It’s January 2016 and I have written down my list of resolutions. I shall attempt, for the third year in a row, to NOT buy books.
This is not because I don’t want them. Books are high on my list of needs. There has always been at least one seizable bookshelf in my bedroom ever since I can remember, and almost always full. If you ask my friends and family what they associate me with, they most likely will say books and performing arts (they sort of HAD to go to all of my performances).
I had to leave most of my books behind when I left my hometown in northern Mexico and moved to Sweden in 2012. My partner being also an avid reader there was never a shortage of books, but they weren’t mine. I missed my Juan Rulfo’s short stories and my Tolkien atlas and my Federico García Lorca poetry collection. I missed my Spanish translation of Tove Jansson’s The Invisible Child. Most of all, I missed looking at my shelves and smiling with the satisfaction that I had curated that collection with love and care. Each of those books were a part of me, they had memories embedded in them. Some were even full of notes.
So in a dangerous mix of nostalgia, homesickness, and culture shock, I started buying books like a madwoman. I also picked free books from stores that were cleaning up or closing down. I adopted books from friends who where moving or spring cleaning. I spent more than I could afford in an 18-month book shopping spree.
And then, on January 2014 I decided to stop. Until I had read all the ones I had collected (and that included bringing home those that had been left behind), I would not buy more.
It proved to be a very powerful exercise. Sometimes it has been very difficult to stick to the challenge when I visit new bookstores or I see sales. It takes a lot of determination to walk away, but it takes even more to go inside, browse, greet all the lovely volumes to which I silently promise to add to my collection one day, and walk out empty-handed.
I have not reduced my book consumption. I still read a lot (and I’m making a serious dent in my collection) but I also started to enjoy books without having to own them. It’s a very unfamiliar feeling. I believe my compulsion to buy books is related to how limited libraries were in my hometown. Growing up, public and school libraries were rare, and university libraries were restrictive and mostly focused on course books for their programmes. There was no inter-library loan system that I could access.
Don’t be fooled: books are considered a very valuable possession, but they are not a resource that tends to go around. We even have a saying that goes “You’re stupid if you lend a book, but even more stupid if you give back one you have borrowed” (Tonto el que presta un libro, pero más el que lo regresa). This made me very wary of lending my books, and made it very difficult to borrow them from others.
Sweden seemed like paradise when it came to how many books were available. Even if I stuck strictly to books in a language I could read, they seemed to be never ending. However, I have spent most of my time in the country as a student, thus having a student economy. You can imagine how it became problematic that I was picking up books compulsively. I needed to have as many as possible around me, my own books, as some sort of armor, and sooner rather than later, my wallet refused to cooperate.
Since I started on my personal challenge to NOT buy books, my relationship with them has changed. I have since brought a few of my old books at a time whenever I visit my hometown, but it’s a slow process, and I’m ok with that. And I still dream of owning a house that will allow for my own version of Belle’s library, but I have also discovered the beauty of spending limited time with a borrowed book. They feel almost like guests that you invite home after meeting them at your favorite café. They have all kinds of personalities and interests, and will come and visit regardless of your field, programme or institution. If you like them a lot, you might get them to stay a bit longer, or invite them to visit again some other time.
I look forward to more of that in 2016.