Reasons For Buying Books

I see that my blog friends Dorothy and Stefanie have both been talking about this of late, and I can never resist joining in on their discussions. They have been wondering why a reader might feel guilty about buying books, but I’m approaching this from the angle of being a reader who thinks it’s important to buy them. If you simply cannot afford books at present, that’s fine; we’ve all been there at one time or another. Go read a different post because I’m not addressing you. But if you have a small portion of your disposable income set aside for leisure pursuits, then here are my reasons why you should spend it on books:

1. Reading is extremely good for you. It focuses the mind, hones concentration and improves memory, all in scientifically proven ways.* It is also a way to open your mind to other cultures, other perspectives, other ways of life. Reading on screen, listening or watching television and/or films does not bring the same mental benefits as the slow, in depth, contemplative exercise of reading on the page. It also teaches problem solving and lowers stress. If you think it is important to do a sport or take exercise for the body, it’s equally essential to work out the brain, or else we risk becoming insular, forgetful, restless and opinionated.

2. If you already enjoy reading then it’s important at this particular juncture of history to be evangelical about it. Numbers of young people reading are dropping fast. Half of the American population between 18-24 has never read a book. On average an American citizen reads four books a year (and those are not necessarily fiction). I couldn’t find online statistics for other countries, alas, but I’m sure they are similar. It’s essential that we promote reading as much as we possibly can as there is a genuine risk of it becoming an eccentric hobby, and as I mentioned above, there are essential personal reasons why we do it.

3. But there are also cultural reasons. Buying a book is like placing a vote for a certain way of life. Books ask us to think deeply about the reasons why we do things, they challenge us and they reflect back to us the kind of society we create for ourselves. A culture with a strong literary component is one that considers contemplation, critique and creativity essential factors in the life of its citizens. It’s a culture that is not afraid to question what it does, and that welcomes subversion as being essential to vitality and growth. It’s a culture that doesn’t want to encourage sheep-like compliance or self-centred, short-sighted demands. It’s the culture I’d like to live in.

4. It isn’t necessarily the culture we do live in, and the atrocious state of the publishing industry is testimony to that. Publishing is currently in crisis and much as that may in part be due to the industry’s own excessive expectations following the creation of all those huge multi-media companies in the 90s, we have to support it if we want it to continue, and therefore gain the benefits of a vibrant book culture. Cutbacks in publishing do not lead to only the best-written books making it onto the marketplace, as we know. Instead, frightened publishers churn out celebrity biographies and Dan Brown-alikes. So, support the industry before we lose it, or lose any chance of intervening in its future. Buy the books you would most like to see published. Buy the kind of books you would like to write, if you feel that way inclined. Buy wall-to-wall Jilly Cooper and children’s annuals, if that’s what pleases you; bestsellers make it possible for publishers to risk other types of books and maintain a diverse list.

5. It’s important to support libraries too, for all those people who simply cannot afford books. But the only way to show that reading remains important, to governments, to industries, to advertisers, is to buy a book. Only the market with its cold, hard statistics has real, uncontentious power at present.

6. Books are relatively cheap. A full price book still costs less than a cinema, theatre or concert ticket, a meal out or half a tank of petrol. The problem with book buying is that it tends to be small amounts spent regularly, which become more noticeable to the consumer than a large amount spent infrequently. You could buy a book a week for a whole year and spend less than you would on a couple of nights at a mid-range hotel. Other consistent expenditure on non-necessities – on snack foods, on alcohol, on cigarettes, on clothes shopping, on travel – adds up to much more than book buying and is generally worse for you or the environment. I’m not quite sure why it is, but people tend to be more tenacious about indulging their vices than their virtues. If books could be proven to be bad for you, sales would start to increase, I suspect.

7. So you already have books on the shelves? Well, the good news is that books do not have use-by dates. Have a look in the fridge instead and see what ought to be thrown out, calculate the cost of those items and compare it to the price of a book. Books sit around and wait for the right time for you to read them. There have been periods of stringent economy in my household when my husband was out of work, or when I’ve been ill with chronic fatigue, when I’ve been extremely glad of having a stack of books laid in. And being able to choose exactly the right book for the moment contributes a lot to the quality of my reading life, I think.

8. So you are running out of space on the shelves? Well, think first of all how wonderful your house looks, packed full of gorgeous books. And how it reflects back to you the life of your imagination over the past few decades. And how it says you’re the kind of contemplative, thoughtful, open-minded person I mentioned in the first point. And then either, a) squeeze in another bookcase or b) have a bit of a cull and give books to the friends who can’t afford them, or the charity shops, or even sell them at a car boot sale for a book slush fund.

9. Finally, I rather liked this article about spending money, which claims that 80% of people who suddenly come into a great deal of money run through it in the first year, whilst 12% end up committing suicide. Sudden wealth isn’t necessarily an advantage, then. But the article suggests that the most worthwhile expenditure is on education, and books at all levels, whether text books or guides or even mind-expanding fiction, are an education waiting to happen. Buying books is always an investment – in my own mental development, and in the healthy, vibrant life of my culture. I think that’s worth it.

* Writing this post made me order (!) Maryanne Wolf’s book, Proust and the Squid, which is all about reading and neuroscience – so in time I might have more precise details on this topic.

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46 thoughts on “Reasons For Buying Books

  1. Litlove, you hit every nail on every head square-on with this post. I might also mention the almost sensual pleasure in holding a new book in one’s hands and having its wonderful fragrance hit you…you just want to bury your nose in it. And the “ahhh” feeling you get when you turn that final page of a book you love.

  2. I loved this post. I’m moving into a period when I’m going to have to drastically curtail my stockpiling of books, but I made purchasing a priority for almost a decade and look forward to the time when I can do so again.

  3. Oh I love, love, love this post, litlove!

    I recently went through my latest bank statement and every second listing was for Waterstones or Amazon or Abebooks or other book stores. I did not tot up the total, but I always figure it’s healthier and often cheaper to be addicted to books than it is to be addicted to, say, cigarettes or shoes!

  4. It’s me again. I was so convinced that I just ordered Armadale by Wilkie Collins and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Thanks for all the good reasons.

  5. Great list of reasons to read and buy books. I concur with them all and luckily for me, so does my husband – I don’t know where I would be if I were not married to someone who agrees that books are groceries, essential to one’s daily survival.

  6. What a perfect post – thank you! I needed to hear #7, in particular, as I’ve been feeling terribly guilty about all those unread books… But there really is no “use by” date :D

    And now I’m off to add Proust and the Squid to my wishlist.

  7. What an excellent post. I felt guilty buying a book yesterday, but now I feel proud :-) Thanks for that! I agree- the best thing about books is lack of expiration!

    REALLY strange about the money thing…

  8. I like to own my books, I have no unread books and I love to re-read my books. All excellent reasons for buying my books in the first place. But if and when I can’t, the library will be my favorite spot, just as it was when I was a teen.

  9. Half the American population between 18-24 has never read a book? How can that be possible? How did they make it through school? That’s extremely scary. I have heard how few books Americans read in a year, which is mind boggling to me. I may be buying less at the moment (as I work on my budget), but I’m sure I’ll still find a way around getting the odd book here and there. And I agree with all your points! Well said.

  10. We live in a highly bookstore-concentrated area and some of our funnest outings with our children was parking them in children’s books while we took turns wandering in adult fiction or, as they grew, parking them in science fiction. We’d spend hours in bookstores and come out with stacks of books. They’re as hooked on books as we are.

  11. You are a bad influence, but in a good way :) I think the biggest current dilemma is how to support all the wonderful authors you want to see flourish without destroying the environment – not all publishers use FSC or recycled sources to provide their paper, for a number of reasons. Even ereaders are shown to not be quite as good as people hoped they would be for the environment. But then if we all buy books from publishers that are trying to create responsible paper production and send out letters explaining our thoughts to other publishers do you think we might start to see more publishers look at environmentally friendly production?

  12. Love this post, I should print out a copy to keep in my wallet to make myself feel less guilty next time I am in a bookstore. “Proust and the Squid” is a very informative and interesting book, it will definitely add to your appreciation of the act of reading.

  13. Bravo! So many book bloggers, myself included, are so often scolding ourselves about our bookish indulgences, and when I step back and look at it, it just seems so ridiculous. As you’ve pointed out, there are so many silly other things we drop much more money on without a second thought. At least our “addiction” is beneficial. Thanks for reminding us! :)

  14. Lovely post, Litlove. I’m afraid I’m at a point where I have to do a bit of culling as I curtail my buying. As I commented on Dorothy’s blog, I’m dealing with a space issue for me. But I am trying to buy more books as gifts, and I usually buy the books I read for book club and the Classics Circuit. The purchasing certainly won’t stop. I just need to slow it down until I can get my unread pile down to a reasonable level. (No more than one bookcase, perhaps?)

  15. You could have stopped at reading is good for you, that’s enough proof for me :) But I did enjoy all you reasons to buy books. In fact, my husband and I will be having a date night this Friday and most of our discussion on what to do ends up at a bookstore!

  16. Thank you for this! I think I may go buy a book on my lunch hour — guilt-free.

    Thanks also for reminding me that Proust and the Squid has been sitting on my shelf for 2 years already. Now may finally be the right time for me to read it!

  17. Wonderful post! Not that I needed any more persuasion to buy books but the justifications make me feel better.

    I requested Proust and the Squid from the library; yes, that contravenes the post’s message but I’ve supported some independent booksellers recently so it is only fair (especially in the lead-up to Christmas in a struggling household).

  18. Pingback: books « Aimless musings

  19. I’m in the can’t-afford-them category, unfortunately. However, I am in the process of drawing up an extensive and very particular list of books for that should be given to me at Christmas. I am prepared to whinge like mad if my demands are not met. Indeed, buying me a book is the only way of ensuring that I remain your friend.

  20. Amen and Viva reading and book-buying! You have my vote. (Although must add that here in SA books are a luxury. Easily twice the cost of going to a movie, but still a very good deal and one that should be promoted by removing VAT on books.)

  21. Well, you say that our posts on this are similar, but you did a far better job with it than I! I love the way you focused on our culture as a whole and all the reasons it is imperative to read and to buy books. I’m sharing this with my publishing colleagues. By the way, I went out and bought three books after writing that post (because, you know, my challenge starts soon, and I MUST stack up), and you sent me searching my shelves for a book we have by Jonah Lehrer called Proust was a Neuroscientist, which is all about understanding the brain through art (I think. I haven’t read it yet). Funny there are two such books on a similar topic with Proust in the title out on the market, isn’t it?

  22. I love this post. I had been feeling a little guilty about my recent book buying spree, but now I don’t. In fact after reading your post I went out and bought another one.

  23. Great, great post Litlove! I haven’t understood all the guilt of buying books people talk about but then again I don’t have towering piles threatening, either – I have, I think, just enough books in my house, at any given time. This post definitely is encouraging – I am going to buy a book today! Now, the hard part…in the choosing…

  24. I buy a lot of the books I read at Half Price Books. They’re used but in really good shape, so it’s a great way to be environmentally friendly. I really do love to own books as opposed to checking them out from the library. I like to underline stuff that I’ve read that reaches out to me and fold down the corners to mark my place and you just can’t do that with library books. I have books with phone numbers written on the inside cover that I no longer know who they belong to, coffee stains on the covers and some with broken spines because they’ve been read so much. :)I really feel like you can get more into a book when it belongs to you.

  25. Just dropping by to say I bought books yesterday (internet at night again) and it was cool. Then today we decided to find places for all the books on the floor etc in our house and now I am like why did I buy more books – where will I put them? But there is also a little voice going wuhu quietly to avoid the wrath of the sensible voice!

  26. A beautifully refreshing post, Litlove. Thank you!
    I agree with all your nine points, and everyone’s comments. My favourite point was the one about shelf-life as I have several books that I couldn’t resist buying, but have not yet found the right time to read. I also liked the idea “If books could be proven to be bad for you, sales would start to increase, I suspect.”
    One aspect of the physical book that hasn’t been mentioned is the part played by the cover design. I wouldn’t normally bother with these, as I like to think that my book buying is based on more directly literary considerations . However, I know that they’re what attract me to pick them up in the first place. I’m in the middle of choosing from seven possible front covers for my own next novel and I want to get it right, so I’m inviting people to visit my website and give their opinions. I’ve had several interesting responses, but very few have selected the one that I like best.

    On the subject of guilt about spending money on books, I read an article a few years ago which talked about the principle of ‘Pleasure per pound spent’. i.e. one person’s irresponsible profligacy is another’s totally justifiable purchase because of the amount of pleasure involved.

  27. Emily: I love book smell too. Particularly old book smell–the musty kind. Smell that history within its pages.

    Litlove: Where do you buy your books from again? I’d like to go there sometime if they are as cheap as you say! Still, I buy a few books every month, at discounted prices from independent sellers on Amazon (won’t spend over $5).

    Also, I’d like to think that a culture with more active readers would be a good thing without question. However, Nazi Germany was a country of artisans and intellectuals, and we all know what happened there… Ignore me, I am just being contrarian. =)

  28. What a marvelous post! Books are a most precious commodity to me – I never feel guilty about buying them. At present, I’m trying to limit my book spending because of financial consraints, but that only means I’m making much better use of my library and the used book store.

  29. Three cheers for this post, litlove! While reading your first paragraph I wondered why I feel guilty whenever I am buying a book. Most of this has to do with the guilt of spending money on a book that I could easily have read at the library. The guilt, in turn, is baggage carried over from my student days when money had be rationed for a rainy day. It is funny to realize that even though I graduated two years ago, the guilt center of my brain continues to assume that I am still at school!

  30. Points 7 and 8 definitely apply to me! I have had a tendency to be a compulsive book-buyer in the past, but I’ve got an entire box of unread books under my bed in my dorm room, little time for pleasure-reading and definitely no more space for more books!

    My fantasy someday is to have a house with wall-to-wall shelving, and leather-bound editions of all the classics.

  31. Bluestocking – thank you! :)

    Grad – I am SO happy that you agree and those are wonderful reasons to add to the list. Looking forward very much indeed to your reviews, particularly of Armadale, which I really want to read myself.

    Lilian – yay! and I couldn’t agree more about authors, who get a couple of pence a copy which is shameful really.

    SFP – I’ve done exactly the same thing – had times when I could buy books without a moment’s thought (particularly French ones, with my college book grant) and times when economies have made me restrain myself. But books are always the first things I go back to buying.

    kimbofo – your comment made me so happy! And thank you for linking to this post as well. My credit card statement looks just the same! But reading really is a cheap, healthy kind of a vice! :)

    Charlotte – what a lovely husband you have! And I’ll bet he’s stupendously proud of his cultured, well-read, writerly wife. :)

    J.S. – thank you for that lovely comment! I may have to read it again myself occasionally. :)

    Nymeth – I have so many books as yet unread that I couldn’t possibly begin to open myself to guilt about it! And I have benefited so much from stockpiling in the past. If we are going to become all kindled up in the future, I will need to buy all the paper books I can now for that scenario. And I’d love to know what you make of Proust and the Squid!

    Aarti – I feel so pleased to know that you are a proud book owner. Always feel proud – your purchase contributes importantly to something we all love and value and need to protect.

  32. Pop and Ice – what a healthy attitude that seems!

    Danielle – yes, I see what you mean. I guess they mean they’ve never read a book outside of school (ought to go back and check the article but I’ll bet I can’t find it now!). My book buying has gone up and down according to the family finances – alas, it can’t be any other way. But Emily B left a wonderful comment (alas on the wrong post) saying that it is also incredibly important to support libraries who represent far more buying power than any one individual. So you are still doing your bit!

    Squirrel – what a lovely image that conjures up! I have not managed to make my son a reader (despite strenuous attempts) but I have not lost all hope!

    Kathleen – thank you! :)

    Jodie – you raise a really good point, re the environment. Supporting the libraries is, I guess, one way around that (and I should have said more about them, but was in a guilt-relieving frame of mind when writing this) and also patronising publishers who use environmentally friendly materials. The whiter and shinier the page, the worse it is environmentally speaking, so coffee table books are probably the biggest offenders. A lot of fiction is printed on paper from farmed trees, and if your books turn yellow in the sun, you can be assured they were not produced with tons of bleaching chemicals. And to your second comment, I’m adding a little wuhu, too. I pile mine up on the floor, because they still look lovely that way. ;) No but really, I do know bookcases help, and am just ready to lower my standards in reckless ways…

    Jess – delighted to have a vote for Proust and the Squid – thank you for that! And do stay guilt-free – think of book buying as a service!

    Megan – I have found myself round the shops, eyeing up a new sweater in one store and a couple of books in another and thinking, oh but I mustn’t buy any more books! when that purchase is a fraction of the other. As vices go, book buying is at least a healthy and educational one! Thank you for the lovely comment.

    Emily – I know just what you mean! I love it too.

    Teresa – I really don’t intend to mess with anyone’s economies or their floor plan with this post, just remind people that guilt is not necessary in book buying. I hope you find lovely homes for your culled books to go to!

    Stefanie – lol! I like preaching to the converted – so satisfying. And bookstore dates sound just perfect to me. :)

  33. Isabella – I do hope you had a lovely, guilt-free shopping trip! And I’d love to know what you think of Proust and the Squid, too.

    Claire – Emily B wrote a brilliant comment (that alas ended up on a different post) about how necessary it is to support libraries, too, as they are huge book buyers with more clout than any one individual. So, you are still doing your bit, and Xmas is a tough time financially for one and all.

    Di – thank you! :)

    Mark – lol! You make that wish list a good long one! Leave nothing out! Threaten never to see your friends and family again! The book world is proud of your dedication to the cause… ;)

    Gentle reader – you are very welcome! I want all the pleasure of my bookstore frenzies and none of the pain, hence these points remind me as much as my blogging friends! :)

    Pete – I am appalled to hear that you have VAT on your books! That’s a tax on free thought. And I know you can struggle sometimes to get a hold of books in SA. Dear, dear, that’s worthy of political protest, almost. You have my sympathy!

    Dorothy – thank you! I wrote it for me, as much as anyone else! ;)

    Emily – Yes, something about Proust just gets all the neuroscientists excited! And I’m thrilled to hear you went out and bought a few books after writing your post (so did I). And I wanted to thank you also for your brilliant comment on libraries. I can’t think how to import it here, so keep telling other people about it as I reply to comments. But I shall start frequenting the village library too. It’s the least I can do.

    HellCold – thank you! You are most welcome.

  34. apiece – yay! I’m delighted to hear that, and may you get much wonderful pleasure from your purchases! I often feel guilty in a nebulous sort of way, and yet I also knew I didn’t think it was the right response – hence this post!

    Courtney – it sounds like you have just the right amount of books for you – although there IS always room for one more. ;)

    Soccrmum78 – absolutely! I love looking back over my books to see my own annotations and notes – it reminds me of what I was doing when I read it, and that’s a valuable piece of history to me. Thank you for the lovely comment.

    Christine – I hope you get lots of help with your cover – they are very difficult to choose, and CAN make a big difference. That pleasure-per-pound thing is interesting. I often think about a cost per hour’s worth of pleasure. How long does it take to read a book? Ten hours, if it’s a long one? So that’s 69p an hour – pretty impressive, really. But of course, not everyone likes reading, alas, although they do in my fantasy of a utopian world!

    deathwithabeard – (wow, what a name!). Here in the UK a brand new book costs either 6.99 or 7.99, or if I buy it at the supermarket, 3.78. A cinema ticket to see New Moon this weekend would cost me 7.00, although closer to a tenner if I was at a cinema in London. The last theatre ticket I bought cost 21.00, a concert ticket about the same, and half a tank of petrol costs me about 17.00. Of course these figures may be different in the States. And yes, if I want to buy cheaply, I use amazon marketplace, where I can get new books often for less than a pound. As for reading and Nazi Germany, I think that’s a whole other post! Perhaps we could simply view them as a historical aberration, when there are plenty of other examples of literature having a civilising influence?

    Becca – Emily B wrote a fantastic comment about how useful it was to go to the library, which is one of the biggest book customers in existence. Any way that we support the book industry is just fine by me. :)

    polaris – my friend, I graduated 18 years ago and have not yet entirely eradicated the thought of myself as a student! I write this not so people should blow their entire budget on a bookstore (although I have been there and done that….) but that they shouldn’t feel guilty about spending some of their free income on books. But you are right that the old habits die hard! And libraries need support too.

    Miriam – your fantasy sounds quite perfect. I am still working on the wall-to-wall shelving, but I’m getting there. :) In the meantime, enjoy your box under the bed – far better to have that than monsters lurking there. ;)

  35. I still stick to supporting the library, primarily. Libraries are getting funding cut more and more. If I can help one of our few socialist institutions, I will. :)

  36. Fantastic post Litlove – though I can’t honestly say I ever really feel guilty about buying books. Books are a necessity of life – how do people live without reading?
    And if you run out of bookshelves, the edge of a staircase works well – I can get quite a few per step under the banister!

  37. This is an amazing post, although I’m rather late to the party!

    My local library is just dreadful, but I still feel guilty about buying new books rather than supporting them & their stock of formulaic romances. Teetering, as I am, on the verge of an Amazon binge, I particularly enjoyed point 7. Happy New Year!

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