In common with many bibliophiles (that’s someone who loves books, if there are any passing tabloid-friendly vigilantes browsing this blog who were planning on setting fire to my house), I have far too much to read and not nearly enough time to get it all safely read. I don’t just buy books that I fancy reading; I accumulate books, compulsively. Within easy reach of where I’m typing, there are at least fifty or sixty books that I’ve had sitting around for months, if not years, each one of which I want to read immediately – it’s just a question of finding the right order in which to read them. Back in the attic room at my parents’ house, there are probably several hundred books in a similar position. It’s all stuff that I just haven’t got round to reading yet, usually because my interests have moved on to something else (another problem – I tend to read thematically), and I have to wait until they’ve looped back round again before I’ll want to pick any of them up. It can be suffocating at times having such a weight of printed matter lying about, each unread text taunting you, or condemning your profligacy, and the ease with which you’ll spend money on something you’re not even going to read compared to the penny-pinching austerity with which you plan your food budget is a stark illustration in misplaced priorities.
This month though, sick of being perpetually skint, I’ve undergone an austerity programme on book-buying. Since I was seventeen, I’ve probably bought an average of two books a week, at least – some new, some second hand; some online, some from Major High Street Booksellers. In the last month though, I’ve only bought two books in total: Philip Roth’s new (and excellent) “Nemesis”, and the Canongate Anthology of the Scottish Enlightenment. I’ve read the Roth already (on the train from Glasgow to Manchester), and the anthology I’m going to get to and read in a piecemeal fashion once I’ve finished Conor Cruise O’Brien’s biography of Edmund Burke. Everything else I read for the next month is going to come off those shelves of unread titles, and in no particular order.
The obvious answer and solution to a budget predominantly eaten up by book-buying is not just to actually read the books you buy in the order you buy them, and not to buy another until you’ve finished the previous one, but to borrow them instead. There are two good public libraries near me, and I’m fortunate in that my job gives me access to Glasgow University’s library, one of the biggest academic libraries in Europe. Anyone mired in a tortuous love affair with books knows though that ownership is everything. I don’t even read a borrowed book in the same way I read one that I own – I know it’s a temporary relationship, a marriage of convenience, rather than a true love that will last me the rest of my life. I suppose in the back of every bibliophile’s head is the perfected image of a future, personal library; once that lottery win comes in, and you’ve got your country mansion or your Italian villa, and you can stake out as much space as you need to let your books breathe.
In the meantime, I’m doing my best to break an addiction, cure myself of a debilitating illness, and save what little money I have for things that, in the final analysis, are just more important. Like an iPad or something …