Do I Have a Book Buying Habit?

Do I have a book buying habit? I like to think not; I like to think that I have discerning taste, that I buy books carefully, I like to think I mainly only buy books that I really want, valuable books, with enduring wisdom or captivating narratives or ideas eminently relevant to my personal growth — books that shall, of course, prove to be formative to my personal and intellectual development.

Yet this can’t entirely be the case, because I’m near incapable of entering a bookstore and leaving it without at least one acquisition, or five, or a dozen, often of books that I hadn’t heard of previously, ones that I didn’t even know I wanted until I saw them, gave them a a cursory look, and decided they must be mine. Despite my best intentions this process doesn’t always leave room for measured, informed decisions.

Sure, when I find a book that looks interested I’ll look it over as closely as I possibly can in a minute or two. I’ll skim it, turn it inside out, even (LTE reception-god willing) look it up on Amazon to try to glean the gist of the appraisal of the crowd-mind. This gives me only vague reviews and partial summaries, of questionable trustworthiness, but anything helps, really. I look for excuses to disqualify a book, to let a 3.5 star average rating banish the book to my wish list rather than the stack I bring to the register.

I have an “Antilibrary” list that I maintain (in some self-vexing redundancy) both on Amazon and in some corner of my personal computer. This list is my super wish list,  the cream of the crop,  a separate one made principally for triaging the endless other book lists I’ve collected over the years. My antilibrary is an important extension of my extant book collection: my reading list of infinite potentiality, my repository of still-to-be-absorbed ideas. It contains many hundreds of books.

If antilibrary-worthiness were the only thing that informed the trajectories of my purchases, I’d be more resolute in buying only those books I’d already researched and determined were most important to me at any given time. But it’s not quite that simple. Being in bookstores — I mean really physically getting in there and immersing yourself in the aisles, scanning the shelves and skimming the spines, pulling out the ones that catch the eye, reading blurbs and rifling through pages — changes the calculus on all that.

One of the most important things that the bookstore-browsing experience adds for me is, of course, the element of serendipity that comes from being surrounded by thousands of books that are as yet unheard of, and at once at my grasp. I can coast along the collections that others have curated, simmer in surprise amongst all the obscure and exciting books that Amazon’s algorithms would never dare shove in front of my face because, let’s face it, they just don’t know me that well.

I try to remain sanguine about the potential complications of amassing a huge library; I’d like to do my best to forecast the consequences and take steps to mitigate any problems. With a prudent investment strategy, by 35 I expect to have enough money to house my books lavishly. And with concerted efforts in self-improvement I expect to have the will to winnow my collection to only the absolute best. I’ll give the rest away, returning them to the eternal lifecycle of the absolute godhead book.

One tiny problem here of course is that the category of “absolute best” is not only amorphous and subjective, but unfathomable and ever-growing, too. I could muster all the willpower and curatorial prowess in the world and still find myself with an insurmountable mountain of reading material, upon which I could feast and gorge for a hundred lifetimes and still not eat my fill.

But hey, what can you do? My working solution is to approach each bookstore I enter with both reverence and appetite — house of worship and candy shop all at once. I enter with anticipation, and expect to find gold, but also try to temper my desires and be reasonable in what I allow myself to take home. I savor the experience of browsing and of discovery, and try not to let that magic be ruined by excess zeal. For any book left un-bought…there’s always the antilibrary!

Also, I try to keep in mind the fact that, just based on simple math, I’ll never read more than a few thousand more books over the remainder of my life, and so I must choose well. But still, 50+ books a year, for many decades to come — a few thousand is a large number, and one filled with potential. Those books contain multitudes. As a vessel slowly filling with words and ideas and time spent digesting them, I am, relatively speaking, still a good deal more than half empty. Thus the book-lover’s byword: may I filter well the word-water that pours in, absorb and treasure it, let it enliven my head and heart, repair my health, and if I’m lucky make me eternal.

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