Books I Acquired Last Year for Little or No Money

I try to avoid mindless shopping, but I just can’t resist vintage clothes or cheap books. At least two dozen books are loitering in neat stacks on and around my bookshelf, waiting to be read.

Depending on how quickly you read, books can get you a decent return on your entertainment dollar—way better than going to the movies, and probably more efficient than Netflix. Of course, they won’t if you’re picking up hardcovers every time you stop by Barnes & Noble for a coffee, or a chance to read Marie Claire in relative anonymity. I do feel conflicted, because if you don’t buy books at bookstores, they will disappear, but you can do only so much on a limited budget.

I read 59 books in 2011, mostly on my commute. I didn’t buy any of them at a bookstore. I also didn’t borrow any of them from the local library, which I could have—and probably should have—done in some cases (and is obviously a very smart thing you can do). Below, I list the many ways I acquired new reading material in 2011. 

Borrowed (Four books)
Under the Dome – Stephen King (new $13.49, used $1.49)
Oryx & Crake – Margaret Atwood (new $10.20, used $2.93)
Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel (new $9.60, used $9.50)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot (new $9.60, used $5.86)

I saved anywhere between $19.78 and $42.89 by borrowing these books from my parents. I’m lucky that they live nearby, and have similar literary tastes to mine (though I found Wolf Hall impossible to finish). This trick is easy to pull off: Just case the bookshelf every time you’re in someone else’s house. Don’t be shy about asking to borrow something! Your target will certainly be flattered at the implied validation of their taste. Just make sure you return everything eventually (though promptly is better, and in good condition!), to get another loan the next time.

Received as gifts (13 books)
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte (new $5.99, used $2.06)
Super Sad True Love Story – Gary Shteyngart (new $16.90, used $3.73)
A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan (new $17.51, used $3.74)
Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier (new $10.19, used $0.01)
Crossfire – Miyuki Miyabe (new $10.17, used $0.01)
The Museum of Unconditional Surrender – Dubrava Ugresik (new $14.09, used $5.62)
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom – Cory Doctorow (new $11.24, used $0.15)
Veronika Decides to Die – Paulo Coelho (new $10.19, used $2.25)
Them – Joyce Carol Oates (new $10.98, used $3.74)
Freedom – Jonathan Franzen (new $7.69, used $0.01)
Create Dangerously – Edwidge Danticat (new $19.19, used $7.29)
Ghostwritten – David Mitchell (new $6.99, used $1.96)
Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen (new $8.03, used $0.01)

I have lovely in-laws who use my Amazon Wish List for any and all present-giving occasions. Not trying to shill for Amazon here, but this is the best way to get new books (if the newness is important to you) in hardcover (if hardness is important to you) without requiring the buyer to spend a lot. I saved between $21.32 (a low estimate, if you count shipping) and $114.95 (also a low estimate, as I’m using today’s prices and I got some of these books right after their release) by using the Wish List. I’m not counting the last three books in these calculations because those gifts were chosen by the givers, which is also a totally valid way to save money on books, even if, um, you don’t like them as much.

Bought for the price of a song (23 books)
Wickett’s Remedy – Myla Goldberg (new unavailable, used $2.00)
The Man in my Basement – Walter Mosley (new $0.83, used $0.01)
Fingersmith – Sarah Waters (new $10.88, used $0.01)
American Gods – Neil Gaiman (new $10.87, used $3.94)
The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova (new $10.87, used $0.09)
Coraline – Neil Gaiman (new $6.32, used $3.97)
The Mammoth Cheese – Sheri Holman (new $9.60, used $1.00)
The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford (new $7.95, used $0.24)
Death in Venice – Thomas Mann (new $7.75, used $1.94)
Silas Marner – George Eliot (new $2.50, used $0.01)
Main Street – Sinclair Lewis (new $9.84, used $0.01)
A Modest Proposal – Jonathan Swift (new $4.99, used $0.21)
The Ambassadors – Henry James (new $8.98, used $4.98)
The Razor’s Edge – Somerset Maugham (new $10.20, used $1.56)
The Magus – John Fowles (new unavailable, used $1.25)
Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh (new $6.00, used $2.00)
The Monk – Matthew Lewis (new $9.95, used $2.59)
The Color Purple – Alice Walker (new $8.95, used $2.20)
The Mayor of Casterbridge – Thomas Hardy (new $5.95, used $0.31)
Humboldt’s Gift – Saul Bellow (new $11.72, used $6.17)
Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami (new $10.17, used $4.06)
South of the Border, West of the Sun – Haruki Murakami (new $10.17, used $2.12)
The Odd Women – George Gissing (new $10.21, used $3.35)

I have a church in my neighborhood—one of those hip, with-it churches that celebrates Pride Week and hosts weekly discussions on The Walking Dead from a theological perspective. Grace Church is so low-key about religion that I had to visit its website to find out its denomination, Episcopalian, which is not a huge surprise. Every Sunday, the church hosts a book sale in its basketball court. (Do most churches have basketball courts? I’m a little fuzzy on the finer points of organized religion.)

Paperbacks cost $0.50, and hardcovers cost $1.00. Because Grace Church does so much for the community, I’m happy to spend as much money as possible at the book sale, then donate the books back when I’m done reading them. (I fear that the rise of the Kindle will decimate this kind of informal second-hand market, in addition to its main drawback: making it all but impossible to snoop on fellow commuters’ reading habits.) I spent a total of $13 on these novels. I could have spent anywhere from $44.02 to $174.70. They ranged from amazing (Fingersmith, Main Street) to okay (The Mammoth Cheese).

There are little secondhand havens like this all over, and not necessarily in bookstores. Seek them out!

BookMooch (13 books)
Sexing the Cherry – Jeannette Winterson (new $14.45, used $0.59)
The Swimming Pool Library – Alan Hollinghurst (new $10.85, used $1.18)
Santa Evita – Tomás Eloy Martínez (new $10.93, used $0.01)
The Italian – Anne Radcliffe (new $16.92, used $2.21)
The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain (new $10.40, used $0.99)
The Pigeon – Patrick Süskind (new $4.92, used $1.97)
The Sound of Waves – Yukio Mishima (new $15.00, used $1.99)
The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton (new $3.00, used $0.01)
Buddha of Suburbia – Hanif Kureishi (new $11.66, used $2.50)
The Underdogs – Mariano Azuela (new $9.00, used $3.93)
And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie (new $6.99, used $3.37)
Gilead – Marilynne Robinson (new $10.99, used $0.01)
Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave – Aphra Behn (new $6.00, used $0.01)

I was a heavy user of throughout 2011. The idea is to create a huge online book swap—much like PaperbackSwap, which I find much more difficult to use—earning points for mailing out books that other members request, and spending those points as you go along. When they arrive, the books feel free, and it’s always lovely to get surprises in the mail, right? It actually comes out to about $2.50 per book, because you’ve got to mail them to earn points. Also, the inventory is not great; I have theories about why this is, but this is not the place to air them. With almost 30 points stored up and a wish list of 600 titles that probably won’t become available any time soon, I’ve eased up a lot on my BookMooch usage in the last six months. I spent about $30 to get these books, but would have spent anywhere from $18.77 to $131.11 otherwise. Now that I’ve actually worked out the math, it looks like I spent more money through BookMooch than I might have otherwise—but it’s not like those one-cent wonders get shipped for free either. If you are more into classics, and you really like getting packages (and you don’t mind sending some out occasionally), BookMooch might be an option for you.

Bought from Amazon (5 books)
Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins ($8.97)
Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins ($7.98)
Big Machine – Victor LaValle ($10.95)
The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood ($8.22)
The Bad Girl – Mario Vargas Llosa ($4.95)

Sometimes you have to buy new books. It’s unavoidable! You might have a book club meeting coming up, and nobody wants to give the right thing away on BookMooch. Sometimes someone loans you The Hunger Games, but doesn’t follow through with the rest of the trilogy, and your mom thinks she has Catching Fire, but maybe she loaned it to someone else, and you are going nuts wondering what happens to Katniss and Peeta and Prim and Gale and Buttercup, and nine bucks is actually a pretty good price for a hardcover. Sometimes you just really want to know what Margaret Atwood has been up to. I regret none of these purchases.

Emailed by my aunt (One book)
• Good Kings, Bad Kings – Susan Nussbaum

When your aunt emails you the novel she’s been working on and asks for your opinion, the potential for catastrophe and Thanksgiving awkwardness is always looming, ominously. Fortunately, my aunt’s book was funny, fantastic and infuriating. I’m not the only one who thinks so—Good Kings, Bad Kings just won the PEN/Bellwether Prize and will be published next spring. Crisis averted. The best way to swing this is to find a friend who is on the brink of writing the next Great American Novel, and say, “I would love to look it over, if you feel comfortable with that.” This is also the most fiscally responsible way to acquire books, because once the book is published, you can ask your friend for a signed copy in exchange for all of your helpful comments. Later on, you can sell your signed copies to finance your retirement.


Elise Nussbaum lives in Jersey City with a husband and a cat. She is currently blogging her closet at Photo: Shutterhacks/Flickr


26 Comments / Post A Comment

<3 the Amazon wishlist. However, maybe I'm just doing something wrong, but it seems like if you add a (paper) version of a book to your wishlist, there is no easy way to buy the Kindle version, or even *see* those books on your Kindle. It seems like a major oversight.

My girlfriend bought me a couple of really great books off there for my birthday in May, but I still haven't finished them because I mostly read during my commute, and one of them is a huge massive tome and the other has a slightly embarrassing title, so I don't usually read them on the train. While there is something to be said for the physicality of a book as a gift, I think I'd rather have the Kindle versions.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@stuffisthings @stuffisthings I feel your pain! I have had 1Q84 since Xmas, and I love Murakami, but it’s a doorstopper. I had no problem reading Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl on the train, though, and I can’t think of a more embarrassing title.

@cryptolect One of my local bookstores actually has a “Doorstops” table. I think 1Q84 is on there; I know Les Miserables is.

@cryptolect I’ve also seen people reading 50 Shades of Gray (not to mention lots of just terrible schlock) but I have major train neurosis. Like, I wonder if people can hear the music coming from my earbuds and are judging me. Also the book I’m worried about is The History of White People and I think the prospect that someone might think it’s, like, a David Duke tract is far worse than someone thinking I’m into mild S&M or whatever.

@stuffisthings Speaking of which: go have a look at the 1-star reviews of that book. Wow.

ThatJenn (#916)

@stuffisthings I’m sad that nobody I know wants to buy me the Kindle version of anything. Which I get – having nothing to wrap and not knowing when something arrives is not very fun. But I, too, would rather have the Kindle version than the physical version for most things (unless it’s something I know I’ll want to lend to friends).

cryptolect (#1,135)

@stuffisthings You don’t have to read far to get the gold, do you?

“White men were described almost uniformly with disparaging words. For example, the word ‘ilk’ was used for a number of Presidents of the United States.”

alpacasloth (#108)

I am impressed that you read 59 books last year, then I realized that if my commute allowed for reading instead of driving that maybe I could read that many books too. My goal is 25 this year.

I finally got smart and started going to my local libraries this year. Almost all of the books I want to read are available to me, for free! I still buy books occasionally, because some books are definitely worth buying, but the library has saved me so much money this year.

Important question: which books were your favorite from this list? I always need new recommendations!

cryptolect (#1,135)

@alpacasloth I’ve also wised up and started going to the library, but the selection is not always the best. They do okay on contemporary fiction, though. My three favorite books from 2011 were:

Fingersmith – Sarah Waters (clever, twisty, sort of Dickensian novel about nineteenth-century pickpockets, which also owes a huge debt to Wilkie Collins)
Main Street – Sinclair Lewis (surprisingly proto-feminist take on early twentieth-century small-town life in America)
The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood (companion volume to Oryx and Crake, but with much better-drawn characters and a more suspenseful plot)

Let me know if those sound up your alley!

alpacasloth (#108)

@cryptolect I read mostly contemporary fiction and memoirs with the odd European history book mixed in so I feel like I need to move out of my literary comfort zone. I’m making a note to look for Main Street and The Year of the Flood. Thank you!

mcv (#1,498)

@cryptolect For most public library systems the selection is far more varied than you could guess by looking in a branch or even a local system card catalogue. Ask your librarians about inter-library loans.

Aunt_Pete (#693)

I pick up a lot of books from free boxes on the street! I live near Capitol Hill and summer weekends are prime. My most recent acquisition was “Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire” but I’ve also picked up copies of “I Capture the Castle”, “Silas Marner” and some book about naval Antarctic explorations that I can’t remember the title of right now.

jane lane (#281)

I recently found a coupon code for free shipping up to $25 with a minimum of a $10 order. I got 11 books for around $9 (one of my books ended up being out of stock and they refunded the full price of the shipping I didn’t pay) by buying a bunch of $.75 books from two sellers. It was pretty awesome.

Megano! (#124)

I used to bookmooch so much, until Canada’s ridiculous postage rates meant I couldn’t afford to anymore. Also everything I wanted either wasn’t there or wasn’t available to me. I feel bad, but I buy most of my new books from amazon, and the rest from BMV (a massive Toronto used books chain). If I do buy stuff from Chapters/Indigo/Coles, it’s usually from the bargain bin (sorry authors/publishing houses, I do know you don’t get money from these sales. Give me steady employment and I will buy full price!).

Katzen-party (#219)

@Megano! You don’t have to feel bad about buying remainders (the stuff in the bargain bin)! You may not be directly supporting the author or the publisher, but you’re keeping books in circulation (some of them might be destroyed if not for remaindering) AND you’re supporting your bookstore. I work for a large independent bookstore and I can tell you that of all the books we sell (virtually all of which must be sold at a price point set by the publishers so there’s not much wiggle room there), they have the biggest profit margin for us.

But I hope you get steady employment for your sake and not so much for the sake of the booksellers (though, thanks!).

Megano! (#124)

@Katzen-party …not from an independent bookstore either!! I am the worst!

selenana (#673)

@Megano! I used to use book mooch a ton too, but the overseas postage gets spendy. In the U.S. they used to have that book rate, but I think it’s gone now? I feel like it wasn’t ever 2.50 to send a book if you sent it media mail. Also agree with the author that the selection’s not GREAT but there’s definitely always something you wanna read.

mishaps (#65)

It is worth noting that if no one buys new books, your aunt will not be able to make a living as a writer, and if they only buy new books from Amazon, she will not have anywhere to do signings.

Not saying I don’t love me some secondhand books, but let’s also celebrate the new book bought after browsing in a great bookstore as an affordable pleasure.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@mishaps This may or may not help, but when I buy presents for people with a favorite bookstore, I buy it at that bookstore and that fact becomes part of the present.

kellyography (#250)

That’s my neighborhood book sale, too! As soon as I saw this article, I thought about the Grace Church book sale. It’s what I attend religiously every Sunday instead of services.

Katzen-party (#219)

@kellyography Church rummage sales are one of my favorite places to pick up used books…but they are admittedly a total crapshoot. Sometimes their book tables are full of nothing but religious-themed fiction and non-fiction or (shudder) self-help/diet books. But sometimes you can leave with an armload of good stuff and only have shelled out four or five bucks.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@kellyography Maybe I will see you there! But only after I’ve read down my backlog a bit. Actually, probably sooner than that.

bacon (#1,500) can be really good on prices, often with free shipping; has a large selection and does good things in recycling and raising money for libraries. Amazon, of course, is great but unfortunately quite the opposite when it comes to ethics — horrible labor practices and with dreams of world domination — so I try hard not to use them if at all poss. Most thrift shops also have books, though some are raising their prices to unconscionable levels. Also, help independent booksellers by browsing on

cryptolect (#1,135)

@bacon @bacon I’ve never heard of Betterworldbooks! Will definitely check it out, thanks!

Great article! Although you were able to polish of 59 books in a year without borrowing a single one, I want to make a case for the local library. Saves money, saves clutter. Even when I travel I join the local library whenever possible. Less to pack.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@Lynn Braz@facebook I am getting reacquainted with the local library and just checked out James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. Definitely worth the stroll!

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