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On not buying books

Thoughts about the writing life

The random books I spent £50 on

Towards the end of 2020, I found myself browsing books and impulsively buying a few that I had added to my basket. I was shocked that the total was nearly £50 but I vaguely thought ‘They’re books – it doesn’t count’ and bought them anyway. They arrived, and sat by my bed, and in my head they became ‘the random books I spent £50 on’. There’s nothing wrong with spending £50 on books, it was spending £50 impulsively that I felt guilty about. That made me wonder if I could go for a whole year without buying any books.

My New Year’s Resolution

So, in 2021, my New Year’s Resolution was not to buy any books for a year, modified shortly afterwards to ‘not to buy any books for myself’. (Admittedly this caveat made it much easier to stick to!) There was no moral or ethical component to this resolution I hasten to add, unlike those who resolve not to buy anything for a year, which is obviously much harder and clearly has an ethical element. So it wasn’t particularly virtuous, but it did teach me a lot.

Shouldn’t I be supporting writers and publishers by buying books?

Firstly, let me answer this question, which came up a couple of times when I told people about the challenge I’d set myself. Given that I’m a writer and a writing tutor and editor, shouldn’t I be supporting writers and publishers by buying books? The short answer: yes, but not ALL the books! Here’s my longer answer:

  1. I bought a lot of books prior to 2021. In fact, I was going to the opposite extreme out of desperation, needing to change my relationship to books and book buying.
  2. I probably ended up buying and receiving a similar number of books in 2021, because I asked for them for birthdays and Christmases in 2020 and 2021 and I gave them as presents.
  3. I didn’t read any fewer books than usual.
  4. I teach Creative Writing and write about writing so I’m constantly recommending books. In fact, I could probably earn a living as a Book Doctor, if that was a viable career.

How people reacted

I got three reactions when I told people about my resolution:

  • Empathy: “I need to do that too but I don’t know if I’m strong enough.”
  • Lack of understanding / confusion: “What do you mean, you’re not buying books?” (Mainly from people who only buy a few books each year.)
  • Creative solutions (this was from writers I spoke to): “You could get books by going to the library, swapping or borrowing books etc.”

How I kept myself in books

Because I asked for books for my birthday (in September) and Christmas, I had quite a few to keep me going well into 2021. I also bought a few for myself on 31st Dec 2020, which is sort of cheating but I said there was no moral / ethical aspect so it doesn’t matter.

When I needed or wanted to read a book I didn’t have, here’s what I did. If the pandemic hadn’t been on, I would have used the library more, but for a while I was avoiding the bus (I can’t drive) and public places generally:

  • I kept a wish list of books that I would have bought on impulse if it hadn’t been for my resolution.
  • I signed up to a Kindle Unlimited free trial and cancelled it after the free trial period was up. (Actually I forgot and ended up paying for it for a month but ho hum.)
  • I also did a free trial of Audible and ended up reactivating it by mistake, so I’m still paying for it.
  • I ordered the book from the library.
  • A couple of times I bought a book as a present for my mum or my wife and borrowed it back after they’d read it, which luckily they thought was funny.
  • I entered competitions and giveaways, too, and received four books that way. One of these was on my wish list, and I ended up buying two copies as Christmas presents.

The hardest aspects of the year were:

  • not buying books by friends, so I gave myself two hall passes, for Leone Ross’s One Sky Day and for Joanne Limburg’s Weird Sisters.
  • not going to book group sessions run as part of the coaching programme I’m doing or buying any of the recommended books.
  • Going cold turkey on the impulse to spend money on books.

Which books did I buy once the challenge was over?

I didn’t immediately buy myself a book on the stroke of midnight when the challenge finished, and I think that means I had weaned myself off impulsive book buying, which was the point all along. I got myself a hardback Agatha Christie (which I had promised myself as a reward) second hand and a couple of nonfiction books I’d been wanting to read – ironically on how to think differently about money, which I’d kind of being doing all year. The good thing about having a wish list is that you quickly realise which books you really want.

What did I learn?

I learnt that impulsively buying books isn’t (always) a good thing, and that I like giving and receiving books as presents. My resolution also taught me that buying a book and reading a book aren’t the same thing. There are still books in the £50 pile I bought towards the end of 2020 that I haven’t read.

More soon. Until then, happy reading,

Lou xx

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