A Bibliovore’s Dilemma

Philip White

Hi, I’m Philip, and I have a problem. No, it’s not my raging caffeine addiction, but rather, an insatiable desire to buy any book of interest that I come across.

I often scorn so-called “shopaholics” who stock their walk-in closets with $200 t-shirts that I suspect are made in the same exploitative overseas factories as bargain bin items at supermarkets; and the techies who drool over the latest 60-inch flatscreen with its “600 Hz Subfield Motion” and “150,000:1 Dynamic Contrast Ratio.” Come on, not even the manufacture knows what the heck such piffle means, much less how those features can justify a two-grand price tag.

And yet, I am starting to become cognizant of my glaring hypocrisy, an epiphany sparked by my recent purchase of two more four-shelf bookcases from a going-out-of-business Borders to supplement my fit-to-burst living room built-ins. I can’t go near my local used book store without popping in, promising myself (and/or my long-suffering wife, who finds her volumes and those of our children crammed into ever-dwindling shelf space) that I’ll just look at the clearance section and its bevy of $2 books that beg for a good home. Sometimes I think I subconsciously choose to run errands in the vicinity just so I can get my weekly “fix.”

And then there’s the web. Performing the physical act of handing over cash or swiping your credit/debit card at the bookstore makes the buying process more tangible, and, or so the theory goes, makes one consider the purchase more carefully. Online, this goes out the window—a few clicks and you’re done. If you’ve already saved your card details on the vendor’s website, it’s even quicker and easier, with even less time to self-question if that $148.15 that’s about to be taken out of your account/put on your next bill is exorbitant or reasonable.

When you write for a living, it’s much easier to answer such a question, whether it arrives before the shelf-straining purchase or later, when you get your next card statement, with a simple justification: “It’s for work.” This particular form of self-deception is at its most acute when you are working on a long feature story or, Lord have mercy, a book. People have asked me “Why don’t you just get books from the library?” I have done that, of course, frantically jotting down notes in time to beat the punitive daily late charges or, for longer passages, using the tech miracle that is Nuance Naturally Speaking to dictate until my voice box feels like it’s been invaded by a couple of enraged porcupines.

But when it comes to a book that you know (or tell yourself you know) that you’ll need large sections for at least one project or, heaven forbid, may actually make time to read for pleasure as well as for research purposes, how can one not plonk down some hard earned cash for it? Now that I’ve forced myself to become more organized, I make sure that book receipts (from brick-and-mortar bookstores) are scanned and e-mail confirmations saved (online retailers) in easily findable files so that come tax time I can list the books as expenses. Again, one more justification: “It’s a tax write off.”

So my questions are twofold: When is it time to draw a line between essential research tools and filler that I’ll use two lines from and never touch again?

Or, should I stop worrying, admit that I’m a fallen, shameless “shopaholic,” with no more self-restraint than the fashionista, gadgeteer, whatever-your-retail-vice-is crowd, and just enjoy my book-collecting “hobby”?