It’s been six weeks since I bought a book. Six whole weeks. It is a long time since I’ve been able to make a statement as stark as that and it not be a lie; no hidden copies sneaked out of bags when no one was looking, no disguising new acquisitions as library books or borrowed copies. No books bought. Zero. Go me.
What’s been surprising about this whole process is quite how easy it has been. It seems that all I needed to do was make the decision and share it with the world and suddenly the appeal of Waterstones, The Book Depository, secondhand bookshops and Amazon instantly disappeared. Of course it is not quite that simple, but taking that first step has really been the boost that I needed. If I hadn’t posted it here, I would still probably be book buying like crazy.
I have been tempted, a few times. There have been books I have wanted to buy and I would have bought, certainly, if I hadn’t committed not to. I wanted, for example, a copy of the Shōbogenzo. I wanted to buy The Luminaries and The Lowland and finish my Booker shortlist reading. I wanted to buy, most recently, The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble after reading a glowing review about it on Twitter, but I didn’t and there was one day when I was feeling a bit knocked down and I could have bought any book at all just for the pleasure of its possession. I managed to stop myself, and in so doing I realised I didn’t need it.
That’s what I’ve been learning through this process. Oh, it’s not a true addiction, I can’t equate my experience to that of someone trying to kick smoking or drinking, trying to give up cannabis or heroin. My addiction is nothing like that, and perhaps it was wrong to call it an addiction at all. It was more of a compulsion, an impulse unfettered and subject to the vagaries of my whim. Silly really. Belittling as my issue is, I have learned the value of exercising a degree of self control and it has had some surprising effects on my attitude towards some other things. Because willpower involves taking a moment to stop and think, and asking myself: do I really need it? It is surprising how often the answer is no, how often I can achieve what I want to achieve by some other means.
I discovered this when I was trying to hold myself off buying The Luminaries which I really, really want to read (someone equated it to Twin Peaks meets David Mitchell and if that wasn’t dangling the carrot in front of my nose I don’t know what is). I even went into Waterstones and had a little read and it was so tempting just to walk up to the counter and buy it, it would have taken mere seconds. Then I stopped and thought about what I was doing. I realised I hadn’t explored all the possibilities. That night I fired up my computer and did a little searching and found it, easily, in the Lancashire library catalogue. They have three copies and against those three copies were thirteen reservations. I added another, and in clicking that little button all my desires, the oppressive need, evaporated. I knew I was going to read it eventually, and that was enough. That’s pretty much what happens anyway when I buy a book. Once acquired it goes onto the shelf and it can be days, weeks, months, years or in some cases decades (honestly) before I actually get around to reading it. So placing it on a waiting list and waiting until it turns up isn’t really so much different.
I was also really interested in a book called The Devotion of Suspect X, it was another staring balefully at me from my wishlist. Then someone at work bought it and offered to lend it to me. I waited patiently until they’d finished it and then I took it home and started to read it. 100 pages in, I gave up and gave it back. Had I bought it, it would have been wasted cash. Sure I could have swapped it, or given it away, but the expenditure would still have been made and I would be left holding a book that didn’t appeal to me. It got me wondering how many of the books currently sitting on my shelves, that I couldn’t wait to buy, will turn out to be the same thing: a disappointment. Hopefully not too many.
All this has made me realise a few things. The first is that patience is a good thing: it is worth waiting for something. In this instantaneous world in which we can satisfy our every whim at the click of a mouse, seemingly whether or not we actually have the money to pay for whatever it is, it is too easy to give in to temptation. The internet is, amongst many other things (some very valuable, don’t be mislead into thinking I think the internet is all terrible), a vehicle for facilitating impulse or reaction. I am not too sure this is a good thing. I think this ability to impulse buy, to push a button and have goods arrive in the post, disconnects us from the reality of what we’re doing. It’s all virtual. There is no shop, no shopkeeper. The buyer does not have to walk anywhere or carry anything. They look at pictures on a screen, select, click buy and the act of purchase is done but the reality of the thing only appears a few days later unless it’s an electronic copy of a book in which case it disappears seamlessly into your reading device. It’s like a game. Even the money is fictional, added to a credit card bill which may or may not ever be paid. They certainly don’t want you to. And who are ‘they’ anyway? They are virtual too. The virtual corporation, the virtual bank spinning their virtual money. What is not virtual is the person working in a factory somewhere churning out all this stuff, probably on the minimum wage or worse. But that person is so far removed from the process, you virtually do not have to think about them. It even extends towards criminal activity. Piracy is only virtual theft, and if you want a book or a movie or some music it’s okay to take it and forget about the person at the other end trying to make a living, because the corporation distributing it is virtually stealing too. And besides, it’s not even really worth anything. There is such abundance it all becomes meaningless, worthless, throw-away.
What worries me more about this culture of instant gratification is that it bleeds, in the worst way, into other things. The internet breeds disconnection, it can be terribly dehumanising. It is easy to forget that at the end of an angry or insulting tweet there is an actual person who can hurt and suffer. Underneath the mini-skirt is a living, breathing, thinking, feeling woman. The child in the photograph...well, let’s not go there. Indulging in anger, passion, righteousness, desire for that tiny millisecond can have such terrible consequences that a moment’s hesitation, a moment’s consideration, shouldn’t seems such a difficult thing to do. It should be natural, encouraged. Yet everything in this 24/7 world conspires to create the opposite; impulse becomes king, a tool to drive consuming. To hell with the consequences.
Patience, waiting, is something that gives meaning to the things we have in our lives. Relationships are valuable because they are grown, with difficulty and effort, they withstand and grow stronger and become more important, essential, because of it. The same is true of material goods. A vegetable grown by your own hand is immeasurably better than that which has been mass produced, which you have merely had to part with a matter of pence to acquire. A cake made by your own hand may be less perfect than one bought from a shop, but the sense of achievement alone adds greater flavour. A trip of a lifetime is such because it happens only once in the length of a human existence, but if you took that same trip every week it would cease to mean anything, it would become like taking the train to work: routine, boring.
Then there is the creative power of working around your limits. Buying the book is the easy option, anyone can do it and books aren’t so expensive (collectible or academic works aside) that the average pocket can’t stretch to one. But not buying the book means I have to work around the problem if I still want to read it. I have to find another way. This process opens up a more creative way of thinking. I blogged about this before when bemoaning the changes to the MAN Booker Prize, but there is extraordinary value in limits. To surpass them requires effort, creative thinking, problem solving. Not buying a book is a tiny limitation, but the creative process it opens up has application in so many other aspects of daily life that it leaves me wondering how I could have allowed myself to slip, so easily, towards atrophy. How did I become so dull? Because it was easy, that’s the truth.
Willpower, and the value of exercising it, is another thing I have learned to value. What is surprising about willpower is how applying it to one thing can affect your relationship towards others. Asking myself whether I really want to buy that book translates into whether I really want to buy that skirt or dress or DVD. It instantly makes me more conscious of where and how I spend my money and, more importantly, how I want to be in control of spending my money. If I really want something, I can wait and save up for it (except the fridge freezer, which broke last weekend and required an instant replacement. There are limits.). It made me realise how easy it is to fritter away cash on little impulse purchases: a coffee here, a CD there, a shop-bought lunch, a box of nice tea. Being able to stop myself from buying every book that passes my fancy has made me more confident about addressing other things that need willpower for me to succeed: a diet, perhaps, or exercising more, controlling family finances, walking to the supermarket rather than jumping in the car, knuckling down in my career, getting writing. When I commit to something, I want it to be valuable. I’m not entirely there yet, it’ll take work and more willpower and patience, but I’m working on it.
All because I stopped buying books.