Book Buying: A Record of Your Year

Since I occasionally review books for various websites, I was recently given the opportunity to list my top ten books of 2007. After a little thought, however, I had to decline. Not because I didn't read any books in 2007 -- on the contrary, I read far too many, as usual -- but because none of the books I read were actually published this year. (Even the one book I thought of as "new," Cormac McCarthy's The Road, turned out to have been published in 2006). Which is a bit surprising, because according to various authorities, there are currently around 500 books published every single day in the U.S., not counting self-published or online texts. That comes to almost 200,000 books published in 2007 -- and I didn't read a single one of them. This made me wonder: who does? Who, in all honesty, has the time to keep up with even the most ballyhooed books, apart from a select group of critics, reviewers, literary agents and others in the bookselling business?

Yet looking back over my "complete order history" for 2007, I'm a little shocked to find that I bought 80 books this year, from Afar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran on January 7, to Nabokov's Pnin on November 25. These 80 books cost me a total of $1002, including postage, which comes to about $12 a book -- not bad at all. Unsurprisingly, only 11 of those 80 books were purchased new; I'm more than happy to buy used books. I know I acquired books in other ways this year, as well -- gifts, review copies, "real world" purchases -- and I definitely read books other than those I bought myself. There was one book I even enjoyed so much I read it twice (J.R. Ackerley's My Dog Tulip, first published in 1956). But browsing through my "complete order history" got me thinking.

If, like me, you're a regular book buyer, looking back at your order history is like looking at a record of your year (try it and see). There are all the year's urges and impulses, laid out before you in black and white. In February, I bought a stack of books on the psychology of money, for a conference paper I was writing. In April, there's the evidence of that little true crime phase I went through. There are books whose very titles induce guilt, since they're still lingering forlornly in the pile beside my bed. Ah yes, Gilbert and Sullivan for Easy Piano -- I was playing a tune from that very book this morning. What was with all those cookbooks in September? And oh dear, Knitting for Dummies, the results of which (an unwearable pink-and-blue combination leg warmers/sweater/dress) currently lines my bulldog's basket.

According to my Amazon order history, I'm a person whose with very simple domestic instincts (knitting for dummies, simple desserts) which are constantly struggling to resurface in a life of odd, nihilistic impulses.

It was the title that compelled me to buy Better Never to Have Been -- The Harm of Coming into Existence (NOT the book to buy for a baby shower). And I still can't recall why I needed to buy TWO copies of Eichmann in Jerusalem.

In the first book I bought this year, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Afar Nafisi describes how the experience of reading during air raid sirens has forever colored her feelings about the books she was engaged with at the time. "If a sound can be preserved in the same manner as a leaf or a butterfly," she writes, "I would say that within the pages of my Pride and Prejudice, that most polyphonic of all hidden like an autumn leaf the sound of that siren." There are certain titles in my history that remind me vividly of the summer -- books that I carried around in my backpack along with sun tan oil and mosquito spray, like A Bark in the Park - 50 Best Places to Hike with your Dog in Baltimore. I read Daniel Menaker's, The Treatment, floating in an inner tube in a cool pond; The Sisters - The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lowell immediately brings to mind the sound of crickets and a swimming pool filter. Neither book made it home in one piece, but I probably enjoyed them more that I otherwise would have, simply because of the circumstances in which I read them.

True, the constant recording of our consumption patterns may be a curse of late capitalism, but, for those of us who don't keep journals or diaries, it can also be a surprising, nostalgic treat.