Books, Books, Books

Buying No New Books in 2023

. 4 min read . Written by Russell Smith
Buying No New Books in 2023

You already know where this is headed

Last year, I wrote about my doomed-to-failure-from-the-outset attempt to buy no new books. It ended with a pile of new books in my library – many of which I read; many of which still await their turn – patiently? impatiently? furiously?  – on my shelves.

Samuel Johnson wrote that re-marriage is the triumph of hope over experience. In a similar vein, at the start of 2023, I sought to curtail my book-buying habit, if completely eliminating it seemed a bridge too far for my willpower.

And curb I have. Yes, my bookshelf of new books sits full, as it did last year. But I wrote the 2022 essay in May, and we’re in September 2023 now. Hey, progress.

Two actions seem to have aided this reduction. First, I deleted my Amazon Wish List. It offered too much, too ready temptation. For example, I found that quite frequently, I’d need to buy an item for the kids. So I’d find that item on Amazon and add it to my cart. Then, my devious mind began to conspire. “Well,” I figured, “Amazon has to ship the kids’s item to us; they might as well ship me a book too. It’d be a shame to spend all that effort and the box and the delivery effort for one piddly item. My book will fit inside the same box. Yeah, I should get a book too.” Then I would consult my Wish List, select the one which called out to me in that moment  – or two or three – my mind now reconciled to Amazon sending us the items in a bigger-than-originally-required box. Review the cart, pay, and let the Amazon magic begin!

The Amazon Wish List had to depart from this world.

I replaced it with an analog system. I keep my new Book Wish List in a notebook, dedicated to that purpose. If I run across a book suggestion – in an essay, from my friends, from my Foster friends, and via 1,001 other ways – I write it down in the back of the journal I use every day. Every so often, at home, I add the accumulated titles from the back of my journal to my Book Wish List. Then, when it seems time for a new book acquisition, I consult my Book Wish List. In the photographs, an “X” by the book means I bought it. Except for the Richard Pevear translation of Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers….that “X” means I added the book to my Wish List, purchased it, and upon arrival realized that I already owned it…

This process turns out to be quite leaky, a key element in its design. There are some cracks from initial desire to ultimate purchase through which a book may slip. In my day, I may not have time or may forget to add the book to my running list at the back of my journal. Later, I may not transcribe that book from my journal into my Book Wish List. Maybe I am lazy. Perhaps I finish a journal and leave it at my office on its last day, without putting the books into the Wish List at home. Once I finish a journal, I seldom return to it.

By this system, I estimate that roughly 50% of the books I have encountered and felt an impulse to buy, have not made it onto my Book Wish List. Of the 52 books I have added to my Wish List so far in 2023, I have purchased 11, or about 20% – a far smaller percentage than when I utilized the Amazon Wish List.

Like all systems, my new method isn’t airtight. Yes, I have purchased a few books on impulse, consciously skipping this manual system and thwarting its thrift-inducing virtues. But they have been fairly rare exceptions.

The greatest benefit to this system is the constant reminder it confronts me with – I have limited reading time in life. Even if I can read 50 books per year, if I live another 30 years, I will get to read 1500 books. In a world where perhaps 3 million new books are published each year, I will have the opportunity to read only a vanishingly microscopic number of books. I want those books to be excellent additions to my life.

So I had better choose carefully.

Disclaimer 1  – No books were purchased during the writing of this essay.
Disclaimer 2  – No attempts were made to verify the accuracy of Disclaimer 1.

Photographs by Russell. Images created by Midjourney, inspired by the image created by Olivia Lund for the 2022 essay, which may be the best single image encapsulating my reading life.

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