has changed.

In 2008, I did my Honours research on independent bookshops in Sydney. I spent the year travelling around the city visiting bookshops, and I think I bought at least one book from pretty much every bookshop I entered. I don’t think I stepped foot into a public library that year. I discovered one independent bookshop I loved and adored, and pretty much bought all of my books from them ever since then.

Then I travelled and moved overseas, and travelled some more. I bought more books. It’s hard to have a library card when you don’t have a permanent address, and when books are cheaper pretty much anywhere else in the world than Australia, buying books was easy. I was a bit of a bookshop junkie.

I eventually moved back home to Sydney to do a PhD and the book-buying continued, though to a lesser extent. I became a more regular library user, since I shifted my research focus from bookshops to libraries. What I bought versus what I borrowed during that time was a little similar to what one of my participants said: it depended on where I was when I found the book I wanted to read. If I was in the library, I’d borrow it. If I was in a bookshop, I’d buy it.

And then I moved to America and everything changed. I work from home, and there is no bookshop in walking distance from where I live. Since moving here two years ago, I have been inside a bookshop in this city twice. Unlike in Sydney, there are no bookshops on my regular path. So this is step one in breaking the book-buying addiction: remove the temptation.

Step two in breaking the addiction is to move a lot. In the past decade, I have moved eleven times, across four continents. Every move featured the all important question: which books do I take with me? From doing this, you eventually weed down to just the essentials, the books you absolutely must own a physical copy of because they are as important to your well-being and daily life as your passport and driver’s license.

The final step is to not have a job with a stable income. Unlike the earlier years when I could basically throw money at bookshops because I had a stable income and relatively low living expenses, I have been doing freelance work since moving to the U.S. While I am not subsisting on rice and beans, I am a lot more conscious of money coming in and money going out. So whether or not I buy a book now is based on this question: will I love this book enough to need to own it, and how many hypothetical moves would it survive before being weeded? It is also based on this very important question: does the library have the book?

I have found that my first port of call when I discover new titles I want to read is now the library’s online catalogue. If the library has the book, or if it’s on order, then I will happily borrow it, even if it might mean I’m on the hold list for several months. Sometimes the books I borrow end up being books I absolutely must own, and then I will buy it.

For the most part, this new approach has meant that I have become a much more active library user, I can afford to eat more than just rice and beans, and when I move (again) next month, the thought of moving all the books is less daunting than it could have been.

What about you? What makes you borrow or buy a book? Are there certain authors of whom you must own everything they write? Or are you an avid book borrower? And just how overflowing are your bookshelves?

*It sounds kind of terrible, but she really was a lovely person who was a voracious reader, and loved chick lit as much as literary fiction.