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What Does Overconsumption of Books Look Like?

Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Watch me wade into some hot water! The idea of overconsumption has been a flashpoint in the book discourse of late. Articles about getting rid of books and the aesthetics of BookTok question why we own books. Even though much of the hand-wringing about books, collecting, and social media is full of fatuous arguments, I am still interested in the accusations of overconsumption.

I’m interested in overconsumption partially because I know I am prone to it. I have an acquisitive nature. Whenever I get into something, be it books, knitting, tea drinking, fountain pen writing, etc., I inevitably acquire more stuff that I “need” pretty quickly. I can be easily swayed and influenced. On the one hand, it’s not so bad. I’m still able to pay my bills and my house is not completely subsumed in stuff. On the other hand, it would be beneficial for myself and for the planet to keep these impulses in check.

I have found in my time of being a person with hobbies on social media that commercialism creeps in inevitably. For creators, to keep the content fresh in a competitive environment, there always has to be more. And that more can easily morph from doing the hobby to buying stuff for the hobby. Consumers can feel the need to keep up with their favorite creators. Then the feeling of happiness with purchases, a feeling we certainly need to interrogate in this capitalistic hellscape, can become conflated with the happiness the hobby itself brings.

A Caveat

Sure, individual overconsumption is a problem. I do want to be clear that there are larger and more urgent systemic issues when it comes to the relationship between stuff and global crises, both of financial inequality and climate. But we are capable of caring about multiple things at once. Even when it comes to individual overconsumption, I wish people would devote more energy to thinking about their consumption of clothing rather than books. With those stipulations, I still think it’s worth thinking about what overconsumption of books looks like. Here are some symptoms I’ve identified.

Not Having a Collecting Philosophy

I do agree with the often-cracked joke that book buying and book reading are different hobbies. It does not matter to me whether I read all of the gothic romance paperbacks in my collection. I like collecting them for the sake of collecting. I don’t, however, equate impulsive or haphazard book buying with collecting.

Do I still buy books that don’t fit into my own collecting philosophy? Sure. But not nearly as many as I did before I had deeply considered what kinds of books I want to own as a separate matter from the books I want to read.

Here’s an analogy to owning clothing. Not having a book collecting philosophy is like not having a personal clothing style. It’s easier to avoid being swayed by overconsumption when you have a considered sense of what you like.

Succumbing to the Feeling of Instant Gratification

Many of us live in an on-demand world, and instant gratification becomes something of an expectation. With books, it comes up in a variety of ways. One is feeling the need to be part of an in-group reading a particular book, and thus buying it immediately rather than waiting to borrow it from a friend or library. Another is buying a book online rather than supporting a local bookstore who may need to order it. A third way might be buying a book impulsively based on an insufficient amount of information, rather than gathering more data that will tell you more about whether it’ll mesh with your tastes. I am not immune to a tweet promising a book is “X meets Y,” where X and Y are two other books I love. But I sure have been let down by those tweets.

Again, the analogy to clothing applies here. Buying clothing on impulse from an Instagram ad rarely pays off the way you imagine it will. And feeling the need to follow quickly-cycling clothing trends results in tremendous waste.

Forgetting Your Deepest Truths about Reading

You may have heard of the “rule of 7.” It’s an old truism in marketing that says after being exposed to an ad seven times, there’s a good chance you might bite. I’m no marketing expert, but I sure do notice the books that “everyone is talking about” across all the tweets, posts, videos, articles, TikToks, newsletters, etc. In addition be being an easily swayed person, as I mentioned, I’m also someone genuinely curious about popular culture. Furthermore, I can’t deny my desire for the sense of belonging that can come with having read a popular book, even if that sense is false. I’m only human. All of that can add up to purchasing a book. Sometimes I even buy that book against my deepest suspicions the book won’t be for me.

Sometimes I’ll enjoy the book! Oftentimes I won’t. And sometimes I won’t even read it because I’ve been distracted by something else. It’s not great! I find reading a more rewarding experience if I try to stay true to the reasons I like to read. I want to learn about my areas of interest, to revel in certain kinds of storytelling, or to gain new perspectives on the world. That takes some discipline, which isn’t fun. But honestly, it does take some discipline to fight against overconsumption. It’s the air so many of us are breathing.

Always Buying New

Just like with clothes, there are options other than buying new books. In addition to libraries and borrowing books from friends, there are lots of places to pick up used books in person or online. The fun of shopping for used books in person is the serendipity. It’s akin to the one-of-a-kind pieces you might find while thrifting for clothes.

Again, I very much understand the desire to be a part of the zeitgeist and read the hottest book of the moment. But if a book can stand the test of time, the people who enjoyed talking about it during its peak will still want to talk with you about it when you get around to it.

Thinking Narrowly About Supporting Authors

Many of us have a collection of authors we consider “auto-buy.” As enthusiastic readers, we still want to support authors who aren’t on that elite tier, and we may feel pressure to buy books. Obviously, authors want you to buy their books, but there are other ways to support them. Some have Patreon, Substack, or Ko-fi accounts for other means of monetary support, for instance.

Even without spending money, you can still support authors. You can request their books at the library. If you’re part of a book club, you could suggest the club read a book from an author you’d like to support. Writing thoughtful reviews, recommending books to friends, and sharing books on social media are all free ways to support authors.

Not Using Libraries

I know not everyone has access to a robust public library system. But if you do, I truly hope you’re a power user. Checking a book out from the library before deciding if it’s one to add to your collection is one of the easiest ways to avoid overconsumption. It does sometimes require that aforementioned discipline, but it really pays off.

Simply put, using your library is good for you and good for your community. Let’s hear it for libraries.

Not Sharing Resources

People can have Big Feelings about getting rid of books. I both have a rather large collection of books, and I enjoy culling it from time to time. If you have those big feelings and are looking for a change of mindset, it is possible. Repeat after me: you don’t have to own every single book you might ever want to read in the future. Find one book that you haven’t gotten around to for years. If it isn’t part of your personal collecting philosophy, and it wouldn’t be hard to acquire again — through the library, a friend, or an inexpensive used copy — someone else might be able to enjoy it right now. You can write down that title in a master TBR and let ‘er go.

There was a time I considered buying the book stamp Little Free Libraries offers declaring books always a gift, but never for sale. Then I had a change of heart. Suppose I put a book in my neighborhood LFL. Then a person in my community who is living precariously takes it and sells it to a local used book store for a couple bucks. Now they have some money they didn’t have before, and my old book is available for someone else to read. To me, that sounds like a pretty great outcome. I can easily share some of what I have and still be very book rich.

The Final Word

Books are curious objects in the landscape of goods. They are practically infinitely reusable, a rare trait in a world rife with single-use objects. Additionally, they are so tied to the welfare of authors, a collection of people we generally want to see succeed and feel some personal responsibility for. It’s a very different sense of responsibility than I feel when buying, say, dish soap or chickpeas.  These curious objects deserve deep consideration. I’ve certainly shared a lot about my own impulses, habits, thoughts, and feelings here. And I hope I’ve inspired some introspection about your own deepest truths about which books you want to buy.