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What Do Our Book Purchases Say About Us?

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Connie Pan

Senior Contributor

Connie Pan is a writer and editor from Maui, Hawai‘i. She earned an MFA in fiction from West Virginia University and a BA in creative writing from Grand Valley State University. Her writing has appeared in Bamboo Ridge, Carve, HelloGiggles, PRISM International, The Billfold, and elsewhere. An excerpt from her novel-in-progress was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Instagram: @csnpan Twitter: @panlikepeter

Pre-California, I Marie Kondoed and treasured the Hawai’i State Public Library System (a dream for a local girl who lived abroad too long). Lacking the disposable income I desired, if I bought a book, it mattered.

Halfway through 2017, perspective on 2016 is available if we seek it. Here’s what last year’s literary purchases say about me.

Sentimental Wanderlust

Despite a bout of unemployment and an unpredictable future, my partner and I chase adventure in Los Angeles, Portland, the Big Island, Bay Area, and Maui. I seek bookstores everywhere we go. Favorites include Skylight Books, Powell’s Books, and Basically Books.

The Sad Passions by Veronica Gonzalez Peña – My soul sister and I explore LA in matching flowy pants and tank tops. I try juice while my hair air-dries within minutes. Surrounded by love and sunlight, I spot my souvenir.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong – My previous Portland trip, I visited Powell’s three times and, each visit, left with something pretty. This vacation’s no different.

Hawai’i One Summer by Maxine Hong Kingston – When I hold this book in my hands, it strums heartstrings: what we should and shouldn’t write about, time in a spectacular place. At this moment, we know we’re moving but are uncertain of when and where, so we hop islands.

Intersecting Circles: The Voices of Hapa Women in Poetry and Prose edited by Marie Hara and Nora Okja Keller – I borrowed this out-of-print book from the library twice. Discovering it in a secondhand shop screams blessing.

A Little Too Much Is Enough by Kathleen Tyau – Finding this signed first edition ignites the Hilo warehouse.

In Love With Hawai‘i

While living away from the Islands, I stockpiled Hawaiiana literature during visits. Moving brings out a whole new level of hoarder in me.

Bamboo Ridge: Journal of Hawai’i Literature (issues 79 and 84) – A devout admirer, I ritually search for Bamboo Ridge titles to expand my collection. Already nostalgic, I double-dip.

The Healers by Kimo Armitage – The cover, its sunset palette, draws me in. Intrigued by natural medicine, I paw my purse.

Balikbayan: A Filipino Homecoming by Michelle Cruz Skinner – A writer and editor I admire scribbled this author’s name on my story. Her first sentence (“I was born feet first and believed that this made me able to heal people.”) moons my eyes.

Hardworking Girl

A perfectionist, I attack anything new ferociously. To say my first freelancing gig was a learning experience feels . . . cheap.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs – This memoir, my first assignment, travels to LA, Seattle, and Portland with me. I vow to avoid starting something new and demanding on the road.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez – I already own my second assignment, a hardcover from my mother. So beautiful, I can’t dirty its margins.

The Annotated Persuasion by Jane Austen and David M. Shapard – This series is the stuff of nerd dreams. I study my third assignment so hard I destroy the binding.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf – During my fourth assignment, my fiancé and I travel for a home-hunting trip. I pack Woolf and, unable to break from work, my personal copy of Love in the Time of Cholera (my final assignment). Driving from condo to townhouse to condo, I backseat cram, ignoring headaches.


Isn’t every writer? These reflect a sampling of my obsessions—islands, family, hair, coming-of-age stories, mermaids.

Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan – I love Water Ghosts so much I pre-order this.

Cherry by Mary Karr – For book club, I heart passages, underline sentences, and dog-ear pages.

Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair – In our new city, I find an indie bookstore, where I order poetry.


After November, my impulse, like many, is to give more.

Bamboo Ridge: Journal of Hawai’i Literature (issue 104) – Before moving, I surprise grandma, whose storytelling inspired my love of literature. We visit Barnes & Noble, where I show her two of my poems. “I want this,” she says, “I’ll share with your cousins, Auntie,” then trails off. (We have a big family.)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne (based on a story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany) – I sponsor an 11-year-old girl for an Angel Tree. A childless 30-something, I seek help. Someone tells me, “I find kids really love books,” validating my impulse. I buy everything I adore: a hardcover, journals, fancy pens, bookmark.

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great by Judy Blume – The author, an early literary love, is easy to donate.

Our buying (and reading) lives are fingerprint paintings of everything that’s happening within us. They reflect our passions, anxieties, fascinations, and actions. What books did you buy last year? What titles pile on the coffee table, your nightstand, along the wall? What do they whisper about you?