My friends have always ribbed me as the girl with no vices.
I don’t drink. I don’t drink coffee. I’ve never even taken a puff from a cigarette. I’ve never done recreational drugs of any kind. (Seriously, I’m that boring kid at parties.) I don’t particularly like ice cream or desserts. I love chocolate, but rarely crave it. I’ve never bought expensive shoes, and typically find one pair — whether it’s a pair of Docs or Clark’s — and wear them until the soles are worn off. I don’t buy expensive clothes, and prefer jeans and t-shirts. I don’t buy expensive handbags: I own a single Coach purse that I bought on sale, and have had it for four years and will no doubt wear it for another 10. Until I got that, I’d used the same $10 Old Navy purse for over a decade. I don’t wear jewelry, though occasionally I’ll find something really unique and I’ll buy it, but it’s never more than $50. And we’re talking one of those a year. Maybe. I’m constantly joking with my husband that he doesn’t know how good he’s got it: those credit card bills of ours contain zero extravagances for me.
Well, except for one itty bitty thing…
Back in December, I announced here that I would stop buying books for one year. I acknowledged I had a problem, and I was going to stop buying them by the dozen (no really, I buy armloads at a time) and actually read the hundreds — hundreds — of unread books that surround me on my dozen bookshelves. My house is a library, where there isn’t a single room without a book in it. My kitchen is full of cookbooks (which I actually read like novels), as is the pantry in my dining room. My side table beside the bed has so many stacks of books on it that, as I joked to a friend last week, I knock a book off every morning when I try to hit the alarm’s Snooze button — because of spending five years taking English lit at university, I got so used to reading several books at once that I still do it. My kids have several bookshelves in each of their rooms. The bathrooms are filled with magazines. The family room and living room have shelves of books. Even the guest bedroom, music room, exercise room and storage spaces have books shoved into every free space. And my office has so many books that every shelf is filled, more books are shoved into the free space on top of the books, the tops of the shelves have books, they’re stacked on the floors, and that one shelf where I have put all my Buffy figures? I now eye it daily and think, “OK, Spike, you’ve fallen off that stand so many times that I should just sweep all of you guys into a bag and use this shelf for BOOKS.” But I haven’t gotten there yet.
I’ve read a ton of them. Every shelf probably has 10-15 books on it that I’ve actually read. But that leaves another 10-15 that I haven’t. And that is A LOT.
And so, I decided I wouldn’t buy books this year. Nor would I take any out of the library. I was going to make a concerted effort to read what was on my shelves, and see if I could match the 55 books I managed to read last year.
Then I started making exceptions, and that’s where addictions always fall apart. I belong to two book clubs (sometimes three), and I said whatever books they chose, I’d buy/get from the library so I could keep up. But that’s 24 books right there. Already I’d put a major dent in my Year of Reading From My Own Shelves.
Then, on December 31, I placed an order for 10 books, books that I’d wanted for some time, but now that I’d put a one-year moratorium on my book-buying, I needed them NOW. So after deciding I needed to read some of the hundreds of books on my shelf, I was already up to 10 new ones, and 24 other ones that I’d have to buy/borrow. That left only about 20 that I could read from my own collection. Not even one shelf’s worth.
And then, in February, my children’s school had a book sale to raise money for their library. The kids begged me to take them there after school, and they looked over the books and I told them they could take what they wanted (I’ve never put a limit on books). $1 for a paperback, $2 for a hardcover. And that’s when I saw JK Rowling’s Cuckoo’s Calling on a table in mint condition. Wait, $2 for a brand new book? That’s amazing! Without even thinking, I put it into the stack of books the kids had chosen and went up to pay for them. It’s only as I handed over my money my heart suddenly jolted and I realized, Wait… I can’t buy any books!! Oh no… oh no… So I decided I will give this one to my husband. Yes, that’s the ticket! I can still give books as gifts, yes? And if it just happens to still be on my shelf next year, why then yes, I can read it. Whew. Crisis averted.
Then my birthday happened. And someone gave me an Indigo bookstore gift card. They were barely out the door before I raced to my computer, heart pounding with excitement, and began filling up my cart. Ooh… I went over the amount. Ah well, it’s my birthday, right? I felt my heart beat faster, and my stomach was doing flip-flops of excitement. Two days later the books arrived and I grabbed them excitedly from the mailbox, ripped open the box and smelled them. They smelled WONDERFUL. (This is why I’ve yet to switch to a Kobo…)
Two weeks later two of the books that I’d worked on as an editor arrived in the mail: Wanna Cook, the Breaking Bad companion guide by Dale Guffey and Ensley Guffey, and Elephant in the Sky by Heather Clark (both astoundingly good books, by the way!) Just seeing a book-shaped package gave me shivers of excitement, and I could barely contain myself as I ripped the package open and handled them for the first time. Shortly after, one of my book clubs had their monthly meeting in a bookstore. I saw books that I wanted so desperately — OMG, so-and-so has a new book?! — but knew I couldn’t have them.
And on the way home, I realized no, I can’t do this. In fact, I’d more than proven already that I hadn’t done this at all. I’d failed miserably. My moratorium on books had lasted all of six weeks before I’d fallen off the wagon, and then when someone gave me a gift I was like an addict.
And that was when I realized something even bigger: I’d always joked that I was addicted to buying books, but I really was. The way alcohol or caffeine or drugs give people a high that they can’t get from anything else, that’s how I feel when I buy books. There’s so much possibility between those covers, so many worlds and new people to meet and adventures to be had. If I choose my books wisely, I’ll be introduced to new ways of thinking and new ideas that I’ll be mulling over for weeks, months, even years.
So I gave up. I decided no, I’m not wasting a year of my life not doing one of the things I love most. I have friends who are in serious credit card debts over shoe purchases or expensive clothes-buying binges, and that’s not me. Books are relatively cheap, and they are WONDERFUL.
I love reading books. But I discovered that I might enjoy discovering and buying them even more. I literally have physical changes when I’m in the midst of purchasing a book: my heart really does race, my stomach gets fluttery. I have a buzz and feel overwhelmed with joy. The smell and look of a bookstore makes me so happy. A couple of weeks ago I was in an independent bookstore in San Francisco with my best friend Sue (who also tried the year-long moratorium and failed equally spectacularly) and it made me realize how much I love and long for independent bookstores. I’ll go to a Chapters/Indigo long before I’ll buy something on Amazon, but the fluorescent lights and overwhelming smell of Starbucks and warehouse-like look of the place is no match for the soft lighting, smell of old paper, occasional creaky floors, and hand-selling that happens at an independent. The one I found in SF was called Booksmith’s, in the heart of the Haight-Ashbury district, and I spent SO much time in there reading the dozens and dozens of cards they’d carefully placed under all their favourite books (not just New Releases but everywhere throughout the store) and was madly writing down titles of books that intrigued me, knowing I couldn’t carry every single one of them back to the hotel. I went up to the owner of the store and told him how much I adored his place, and he seemed genuinely thrilled to hear it. I chose a single book by Maud Casey as my prize (based on the card that recommended it), and felt that rise in pulse as I handed over my money for it. After I got home I looked up the store online and discovered there was a whole wealth of bookstores in SF, and maybe I need to make a trip there where I do nothing but shop in bookstores the entire time. Hm… I might actually go into cardiac arrest if I did that…
Many addictions are bad. Whether it’s hard drugs or alcohol that have destroyed lives and families, or shopping sprees or gambling addictions that have crippled people financially, or eating disorders that threaten the lives of their victims, we tend to look at the nature of addiction as something uncontrollable and evil, filled with hurt and pain. I’ve had many friends fight addictions for years, and while not all of them were able to overcome their demons, I’m happy to say many of them have recovered and are leading extraordinary lives now.
I saw my book-buying addiction (and the physical changes, sense of compulsion, and overwhelming high that accompanies it would suggest it is, in fact, an addiction) as something that I needed to curb, that I needed to stop so I could focus on the glorious worlds that currently exist on my bookshelves. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never live long enough to read many of the books I currently own, and that I can’t stop buying new ones. I can let go, though — when we moved the last time, I probably got rid of 100 books (which I offered up to friends first) — so it’s not like a person would come to my house and be tripping over books wherever they go. There is an order to my chaos.
But I love bringing new books home. I love discovering the worlds that exist within them, even if I never actually get to live in those worlds. And when I’m in the midst of a good book — like the one I’m reading right now, actually — it’s hard to concentrate on doing much else because all I want to do is read that book. I’ve always been that person watching prison dramas and thinking, “You know, if I was put into solitary confinement for a year, imagine all the reading I could get done!!!“
So I don’t need to curb my addiction. I don’t need to curb that thrill of buying new books. I don’t need to stop discovering new books. I’ve never gotten a credit card bill with a book-buying charge on it that was so high my husband’s eyes bugged out of his head. He spent more money fixing and rewiring his guitars last month than I’ve spent all year on books. In fact, the one good thing that came out of the moratorium was that I gained a whole new appreciation for how much I love buying and reading books. I always said I loved it, but now I truly know that it’s an essential part of who I am.
In fact, for the first time, yesterday I popped into Chapters online and ordered Rainbow Rowell’s new book on the day of its release. (And then had that very 21st-century impatient feeling of, “Geez, I wish they could ship it to arrive RIGHT NOW” about two minutes later…)
And it was so damned exciting.