My Year of Not Buying Books

Pamela Newton on 2019-01-16

In December 2017, the novelist Ann Patchett wrote an op-ed in the New York Times called “My Year of No Shopping.” I read it, then my husband, Will, read it, and then we looked at each other, and with a shrug, decided to do it. We would not shop in 2018. We took a pledge. There was no discussion of the pros and cons, no parsing of the reasons we might take this step or what we hoped to gain. We both just liked the sound of it.

In her article, Patchett lays out the terms of her pledge. Ours were similar to hers: we could buy anything consumable (anything you could find at the grocery store), household necessities (batteries, toiletries), replacements for basic items (socks, underwear), and any non-material, experiential purchases (theatre tickets, plane tickets). Gifts to others would be homemade or consumable whenever possible. Our crafty output (mine knitted, Will’s made from wood) would do its best to use materials and tools we already owned. What we were not allowed to buy: clothes, shoes, accessories, home décor, electronics, art, books, tools and toys for our crafts that were not strictly necessary. If we wanted to make an exception, we would have a meeting of the “council” (that was just us) and we would make a collective decision.

There were all kinds of interesting and counter-intuitive results of this experiment. Like Patchett, we ended up feeling the abundance, not the dearth, of our possessions. Not only did I not need any new jackets or shoes, but why did I have so many jackets and shoes to begin with? I started giving clothes away. I also enjoyed feeling like I had detached from the capitalist-industrial machine. I would walk by a major chain store having a sale and think, “Nope, you’re not going to get me. I’m out of the game.”

Will used to sit at his tech job and surf eBay and Amazon, clicking “purchase” partly just to keep himself entertained. I would tease him about how every other day another cardboard box of mysterious origin would appear at our door. The boxes stopped coming. So did most of the catalogues and junk mail. And, yes, we also saved a lot of money, which was not our goal but was a happy byproduct of the pledge. The savings turned out to be especially well-timed, since Will got laid off from his corporate job in October.

Surprisingly, I didn’t find it hard to stop buying clothes. What was hard for me — or at least what I anticipated would be hard for me — was the books. It wasn’t that I had to get through the year without reading — it was that I had to keep reading without acquiring new books. It was important that books be on our “verboten” list (which they weren’t for Patchett) because this is arguably the one shopping addiction I suffer from. I’ve never been able to make the switch to Kindle; it’s books themselves that I love, both as objects and as containers of worlds. Bookstores have always been my happy place. What would I do now when I was killing time in the city? And what about book selection? How would I get to do my favorite thing in the world — decide what to read next?

I resolved to get as far as I could on books I already owned and take it from there. As with the apparent abundance of my clothes, my bookshelves quickly revealed themselves to be teeming with unread books. Thanks to this stash and to friends with good taste, I made it through the year without buying a book, and it ended up being the most unexpectedly delectable year of reading. When I finished one book, instead of trying to pick the exact novel or memoir that would most perfectly suit my mood and the current season of my reading, I had to let the world pick it for me. (This is a small but telling sign of privilege — the ability to get any book you want anytime you want it.) The magic of the year lay in the fact that somehow, even though I was slightly resistant to every book I picked up — thinking, this isn’t quite what I want, and having to get over that hump as I opened to the first page — I kept ending up feeling that the book in my hand was exactly what I needed to be reading at that moment.

I can divide what I read in 2018 into three categories: My Books, Other People’s Books, and My Books Now. It took a bit of a push to start reading My Books (ones I already owned), since there were reasons I had been avoiding them over the years. To how many homes had I dragged Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest, placing it on bookshelf after bookshelf and thinking, “One day…”? I was avoiding it because I was scared of it; I thought it would be a dark and disturbing read. And it was, but this darkness is at the heart of its power. There’s a reason this book is iconic. It gets into your veins. Parts of it felt dated — especially the language around race and sex — so I occasionally had to hold my nose and press on. But it was very much worth it in the end.

Other stand-outs in the My Books category were The Quiet American by Graham Greene and The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe, both of which I’d bought sometime in the last few years and then ignored. One is the most masculine thing I’ve read in ages — a tale of war, espionage, and the battle for the love of a good woman — and the other moves through the deliciously feminine world of a group of young college-educated friends in the 1950s, working in Manhattan, living in shared apartments, and trying to find men to marry — a kind of prequel to Sex and the City. I loved them both.

In the category of Other People’s Books, I’m grateful for the loaners that I might have shunned any other year. People often want to loan me current bestsellers, and I tend not to read a lot of current bestsellers, but I don’t know how to decline without sounding like a snob. This year, my friend Caroline lent me The Idiot by Elif Batuman, published in 2017, and I really liked it. Batuman has such a sassy and smart voice, such a dry wit, that I just liked being in her company. She was also writing about a world that is close to me — the story is set during the character’s freshman year, and I teach college freshmen — which is a reading experience I don’t often have with my penchant for stories from past centuries. This book gave me new insight into my students and brought me back to seeing what college looks like from their angle.

I was also glad for loaners of Victorian novels from my friend Robert, a fellow reader of dead authors. He gave me The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope and Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. I expected the Trollope to be the winner, since it’s the more famous of the two, but I really fell in love with the Gaskell. Robert thinks the reason it hasn’t gotten more attention (if any works of Gaskell can be said to get sufficient attention) is because she died before finishing it and a friend had to write the final chapter. But this hardly detracts from the overall experience, and the whole thing is so psychologically astute about the dynamics of family relationships that you start to feel like you’re living with the characters in their stifling home. The Trollope was a great read, too, and revelatory in its way, since it painted a precise portrait of Donald Trump, 150 years in advance. The parallels between Trump and the character Melmotte were uncanny. Someone needs to write an essay about this; it might be me.

In the third category, My Books Now, were the gifts and giveaways. I went through more than one box of books on their way out the door at friends’ houses; luckily for me, everyone else is doing the Marie Kondo tidying-up program. From this foraging I acquired After the Quake, a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami and The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino. Both transported me to enchanted lands, where frogs talk and people live their whole lives in the trees, without ever coming down. I already loved Murakami but probably wouldn’t have voluntarily read a collection of his short stories over one of his novels. But each story in the collection was its own little treat, like different chocolate truffles in the same box. One of the stories became a key reference in a personal essay I was working on at the time about my childhood.

Also in the My Books Now category were a handful that my step-dad had fortuitously gifted me for Christmas, just before I took the pledge. In this haul I got Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (which was good because then I could know what everyone was talking about) and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (ditto). Both were having what you might call a “moment” last year, and both deservedly, I think, though for very different reasons.

My step-dad also gave me what might be my Number One read of the year: Children of the Arbat by Anatoli Rybakov. According to my Ukrainian dry cleaner, everyone in the former USSR has read this book. For some reason it’s not as known in the States. It is a totally absorbing, unforgettable, semi-autobiographical epic about Moscow during the Stalin era. It is to Stalin what War and Peace is to Napoleon. It had to be published in installments in the 1960s by samizsdat — an underground network of dissident printers — to avoid censorship, even though Stalin was already dead. It wasn’t published openly in one volume until 1987.

It wasn’t only great works of fiction that found their way to me — there was also the non-fiction: the stunning language of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a metaphysical meditation on nature, life, and death; the deeply felt and broadly explored reflections on the limitations of empathy in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams; and the wise, worldly, and immaculately expressed cultural criticism and personal essays in Zadie Smith’s collection Feel Free. These three books were, respectively, a gift, a book I already owned, and one I pre-purchased in 2017 but received in 2018, which I thought was a fair exception to the rule.

The last thing I read last year, the only one I took out of the library, was another work of non-fiction: Black Boy by Richard Wright. This memoir was so good, so resonant, so complete in both its creation of a world and a person that I couldn’t believe I had never read it before. Every American should read this book so that they’re forced into an intimacy with the experience of being black in the south in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Now it’s January 2019, and I’m allowed to shop again. I have so many books I’m itching to get, ones I’ve already been eyeing but haven’t yet slid off the shelf and into my life. But something is holding me back. I just picked up NW by Zadie Smith, another one of those 2018 contemporary loaners I might have ignored in other years, and it is already speaking to me deeply. I have so many more unread books on my shelves… Cane by Jean Toomer, The Green Knight by Iris Murdoch, Villette by Charlotte Bronte, Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald… I have studies of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. I have poetry by Li-Young Lee and Audre Lorde. I have both The Flâneur by Edmund White and Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin.

If I go back to book shopping, I’ll go back to neglecting these books. So I think I’m going to keep this part of the experiment going, at least for a little while (much like Patchett did with her whole shopping pledge when her year was up). When it comes down to it, as I’m sure Marie Kondo would tell you, books you own but never read are just stuff. And if there’s one thing that became really clear to me this year, it’s that we first-world city folk don’t need any more stuff.