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.