I do not have a good track record with New Year’s resolutions. But this summer, for probably the very first time, one of my pledges is still going strong. I have not bought a single book since last December.
It was as I tried to squeeze all 784 pages of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – my final purchase of 2013 – on to an already overcrowded bookshelf that I realised I had a problem. Piles of books were all over the house, many of them unread. There were unopened political doorstops; texts from the undergraduate canon with embarrassing student notes on 10 pages – “heteronormative cliché!” was a particular favourite – before my attention petered out; stacks of classics consigned to the “one day when I have time” category. Clearly my supply and demand assessments were way, way off.
And so the pact began. My rules were simple. Books could be accepted as gifts or used when needed for work. They could be purchased for others, but not as a backhanded way of smuggling them into my own library. My fellow Brits may have spent £2.2bn on books in 2013 but I was no longer going to be one of them. Every page I turned in 2014 had to come from those already inside my house.
Imposing artificial restrictions to create some semblance of order on the stuff that clogs up our lives is nothing new. I’d even attempted it before with some success: vowing to use up every last bar of novelty soap and oddly scented bottle of moisturiser before shelling out for new ones. But I found that cleanliness is a lot easier to manage than literary predilection.
When it comes to possessions, things are made worse by the fact that my generation awkwardly straddles a divide. Old enough to remember the mix tape but young enough to be digital natives, we have managed to accumulate in both camps. Box sets sit forlornly by our televisions as we click through the almost infinite offerings of Netflix. Photo albums jostle for space while we download image after image on to our laptops. Even among the most fanatical technophiles, it is rare to go into a house with not a single book in sight.
Enter ever more elaborate systems of management. When it comes to literature, many book lovers curate the deluge of material that surrounds them. Some plough their way through one particular author or read exclusively about the Middle East or Victorian statesmen. Others organise their shelves by spine colour or religiously revisit the same five favourites annually. My new tactic of reading only what I already own turns out not to be new at all: Susan Hill wrote a whole book on the subject, Howards End is on the Landing, in 2009. (For obvious reasons, I haven’t been able to buy it.)
But coping strategies often dissolve in the face of temptation. And temptation is everywhere. There is always another review, recommendation or must-read list. Despite the habitual gloom that surrounds publishers, sales and our reading habits, there is also no shortage of material. A recent study by the International Publishers Association showed that the UK published more new titles and re-editions per person in 2012 than any other country. In 2013, Nielsen data show we bought 323 million books.
Many of them appear to be on my bedside table. There is always the decluttering option of the ebook, which accounted for a quarter of books bought in the UK last year. But an over-crammed and under-read Kindle can be as guilt-inducing as a buckling shelf. Then there is the hydra that is online reading. Chop off the head of one must-click article and there are immediately five more links clamouring in its place. Gone are the days when you could tick anything off your reading list completely: the internet is the gift that won’t stop giving.
And so the fightback begins.
For me, strategy piled on top of strategy as I started to alternate first fiction and non-fiction, then locations and periods. I focused on the uncracked spines, only heading for an old favourite when the novelty got too much. A typical pattern consisted of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter (an undergraduate casualty), followed by Ted Sorensen’s memoirs (purchased summer 2009 for holiday, jettisoned as too heavy for suitcase) and then Sense and Sensibility (much better the second time around).
Seven months in, I’ve probably got through about 20 previously neglected books. The bank account is a little healthier, the shelves under no additional strain and my sense of guilt considerably smaller. Next year I may even tackle my wardrobe. And the local bookseller has nothing to worry about. Five months to go and I’ll be knocking down his door. Unless someone wants to give me the new JK Rowling?
Illustration by Luis Grañena