Addicted to books


I recently posted on Eva Stalker’s initiative #TBR20 – read a nominated 20 books from the To Be Read pile within a set period of time. I’ve been thinking some more about this.


JacquiWine’s blog, which I referred to last time, talks of the ‘craving’ to buy books, avoiding the ‘temptation’ of visiting bookshops and buying, and of the impulse to ‘splurge’ on yet more books. There was also the issue of ebooks v. physical copies.


I don’t take much pleasure from reading an e-text. I don’t like the way my screen refuses to give page numbers, just the percentage of text I’ve completed, and some weird ‘location x out of y total’ figure that means nothing to me. In a ‘book’ as huge as the collected works of Chekhov these numbers are enormous. I like to feel the weight of a real, physical book in my hand. Ebooks are a poor substitute, so I shall exclude them from any TBR undertaking I subscribe to (which I don’t intend to do anyway). To my mind the Kindle is an unpleasant but useful substitute for the real thing – like alcohol-free beers.


I’ve also taken, over the last year or so, to using my local library again – but mostly for research purposes. If I’m reading a book I’m likely to write about here I like to be able to annotate it, underline key passages, and so on (in pencil, of course; ink is barbaric – and I include Wordsworth here, cutting pages with his greasy butter knife; Coleridge was a great inked-comments-in-the-margins culprit, too). Ebooks’ facility for ‘notes’ is ridiculous, cumbersome and annoying.


Then I came across the excellent blog by Belinda: Bii’s books. Back in May Belinda had some interesting things to say about her TBR project. She’d even devised a spreadsheet to constrain the urge to buy more books! As she said, ‘It sounds crackers’ to do such a thing…


Then on June 1st she continued in similar terms. She called herself an ‘almost unapologetic book buyer’ who loved a ‘spree’ of acquisitions. This leads, of course, to the ‘almost unbridgeable’ gulf that grows ever wider between books read and those accumulating relentlessly on the TBR pile. It’s a theme I find constantly on book blogs, or when talking to bibliophile friends.


She goes on to describe the desire to de-clutter, and take books TO the charity shop, and the conflicting desire to visit secondhand bookshops with a view to buying more. Here her imagery becomes revealing: she says at the end of the TBR20 project she ‘gorged’ like a ‘sugar addict at the end of Lent’ on buying new books. Repeatedly she says it’s ‘unhealthy’, this desire to ‘guzzle’ texts.


Better to appreciate the ‘treasures’ on the shelves already, she concludes. ‘Rekindle the passion’ for what one has in hand, is the message here. Reminds me of Kipling’s Kim, or a zen koan. Commendable – but I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge.


Unlike Belinda, I don’t think I have the resolve not to stray into the ‘path of fanciful desires’, to seek something newly invigorating. ‘I spend far too much time feeling like I’m missing something’, she adds, suggesting it’s how we’re ‘socially wired’ in this materialistic, capitalist world. (I haven’t even touched on the desire – the need – to do my own creative writing. Where’s the time?)


Finally she returns to the metaphor of addiction: the ‘seasoned alcoholic’ trying to self-convince that ‘coffee is a fair substitute for…vodka’.


She even tags this post ‘book obsession’.


That’s it, isn’t it. It’s an obsession. An addiction, almost. I have a parallel obsession, apart from books, with notebooks. In a cupboard I have enough pristine notebooks to keep me going for decades. But I still have to work hard to resist that temptation to buy another when I see a good one.


The other day, on an errand to town, I heeded the siren call of a charity bookshop. I won’t buy anything, I assured myself. Then picked up a good copy of Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End – only £1.


I put it back. As I walked away empty-handed I felt like I was leaving an AA meeting.


So: the TBR pile? I’ve been sent some novels to review, so they won’t count. I have several novels bought over the last two years which I’ve still not got round to reading, from de la Pava to Charles Newman and Shark, Will Self’s sequel to Umbrella, which I loved.


And there are those Library of America collections of Henry James criticism, Raymond Carver, Philip Roth, Bellow and the rest…oh my. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.



16 thoughts on “Addicted to books

  1. Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! My wife doesn’t even like to come into my study/bookpile because she’s annoyed by how many bookcases I’ve fitted into our spare room. I, too, have a shelf of notebooks (only a few actually used) and I love the thought of buying more. And I, too, don’t like the Kindle style of pagination (and the hideous indexes) although, in fairness, the e-book has transformed the concept of search. It’s much easier to find a citation of which you remember but a single word. There’s one thing that the booklover can do to alleviate his/her, uh, problem somewhat. Often I buy a book because I don’t want to forget about it even though I have no clear plan reading it. On Amazon you can just put it on a wish list where it will stay forever and, if you want to review it later you can.
    Love your blog,


    • Delighted to hear a fellow addict’s confession, Bob. My wife occasionally makes threatening noises about ‘clutter’, but I usually manage to head her off into a less worrying area of debate (there are plenty with which to distract her). I take your point about the usefulness of the search facility in an e-text. But I too have a long Wish List on Amazon. Occasionally I cull it ruthlessly: anything that’s been there longer than a year. Well, maybe 18 months. Well…Thanks for the kind words, and your visit.

  2. Great post. Most kindle books do now have page numbers (though not the one I last read annoyingly), not that I suspect that will tempt you any more to them.

    The thing is, it used to be that the issue was identifying the good stuff from the bad or merely indifferent. Now though, through blogs and other sources, we have a vast firehose of the good stuff. We can’t read all the good stuff we hear about, so we don’t even need to start worrying about sorting out the chaff. The chaff is no longer the issue.

    So, we hear about more and more stuff which is suited to our tastes, high quality, rewarding. How do you choose between a massive selection of stuff all of which you’ll probably love? It’s the Buddhist hell of all your desires, instantly gratified.

    There’s worse problems, far worse, but it is an interesting one.

    • Max: I find it particularly annoying with my Kindle that it’s hard to navigate the text: I find I’m scrolling through endless pages to go to a site I want. As my version has no page nos I can’t enter a ‘location’ no. that means nothing to me in the Search box. I also find it a physically unpleasing sensation, reading an e-text for any length of time. Don’t think of myself as a Luddite, but it’s a technological development of limited advantage – though great for when travelling. Complete works of Dickens, James, Fitzgerald, Chekhov, etc etc – all in one device! As you say, bloggers now supply a daunting flow of ‘must-read’ books: what to do?!

  3. It’s so interesting to read your reflections, Simon – thanks for the mention, very kind. It is a kind of obsession, I think – I am finding it hard to resist temptation. For me, the biggest distraction comes from reading other bloggers’ reviews of interesting books, things I know would be just right for me. In the past, I probably would have just bought them without thinking too much about it. Setting up a new wishlist has helped as I can log books of interest there and review the list before buying anything new.

    I’m not sure if there’s an answer to any of this. Maybe it’s about finding the best way of achieving some sense of balance (although what that looks like and how to go about it may well differ from person to person!).

    • Jacqui: as I just replied to Max, I think bloggers are part of the question: all those brilliant reviews of texts or authors previously unknown…where to start? I’m coming round to the idea of setting up a formal list – not on Amazon! – of desirable books to read. Not a spreadsheet – I draw the line there – but a proper list. Balance would be good. I think, though, of the medieval concept ‘mesure’ – which means that and something extra: restraint, circumspection, attention to the case in hand…Great concept; not so easy to achieve. No need to thank me for the mention: I found your posts – and Belinda’s, Eva’s, Max’s and the rest – stimulating and interesting. I need to reflect on all this some more.

  4. The idea of the “vast firehose of good stuff,” expressed with other metaphors than the firehose, goes back at least to the 17th century, maybe to the 15th. The internet is not to blame for the problem, but rather movable type.

    Sometimes we buy books because we would like to be the kind of person who reads that kind of book. Often, we are not or do not become that person; sometimes we are or do.

  5. Pithy observations and Beckett too! Don’t worry, Simon, you are among friends and fellow addicts here. 🙂

    The “fencing in” type of control of a #TBR20 reminds me of some of the advice the US diet magazines gives to those of us portly matrons on the wrong side of 50 who must constantly control our raging appetites on1200 cal. (US) a day diets for any faint hope of slimming. Everything from “no more than one trip to the cocktail buffet” to “all the rugulah, you want, but only on major High Holidays.” But The Beast is always in there, snorting and kicking up dust, liable to leave you Cadbury-egg-smeared and face down in a pile of crisps.

    Well, book addiction is a relatively benign addiction. You may annoy your significant other and risk being run down while reading as you cross the street, but at least you won’t clog your arteries!

    Happy reading in the golden Cornish summer,

    M. Murphy
    Washington DC

  6. The only comfort is knowing that perhaps when “all passion is spent” the great urges will moderate and leave us in peace. My Mom is 83 and is now a slender size 8 after years of effort. She told me it was easy, since she now has lost so much of her appetite that she needs to remind herself to eat! I regularly ply here with Nutrament shakes as well.

  7. I have to strongly disagree that people who purchase books with a view to reading them and who like to write about them might have an addiction. Surely, the things you and Belinda and Jacqui describe are part of a passion for books and literature. And in order to feed the passion, we collect resources that allow us to have choices, because the timing and inclination towards reading a book isn’t always matched to the time of purchase.

    A passion gives people a great deal of motivation to engage in an activity, what could be a better sign of passion than the lot of book bloggers who write reviews for no payment. A passion means a person is willing to dedicate a significant amount of time to the work that passion requires, they maybe don’t have a lot of time, but they ensure that they find it. It doesn’t mean they never suffer from guilt, but perhaps guilt is the natural inhibitor, to keep the passion in check, #TBR20 was and is a great natural remedy for book bloggers who feel their buying behaviour might have become a little out of hand.

    An addiction to something is a destructive behaviour, one that can not be controlled and requires help to overcome, once the person has decided they must give it up.

    Perhaps someone passionate about books, reading and writing experiences a frustration because there are parts of that passion that haven’t yet been fulfilled, that’s identifying with clarity the goal and realising it’s time to stop researching/reading/buying or whatever the secondary activity has been up until now and to put one’s passionate efforts into moving closer to the goal.

    Goals can appear to be too much of a challenge to those who are not passionate.

    I am absolutely certain everyone you mention here is absolutely passionate about what they are doing and they will all achieve the goals that exist already within them, whether they have risen to the surface yet or not. They will succeed in some form or other and it is not an addiction to want to accumulate intellectual resources that feed a worthy passion, particulary one that has created its own supportive community, which gives us even greater access to the abundance and availability of those resources.

    Thank you for your provocative post!

    Bonne Continuation tous!


    • A timely corrective to what was perhaps a frivolous image in this post. I agree entirely that what we’re about as we discuss the books we read is a passion, not an illness – Charles Kennedy’s untimely death this week is a salutary reminder of this. I used the image largely in lighthearted response to the ‘sugar addict’ reference I mention in the post – thanks for adding this rejoinder!

  8. The Japanese have a word for buying books and put them.with other unread books tsundoku I think is the word anyway for me it’s a space thing now I still buy but get rid off books I do have a kindle like you don’t like reading of it only use it for a book I need to read that minute or like with shadow iffp books it was cheapest to download the books

  9. Very much enjoy some of the other comments/perspectives here, and agree that “passion” may be a more apt, less flippant (as I used it) word than “addiction,” here. The latter word brings on painful memories for so many.

    Loved learning of the word “tsonduku.” One of the wonderful things about language study is the way it allows you to enter into another way of thinking (Inuit* words for snow and ice, special Irish Gaelic words for types of rain showers and cloud formations, etc.).

    M. Murphy

    • Started to reply, then lost the text box. Hope this doesn’t duplicate.
      Yes, the comments are illuminating. Thanks for the link: I see the Princeton site only gives 15 lexemes for snow in one of the Inuit languages – it’s one of those language myths about there being hundreds of them. Probably to do with all the cognate forms of each term, as the writer says. It’s interesting to see how different cultures assign terms for colours; there’s no universally agreed spectrum…

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