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 BookMooch.com 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.