You’ve probably heard the phrase “drinking from the fire hose,” referring to trying to drink more water than you can possibly take in. But have you ever felt like you’re reading from a fire hose? I certainly do. I know my towering TBR (currently at 231 books) is the subject of near constant fretting around these parts. I can make rules for book acquisitions, I can dare myself to read nothing but TBR books, I can stay out of the library. But still the books keep coming. It’s like a sickness, and I’m not sure I want to be cured!
One of the wonderful things about book blogging is learning how many wonderful books there are out there to read. And thanks to the Internet, very few of those books are entirely out of reach. It may take a little time or a little money, but by golly, I can bring those books to my door. When I started getting books online—whether through Amazon, a book-swapping site, or a used bookseller—the online option was a last resort. If I wanted to read a book and couldn’t find it locally, then I went online. It’s great to know that any oddball book I’m interested in is probably available somewhere. But at some point, the online option became the usual choice. What’s more, I started leaping upon books of interest as soon as I saw them, rather than waiting until I was ready to read them. In the past, I only stockpiled books when I went to a big book sale, so I rarely had more than 20 or 30 unread books in the house. But once the fire hose got turned on, the books kept coming.
A handful of recent events have gotten me thinking differently about all the books around me and about the way I enjoy them. One was the opening of One More Page Books, a new independent bookstore here in Northern Virginia; another was the bankruptcy of Borders; and the third was the recent “Save Our Libraries Day” in the UK. All of these events reminded me how much I love browsing in bookstores and libraries and how by stockpiling books in my house, I’m depriving myself of one of my greatest pleasures.
I’ve always loved bookstores and libraries. To me, being surrounded by all those books means being surrounded by possibilities—but not obligations. When I’ve gone through particularly difficult periods, I’ve often gone to the library as a way to take my mind off my troubles or, perhaps, seek a solution in the stacks. During one especially bad year, I was in the library several times a week. (I drove past two on my way home from work in those days, and another was just a bit out of the way, so I’d often alternate.) And of course my own personal pleasure doesn’t even come close to matching the value to society that a library provides. It’s one of the great social equalizers, available to everyone and (in the U.S., anyway) absolutely free. One way to support the library is to use the library, to show that it is needed and valued. It makes me sad that my stockpiles keep me from doing that so often.
Although bookstores don’t offer free books, they’re still important. They provide jobs and contribute to the local economy and all that, but they also offer a way to express our values. In spending some of my disposable income on books, I’m saying that books are something that I value—I’m voting with my dollars. And just as I love browsing the stacks at a library, I love browsing at a bookstore. Sometimes I go in with something specific in mind, but it’s just as much fun to wander a bit and see what catches my eye. A lot of the time, I’ll buy a book I originally got from the library and want for my permanent collection, or I’ll buy an unread book by a favorite author. I make my choices differently than at the library (I take more risks at the library), but I still love to go to the bookstore and see what I find. I’ve generally preferred the slightly quirkier feel of an independent bookstore, but I’ve happily spent hours in big-box stores—sometimes because that’s the only option I’ve had. But somehow buying books and sticking them on an already overly full bookcase seems like adding to a to-do list, not like giving myself a treat. Knowing that bookstores are closing because people aren’t bothering to buy from them makes me wish I could support them more without feeling like I’m adding to my own book burden.
A couple of weeks ago, Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness posted a set of book-buying guidelines that sound like the philosophy I’d like to adopt. I want my local library and bookstores to be my first stop when I’m looking for a book. I want to take pleasure in my browsing, to be more open to the discoveries on the stacks. I’m not eliminating online shopping altogether—old, out-of-print books, and imports are sometimes only available online—but I want to start locally, with a Northern Virginia or DC indie, and expand my search outward from there—to local big boxes to online indies, used booksellers, and swap sites—and finally to online big box sellers. I suspect I’ll find that I rarely have to resort to the last option.
I’m also thinking of closing my accounts at Paperbackswap and Bookmooch. These sites are a great source for hard-to-find books, but listing and packaging and mailing the books has turned into a chore and an expense. As a general rule, I’m more than happy to mail a book to a friend now and then, but mailing off every second book I read is crazy—and the fact that I’m mailing off so many books shows how many books I’ve bought that I didn’t love enough to keep.
I do sometimes need to buy books I’m unlikely to want to keep for a book group or a blogging event when the library doesn’t have them or when I’ll need them for a longer time than the library loan period. In the past, I didn’t feel bad about it because I knew I could swap them away and get something I’d like better, but it has turned into a vicious circle. For likely non-keepers, I want to start relying on the library and on Google ebooks through a local indie. And I’m going to try to use Netgalley for review copies whenever possible. That way, I won’t have hard copies taking up space and collecting dust and generally stressing me out. I might also continue to use Goodreads Bookswap because the sender doesn’t pay the postage, and you only get one free book for every 10 you give away (less of a vicious circle problem there).
My hope is that these steps will help me cut the stockpile down to size and make me feel more free to enjoy trawling through the library or local bookstore. I may also do some culling of unread books in the next few months, but culling is hard because I’m pretty choosy about what I put on my shelves in the first place. But a cull could mean a lovely fresh start, which could be nice.
Whatever I decide about a cull, I know that I want to take more afternoon walks to the library when the weather is nice without fretting about how my library books are distracting me from my TBR. I want to buy at least a book a month from my new local indie, and I want these books to be real treats, books I’m hungry to read, not additions to a towering pile. Some of this is, of course, a mind-set issue—I don’t have to feel bad about all these books—but I think changing a few habits will help me ensure that my pleasures don’t feel like burdens.