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Compulsive Book-Buying

I am compulsive about a few things...

I mostly just assume these things are personality quirks and don't give them much thought. (Although when I read volume 9 of the Torah UMaddah Journal in 2000, I wondered if there wasn't some biological tendency for Orthodox Jews to be overly compulsive. The article in question was reprinted in Mind, Body and Judaism: The Interaction of Jewish Law With Psychology and Biology, but the rest of the book doesn't interest me much.)

One compulsion of mine--book buying--has gotten me thinking lately. Why do I keep buying books? It is true that I read a lot. (At least a book a week and sometimes as many as three books a week. Often multiple books at once. And last night I read a 200 page novel in one sitting.) But if all I wanted to do was read, I could (a) make more use of the local public library and (b) read the books I already own. I do use the library, probably more than many people my age. When I'm in a library-going frame of mind, I go at least twice a month. And I do read the books I own. But not as fast as I buy them!

What I came up recently was this: I buy books because I believe that books change lives. More specifically, my life. I buy more books when I am down (discontent, upset, bored, blue) than when I am not. And I buy them because I believe, somewhere, that I will one day find the book or the combination of books that will solve all of the irritating problems of my life. Possibly in one fell swoop! (No, I don't really think that. Changes that happen in one fell swoop aren't the best kinds of changes, in my experience.)

The feeling that books can change lives is connected to the feeling that ideas can change lives, and that's fairly reasonable. Ideas have so often changed my life and always for the better. Even ideas I reject have changed my life for the better--in rejecting them, I have become firmer in my beliefs. (Sometimes I worry that what I have rejected has shaped my life more than what I have believed. Maybe it's just easier to reject bad ideas than to find good ones...)

The idea of going out and buying something with the hopes that it will change one's life for the better is not so far-fetched. Lots of people thing that the perfect outfit, shoes, or makeup will fix all of their problems. What do they call it? Retail therapy? (Do men engage in retail therapy? I think most of the examples cited are mostly relevant to women. Correct me if I'm wrong.) Question: Can you become addicted to buying things with the hopes that they will improve your life the way you can become addicted to drugs or alcohol? (I don't think I'm addicted to buying books. It was just a question!)

Why do I buy books, though? Couldn't the ideas found in a book from the library change my life just as much as a book I've purchased? It's not like I reread books. I don't. (For some people, not rereading books is a cardinal sin. Not me.)

Maybe it's just that if I really think a book might change my life, there's no reason not to own it. Or, more likely, I have been conditioned by the advertising machine that drives our capitalist society to want to aquire as much as possible, and, since the things that I value--ideas--are found in books, I acquire books. I realize, by the way, that I am lucky to live in a time and a place where I can buy books. To the extent that my book-buying is under control, that's because of my limited budget and limited space. But, by far, books take up the greatest volume (not to mention weight) of all of my possessions. Well, that or the furniture.

To be perfectly honest, I also buy books that I don't think will change my life. Sometimes I buy books that I think are funny or silly or will only have a short-term burden-lifting effect. And sometimes I give those books away. So I will have room to buy more books.


Thinking about it some more since our conversation last night--I particularly like to buy books that I have already read and really enjoyed, but don't own yet, even if I don't expect to re-read them again soon, or ever. (Though in the past few years I HAVE re-read several books that I really liked in my teens and 20s, and found them as good or better than I remembered them.) If I also like to buy books that I haven't read yet, it is partly because I predict, based on browsing through them, that they will fall into this category after I read them. I guess I like to do this because I feel that the set of books I really like describes or defines who I am. By owning all these books, and having them on display on my shelf, other people can see who I am, and I can remind myself of who I am, or (what amounts to the same thing) who I was in the past when I bought the book or first read it. That's also why I tend to be in a hurry to get rid of the few books that I have been given that I really don't like, aside from wanting to free up the shelf space. Some people consider it rude, when invited over for dinner, to spend their time browsing through your books, instead of engaging in conversation. But I like it when people do that to me--that's part of the reason why I own books in the first place. Of course, a lot of my books are in the guest room, where people usually don't see them unless they are sleeping over, or they are on the landing at the top of the stairs, where people rarely see them at all. But what can you do? Most of them don't fit in the living room.
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