A Life in Books
I don’t remember exactly when it was that I started buying every book I read. In my teens, I think, probably when I was around fifteen or sixteen. In a way it wasn’t that much of a leap, as my whole life up to that point had been a series of collections: bottle caps, Pez dispensers, Pokémon cards, license plates.I even collected two-dollar bills, which my great grandmother would deliver to me monthly in stacks of five or ten. (Once, visiting her in Florida, a friend of hers—also in her mid-nineties—heard about my collection and said, “Heck, kid, just tell her you collect $100s!”)
But the books are the only one of my childhood collections to have lasted into my adult life. The others were collections for collections’ sake, but the books are something more—a permanent record of the knowledge I’ve (supposedly) accumulated, even though if pressed I probably couldn’t tell you what half of them were about. Finishing a book and depositing it on your shelf just feels like an accomplishment in a way that finishing a book and returning it to your friend, or the library, or your Kindle home screen never does.
My policy of buying every book I read—or really, reading every book I buy—originates as an attempt to stem an addiction. By refusing to purchase a new batch of books until I’ve finished the previous set, I draw some limits around what would otherwise be my natural tendency to pop into every bookstore I pass and walk out $1,000 poorer. A 19th century Frenchman, asked if he’d read all the books in his library, supposedly said, “No, and neither have I drunk all the wine in my cellar.” But if he was rich enough to afford a wine cellar, he probably didn’t need to be too concerned about the amount he was spending on books.
Because I have a reputation as someone who reads a lot, I regularly find myself being asked, often by readers of this newsletter, for book recommendations. But they’re rarely something I feel comfortable giving, unless the person who’s asking is someone I’m very close to. When someone asks me what book they should read from my collection, it’s like they’re asking me who they should date from among my past lovers. One’s taste in both is highly idiosyncratic, with compatibility and enjoyment dependent just as much on one’s personal circumstances at the time as they are on the item’s inherent qualities of the material.
Instead of asking for specific book recommendations, my more enlightened readers sometimes ask me to share my method for deciding what to read. Here, too, my response is inevitably disappointing. I’m hardly a reliable follower of productive systems, as evidenced by the fact that this newsletter rarely comes out before Sunday night. Thus my “system,” if you can even call it that, is as follows:
For well over a decade, I’ve been keeping a running list on my phone of books I want to read. I’m generous about what goes on the list, adding anything I hear about that seems even remotely interesting. This is probably why the list is well over 1,000 items long by now, and why I’m usually adding books to it far more quickly than I can read them.
When I’m ready to buy some books (i.e., when I’ve made it through my last pile), I select items from the list more or less at random, searching various online used bookstores to find the lowest prices. (If you’re going to buy all your books, the only affordable way to do it is to get them all used.)
There is no step 3.
One impact of this system is that, since the heuristic for adding books to the list (mild interest) is totally separate from the heuristic for selecting them off the list (random/cheapest), I end up reading a huge variety of stuff. I’m rarely thinking “What book do I want to read next?,” but rather, “What book from among this haphazard list of books that once looked interesting can I get most cheaply?” The result is, for better or for worse, higher variance: more duds, but also more gems.
Since books will often stay on the list for many years before I get around to buying them, by the time I do, I often have no recollection of what the book I’m ordering is about or why I thought I’d be interested in it. In effect, I’m blindly trusting recommendations from my past self. This only sometimes pans out, since my past self was often an idiot. There’s also the occasional sloppy mishap: I once forced my way through the first two-thirds of an absolutely atrocious novel, a clichéd romance told from the perspective of the protagonist’s cat, before Googling the title and realizing that I must have been originally thinking of a completely unrelated book that just happened to share the same name.
Which brings us to another question: why do I feel compelled to finish every book I start, even the ones I don’t like? In theory, I’m on board with the Tyler Cowen philosophy of quickly abandoning any book that doesn’t hold your interest, but in practice, I find it almost impossible to dispense with all but the most unbearable volume. Even in my early twenties, when my personal relationships were all marred by commitment issues, I clung to my unreasonable commitment to finishing every book I started.
I look at the bookshelves that line my office and think they must prove that all that time spent reading has meant something. But did it really? Everything is ephemeral, whether we hang on to the remains or not. Perhaps collecting every book I read is no different than saving the leftovers from every meal I’ve ever eaten. But they are, at least, more aesthetically appealing than old food. There’s a reason that that John Waters quote isn’t about what to do if you go home with someone and they don’t have any leftovers.
Yours in knowing that at least one reader is going to miss the point of this and ask me for book recommendations now,
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