Sunday Salon: Shutting Off the Fire Hose

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.

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52 Responses to Sunday Salon: Shutting Off the Fire Hose

  1. Sara says:

    Amen! Huzzah! Hear Hear! Other words and phrases that basically mean you took the words right out of my mouth. Good for you – and for all of us in the long run.

  2. Deb says:

    My 2010 New Year’s resolution was to only read books that were in my TBR pile or books that I checked-out from the library. This was both a money-saving and a space-saving (my TBR mountain was at about 300+ books, piled against the wall in my den) measure. Even trips to the Friends of the Library book sale were verboten. With a couple of slips, I managed to get through the year without buying too many more books–although my Mount TBR continued to grow due to a visit from my avid-reader mother who gave me three bags of books she’d finished.

    This year my resolution (in addition to keeping book purchases at a minimum) is to cull and donate. I suspect this is going to be much harder than not buying any new books–the idea of letting go of books I’ve already acquired. On the one hand, it’s hard to say goodbye to a book you’ve been “meaning to read” for years; on the other hand, sometimes you have to accept that there are only so many hours in the day and eventually you have to do things other than read. It’s like you say–in many ways, book acquisition is an illness, but not necessarily one you of which you want to be cured.

    • Teresa says:

      I have tried book-buying bans, but I find the bargains hard to resist. I think an allowance is a better approach for me. Or only buying books when I’m ready to read them or when I happen to go on a bargain spree. That’s what I always used to do, and I never felt deprived or stressed.

      I hear you on culling. I think that’s much harder than not buying. I’m still interested in reading just about every book in my house, and getting rid of them, even to a charity shop or another reader, seems wasteful of the money I (or someone else) spent to get them to me.

  3. Susan in TX says:

    This really resonated with me. (My TBR shelf is holding 225.) It’s my dh who constantly reminds me that I don’t have to feel bad about the books waiting for me, yet I always feel like I’m being a bad steward of what I’ve been given. Watching the save our library thing going on in the UK gave me a lot to think about. I rarely use my library a) because they have such a pitiful selection, and b) because I have so much at home – or at my fingertips via the internet – to read. I’m trying to read mainly from home and limit my purchases to a specific number (which my kids are tracking!), so we shall see how it goes. I’m also trying to force myself to delay purchasing those whims of the moment and add them to a list instead. That seems to be helping somewhat. Happy reading to you! And, yes, I too, feel like I have a sickness. :)

    • Teresa says:

      “I always feel like I’m being a bad steward of what I’ve been given.” Precisely–that’s exactly how I feel about neglecting the books in my house. I know a lot of people who see their stacks as a comfort, but it doesn’t seem to work that way for me. I also have a huge lists of books I’d like to read and don’t own, and that doesn’t bother me a bit. That’s a resource list, not a commitment of any kind.

      I’m really lucky in my local library. My city’s system has a pretty good selection, and the neighboring city’s (with a branch 15 minutes away) is even better. I just don’t use them much these days.

  4. Thanks for linking to my post! One of the biggest reasons I decided to change my book buying habits (in addition to the supporting local stores reasons) is because I was feeling overwhelmed by the number of books I had. When I moved last August, it was such a chore to haul all the books from place to place, and I wanted a way to start cutting back. I figured it I stopped buying cheap, used books online, I’d just have to buy fewer books because I couldn’t afford as many. That has definitely been the case, but I still think my TBR shelf is growing rather than shrinking! It’s a process, I suppose.

    • Teresa says:

      Your post was so timely because I had been thinking this over and sketching out this post right when you posted. I may need to learn to live with having more books in the house than I used to, but I really want to stop feeling overwhelmed.

  5. Jenny says:

    As you know, I’ve been reading books almost exclusively from the library for several years now, partly as a cost-cutting measure (austerity budget!) and partly as a way to support a library I love in desperate need of support. I receive books as wonderful gifts, and get a book from Bookmooch every few months, but I can’t remember the last time I bought a book for myself. These days I rarely buy even books I love, because I do so little re-reading. My TBR shelf (unread books I own) is currently at 8 books.

    I think part of the issue is the fire-hose itself. I read much less contemporary, just-released fiction than many people do (not none, but less.) I think we’re tempted to buy buy buy, partly because it’s always coming down the pike: lots of authors release new books every year, and there’s the Booker prize and all the other awards, and new, appealing authors all the time. It can seem relentless.

    Wonderfully interesting post!

    • Teresa says:

      I think it’s funny that once upon a time, I was the borrower who never bought and you had stacks and stacks of books—we seem to have switched roles!

      You’re right that the fire-hose is always screaming to buy, buy, buy–and right now! I wouldn’t want to stop buying–losing the Olsson’s stores a few years ago woke me up to wanting to support my local stores. My preference for paperback helps some with the “buy now” pressure. The bigger problem is the urge to leap upon every book of interest that shows up at PBS and Bookmooch in case they never show up again. So what if they don’t? There will always be other books I want to read.

  6. This sounds like a very thoughtful plan; I think it’ll work out just fine.

  7. Monica says:

    Hi there,

    “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.”

    A truly excellent point.

    I’m in a specific situation – an expat with no local English book shops or libraries. So online it is for me.
    But when in UK,I go straight to the libraries, and have loved how much joy I get from each visit.

    I was a book hoarder, although at around 1500 books I know it’s nothing to true book hoarders. But I’ve been culling for the last 2 years and am down to around 700.
    My decisions were based on, I keep the book if
    a) i love it
    b) i want to pass it on to my daughter
    c) it’s useful (non-fiction)
    d) it has sentimental value

    Turned out more than half didn’t fit!

    Thanks for the reminder to support our bookshops and libraries. You’re right, we’re voting with our dollars/pounds.

    • Teresa says:

      Wow! 1500 books! I don’t know where I’d put that many. I don’t think I even have space for 700. But if I lived in a non-English speaking country, I’d definitely want a bigger supply of books than I need here.

      I’m actually pretty good at deciding which books to keep once I’ve read them. Every now and then I give something away and regret it (and then get a replacement) or realize that I never want to revisit something I’ve held onto for a while. Your guidelines are similar to mine, without the passing it on to a daughter.

  8. Trisha says:

    “To me, being surrounded by all those books means being surrounded by possibilities—but not obligations.” – YES! I want to get back to this feeling too. Right now, I have so many unread books, many of which are review copies, that I am feeling overwhelmed. Time to start narrowing down.

    I’ve been toying with getting rid of my SwapTree account as well. Since the new regulations and costs, combined with the fact I already have so many unread books, the entire situation has definitely become a hassle!

    • Teresa says:

      I’m glad to know others feel this way (although I’m sad that so many of us are finding our books stressful) Maybe we can all give each other moral support in some grand culling scheme.

      I just deleted my PBS wishlist, after using up my last 2 points, and I may do the same with Bookmooch. If I ever get hard up for books again, I can reactivate those accounts, but I never lacked for something to read before online swapping, so I doubt I ever will.

  9. Florinda says:

    “Still the books keep coming. It’s like a sickness, and I’m not sure I want to be cured.” Same here! I am primarily a local book buyer, and have been for a while – I go online for specific books I can’t find in stores, and to feed my Kindle, and I donate books to the library when I’m done with them. But my TBR is at 300+, and it’s actually starting to get to me – I never thought I’d see the day!

    • Teresa says:

      The abundance of books is such a mixed blessing, isn’t it?

      I want to start donating unread books locally (probably to Goodwill, since my library doesn’t take books all the time). That seems like another way to support local industry without taking in more books myself.

  10. You are not alone — I think this has resonated with a lot of people — the amount of bloggers that signed up for the TBR Dare surprised me. I, too, have around 200 books in my home that I haven’t read, and my resolution this year is that 50% of my reading must be from books I already own. I’m also on a three-month book buying ban. So far I’ve been successful though the shelves don’t look any less full. Baby steps, right?

    I do worry about Borders and other bookstores but luckily they haven’t closed any of the three stores in San Antonio — I was there yesterday and the store was hopping. I think they didn’t overexpand in this market though they are closing three stores up in Austin.

    • Teresa says:

      I do pretty well at reading from my TBR, but I’m not so good at keeping other books at bay. The trouble for me with bans is that they lead to binges. Moderation may be a better approach for me.

      My nearest Borders is staying open but the ones in DC are closing. I actually shop more at B&N because it’s slightly more convenient and the selection is similar enough. But we lost a wonderful indie chain a few years ago, which makes me determined to support our new indie.

  11. Jenny says:

    I’m trying to be better about acquiring books, especially now that I work in publishing and I can often get books for free from work, or very very cheap. But I am pretty good about buying books; on the rare occasion that I actually buy a book, it’s something I know I want to have forever. And I do try to get it at an independent bookstore, if I can. Difficult though it may be. :p

    • Teresa says:

      I want to focus my buying on books I want to keep–that’s what I always used to do, with occasional forays into impulse bargain shopping. There are certain authors whose complete works I covet, and other books (like Persephones) that are a pleasure to own.

      You’re lucky to live in reach of so many indie stores–The Strand bowled me over when I visited a couple of years ago. (And I had to make the less bookish friends who came with me subject me to intense questioning about every book I bought so that I wouldn’t overindulge, LOL.)

  12. I think the cancellation of the PBS account may be in order for me too – I want the books as I place them on the list but then can’t keep up with the rate at which I acquire books. You are right about it being a vicious cycle.

    I am doing the TBR DARE which has helped me make a dent in the shelves but if I also stopped taking books in I would make much more progress!

    • Teresa says:

      I do think it’s funny when people refer to PBS as a way of clearing your shelves when it’s a 1:1 swap. It’s more of a way of not adding, but only if you only get books from PBS.

  13. Kristen M. says:

    My firehose is currently at 196+ books and I definitely need to turn it off because I’m drowning! One of my new strategies is to use my bookstore time to buy copies of books that I have read and enjoyed (and obviously want to re-read at some point) but don’t currently own. Then they don’t get added to the TBR but I have the satisfaction of buying and supporting my local bookstores. Like yesterday, I found a perfect but used copy of To Say Nothing of the Dog, which I had borrowed from the library. I got to buy a book but probably won’t crack it open for a couple of years at least. And yet, no guilt!

    • Teresa says:

      I’d really like to start using bookstores in that way–it’s what I always used to do. Two of the four books I’ve bought from our new bookstore were already read favorites, so that’s great, but when I only read books I bought, swapped, etc., I end up with few favorites to buy after reading.

  14. Gavin says:

    Hurray for libraries! I’ve been getting most of my books from my local library for the last few years, mostly for money and space saving reasons. I still managed to collect piles of TBR books because of gift cards and book trades and occasionally I find myself ordering an unusual title online. The TBR dare is making a dent in these piles of books and I have challenged myself to read a TBR book I own for every one I read from the library from now on.

    My husband and I have found several wonderful used books stores in our area and if there is a book I really want to own I will wait ’til I find a used copy. Our one breach of the “new book buying ban” happens when we visit an independent bookstore on one of our road trips. I always feel wonderful supporting these small town shops.

    • Teresa says:

      I was doing that for quite a while–one or two TBR books for every library book, but I’ve let the inflow get out of control, so I still can’t keep up and use the library :/

      And I also love buying books from local shops when I travel.

  15. Katrina says:

    I only buy books on-line after I’ve exhausted every local possibility, sadly my local second-hand bookshop just closed down (honestly I tried my hardest to keep it going!) so I now have to go to Edinburgh. I tend not to buy modern books at all and use the library for those, in an effort to keep it open too. I have no idea how many unread books I have in my house, they are part of the decor really and I hope to get around to them all some day. Unwanted books are donated to charity. I’m dreading moving though, after 23 years in the same house our books are the biggest problem.

    • Teresa says:

      I think frequent moves during my early adulthood kept me form accumulating so many books. But the longer I stay in one place, the more the stacks grow. I can only imagine what my place would look life after 23 years if I don’t slow down!

  16. michelle says:

    Oh my lord! I know exactly how you feel. I made a new years resolution this year and i have failed miserably. My bookcases are bulging. I too may need to cull. I think its because my reading tastes have changed over the years.
    I need to spend my time reading what i really want to read.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve become more and more convinced that it’s culling time for me, too. I sometimes end up not giving in to cravings for specific books because I feel I need to read something from my shelves. Not good.

  17. Rebecca Reid says:

    That’s one of the things about PBS that irks me: when people say “it’s free!” because it is not.

    I’m still in the firehose so I’m enjoying my PBS swaps very much and look forward to having more credits so I can get more! I may get tired at some point but not yet!

    • Teresa says:

      I did enjoy PBS a lot and I still like the concept of both it and Bookmooch. I think it wouldn’t be so bad if those were my only book sources. I’m glad it’s working so well for you!

  18. Kathleen says:

    Sounds like a really sound philosophy to me. I try to use the library whenever I can and after mostly staying out of bookstores the last couple of years I have been back and buying again. I realize if I want there to be bookstores then I have to support them!

  19. Emily says:

    Even though I haven’t arrived at quite the level of overwhelmed-ness you seem to feel at your TBR shelf, I do really relate to this. I think moderation is a great policy; as you say, out-and-out bans lead to binging, and anyway book-buying should be a delightful and guilt-free treat, not a compulsion to which one feels one is “giving in.” I am more or less on a book-buying ban until I go to France in May (when I plan to invest in LOTS of French-language titles), but I just discovered a random used Persephone title at my local shop & decided to buy it & participate in Persephone Reading Weekend. For me it works to keep a few general guidelines in mind & then to take things on a case-by-case basis with the goal of feeling good both about whom I’m supporting and how many unread volumes are sitting around the house.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, it’s much easier for me to not overindulge if I know I can get a little something now and then. It’s similar to a very successful diet philosophy I followed years ago–if I avoided the crappy cookies and candy at my office all day, I could have a small bowl of good ice cream every night. I actually lost weight on that plan! The same might work for books. If I know I can pick out one perfect book each month and the occasional amazing find that I happen upon, I won’t just grab any old vaguely interesting thing.

  20. Alex says:

    Great post! Whenever possible I’d like to buy in a bookstore BUT, living in a non-English country, the English bookstores are just too expensive, up to 5Euros difference per book than what I could get at Bookdepository. That is a lot! Also, libraries over here either have books in French or Dutch, both of which I’m not comfortable in reading (yet). So for now, web remains my main source of books.

    My TBD is around 170 books now, as big as it ever was and most of it the fault of blogging :) But as someone the other day was saying (who was it? can’t remember!), when nuclear Armageddon comes, the hoard I’ll have stored in my iron seller will still last me some years!

    • Teresa says:

      Living in a non-English-speaking country would definitely require a different approach–and a bigger supply of on-hand books.

      I’ve heard others make that same remark about stocking up for the end. I think the stacks are a reassurance for some, which is great!

  21. Jeane says:

    I have long had a policy of only purchasing books I know I love to keep- by first finding and reading them at a library. Unfortunately, when I find sales where you can get a boxful for five dollars or so I just can’t resist and pick up whatever’s interesting- thus I have an entire bookcase of unread books! I made myself stop going to those sales and haven’t been for over a year now, trying to get the ones I do have read first. PB Swap and BookMooch have been a great way for me to pass on those books I decided I wasn’t in love with keeping- but I’ve been more dissatisfied with BMooch- they never seem to have anything I want. I’ve been dwindling my inventory on that site but I still get quite a bit off Swap. I don’t read lots of popular or new-release books so I actually don’t ship books out more than once or twice a month. That’s quite manageable, for me. I’ve been thinking lately that when I do allow myself to buy books again, I must start patronizing my local bookshops. They’re just not very close by…

    • Teresa says:

      Those sales kill me–I do love a bargain! If I didn’t already have so many books it wouldn’t be so bad, but it does add up.

      For me, Bookmooch has mostly been good for getting books that haven’t been released in the U.S., but I’ve probably gotten more overall from PBS.

  22. Audrey says:

    I hope this makes you feel good about what you’re going through, but I just bought a book for my own because I was so enjoying the copy I got from the library, only to find I AlREADY own it, and I just erased a book from my TBR list (it sounded so good!) because I read it a year ago. Sigh. There are too many good books out there and too many readers sharing ideas…I blame evil blogging! (only kidding). I think we all need to turn off the hose sometimes and I’m sure you’ll find a way for yourself. :)

    • Teresa says:

      Heh. I haven’t bought a book I already own yet, but that might only be because I’m still able to fit most of my TBRs on a single bookcase that lives in a prominent spot in my house, so I can always see what I have. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time, though, unless I do a cull.

  23. Annabel (gaskella) says:

    Teresa, a timely post for me. My TBR mountains have reached overkill proportions, well into four figures and my habits too must change. I’ll be posting and linking back I expect! Thanks for helping me think about some different approaches.

    • Teresa says:

      Four figures! Wow! It’s easy, though, to let it get out of control. Mine got to this point even with limits in mind. Clearly, I need more limits.

      Good luck figuring out what you want to do with your stacks :)

  24. Pingback: Monday Tally: Fire Hose of Books, Bibliotherapy,

  25. David Abrams says:

    I’m choking on the firehose, too! These days, my reading life has become one big time-management exercise. It wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t so many good (or, at least, good-looking) books in my TBR pile. Damn those authors and publishers! They just keep churning out the great literature, afflicting us all.

    • Teresa says:

      I wonder if we could convince them to slow down with the exciting new books? But then again, I love knowing there will always be something else to read!

  26. Pingback: Which books to keep, which books to cull??? « Gaskella

  27. J.G. says:

    I have some doubts about Paperbackswap, too. Trips to the post office have really slowed down, but now I am storing a bunch of books no one seems to want, simply because they are listed. A purge seems in order.

    Couldn’t agree with you more about general TBR overload and support of local bookstores and libraries. We vote with our wallets. Better to be conscious of what votes we cast.

    • Teresa says:

      I used to routinely get rid of books that stayed on my PBS list for months. Basically I would keep them in a box until I was making a trip to Goodwill. If someone requested them before then, fine. If not, I’d donate. That worked out pretty well.

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