Our Reading Lives

We Have Books at Home: How I Decide Which Books to Buy

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In retrospect, I was not brought up in a household that really pushed concepts like “moderation.” I was an only child and my parents never said no to books. After several years of what can only be described as buying books to avoid feeling feelings, I’ve had to train myself not to buy a new book or six every time I enter a bookstore. I have come to think of what I do now as the “we have food at home” approach.

Maybe you have a similar story: at some point, you lost control and the books took over. For me, it was combination of review copies and the remnants of a childhood seemingly spent mostly at Barnes & Noble that created a library that never seems to diminish even with occasional weeding. I enjoy having a lot of unread books around — but I also like feeling like I’ve made responsible choices occasionally and sometimes that money can be better used elsewhere, like buying new jeans every decade or so (ugh) or a lamp for my bedroom (boring).

Before my last move, I brought bags and bags of unwanted books to a bookstore that does store credit and after five or six tote bags stuffed full of books, I was able to afford one leather-bound copy of Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted (it was signed, I have no regrets). 

I noticed that after that experience, I started to follow a mental script whenever I see a book that I might want to bring home with me. I am not in any way perfect at this: I am living the same 2022 as everyone else and sometimes you just have to head to the bookstore after a rough day. There are worse vices, right?

Anyway, once I’ve honed on a potential book, I first ask myself if the library has it. Sometimes I check Libby and put the book on hold. I have two library cards and between those libraries it’s rare that something isn’t available.

Then I ask myself whether I am going to read the book right away, or whether I could perhaps wait until it comes out in paperback, if I absolutely have to own it. (It helps soften the blow if I already have the earlier books in a series in paperback because we all know that it’s the worst when your editions don’t match). I don’t do this for every book, but there are very few books that I want to read now that I won’t want to read a few months down the line (and if that’s the case, why would I buy it anyway?).

Even if I’ll read a hypothetical purchased book right away, am I going to read it more than once? I am not typically a rereader because there are just too many books I want to get to eventually. Am I going to somehow reference this book again? I tend to collect books that would serve a college professor better as a resource than the communications specialist I actually am.

Finally, am I willing to keep that book forever? I take a long view of my possessions because I have had to deal with the possessions that others have left behind. My mother and grandmother had no books to dispose of but the other stuff was not fun, and I know from my own experience that it’s not always easy to donate books. Some organizations will only take certain types of books or will take them only on certain days, listing books online takes time for very little return, the library can only handle so much, and there are only a couple of Little Free Libraries in my town (and the one at the park makes me nervous because there are always people sitting there watching you… just me?). Is it worth finding the time to rehome the book when I no longer want it? I have limited space to begin with and every one of my inexpensive and elderly bookshelves is feeling the strain.

A book doesn’t have to satisfy every criteria on this mental list, but I’ve found it helpful to consider and maybe you will too. The whole system sounds pretty mean, but it does lead to much less buyer’s remorse and to paying only for the books I’m truly excited about reading as soon as possible, perhaps on the bus ride home from the bookstore. And, believe me, I am not perfect and I still get to enjoy the fruits of my hard-earned money regularly.

Don’t cry for me. Cry for my IKEA Billy bookshelves. They’re still holding on. 

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