I’m addicted to books—not reading them, but buying them.
I’m extremely good at starting books, and equally bad at finishing them.
When it comes to reading, I follow a 80-20 rule: For the 80% of books I start, I fail to read past the first 20%.
I have about 50 books on my shelf with the bookmark placed somewhere around page 20—or 50, if it’s a page-turner. (Which is why I always take those free bookmarks if they are available. I need them.)
If I have a free afternoon when I’m traveling in a new city, rationality tells me that I should spend it reading the 3 books I brought with me. However, I always end up typing “bookstore” into Google Maps, going to the city’s best bookstore and coming out with at least 2 new books that I definitely do not have space for in my suitcase.
Bookstores are my sanctuary. A bookstore is where I go when I’m stressed, depressed, or feeling inadequate. Others drink to drown their sorrow. I buy books to bury it.
Knowledge is power. When I’m surrounded by books, I bask in the promise of a new, wiser, more knowledgeable me.
Very often, I’m in love less with the book itself, but more with the idea of owning it. I want to be the type of person who reads that book.
The question of “when will you actually get around to reading it?” is conveniently neglected as I cheerfully pick out a flawless new copy and walk to the cashier. I feel smarter already by the time the cashier passes me the book with the receipt in it. Strangely, the very act of purchasing a book gives me a lot of comfort and satisfaction. It’s like how you feel more fit after buying a new pair of yoga pants (“I have an active lifestyle!”).
Of course, there’s Amazon, but physical bookstores are all about serendipity and discovery. The fun is in the act of browsing.
I love the thrill of finding out there’s a book about an obscure subject that you care about (I recently read a book about a foreigner’s experience working in Japan), or that someone you know in real life has written a book (the other day I saw a book written by a college classmate on the bestselling shelf of a bookstore. And felt strangely proud while buying it. This also happens with books written by Harvard professors that I’ve never crossed path with.)
There’s an adrenaline rush the moment you decide you want to own a book. It’s like committing to a relationship.
I love the fresh smell of print as I leaf through the perfect pages.
I love the idea that for the price of a burrito, I can own a piece of someone else’s mind.
Several bookstores have shaped my life.
Tongren bookstore in Changchun was where I spent probably an hour every week, from age 10 to 16. As a Chinese kid trying to learn English but had never been abroad, English books and magazines were my window to the outside world. I bought a monthly magazine for English learning. In one of the issues, they printed Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream. I memorized the whole speech (mostly to learn the vocabulary) and that became the subject matter of a Common App essay that got me into Harvard.
When I went to high school in Singapore, the Kinokuniya at Ngee Ann City cured my anxiety as the only student in the English literature class whose native language is not English. I spent lots of time in the literature section and bought books on Shakespeare, which definitely gave me a leg up as I borrowed turns of phrases from those literary criticisms in my school essays.
While at Harvard, the liberal arts education exposed me to a wide range of subject matters that I was previously unfamiliar with. Having the Harvard Bookstore right in the middle of Harvard Square was dangerously convenient. For example, if I was taking a break from studying for a final exam in American History, I would stroll to the Harvard Bookstore’s American History section and buy a couple volumes on the subject—and somehow feel more confident about the exam (even though I would be lucky if I got around to reading them before graduation).
New hobbies, new classes, new jobs… These are all excuses for buying new books. In sophomore year, I started learning Japanese. This unleashed a whole new reason to buy books in a new language. In the US, I bought books for Japanese learners written in English. When I moved to China, I was pleasantly reminded that there’s a whole new world of books for Japanese learners written in Chinese, and promptly filled a section of my bookshelf with that. So when I travelled to Japan and discovered that there were whole bookstores filled with books in Japanese, you can imagine my excitement (and the weight of my suitcase).
At any time, there is a small hill of newly acquired volumes on my desk that I will get to “at some point”. There are so many of them that I don’t even know where to start.
And the lack of time for reading has become a source of stress itself. Even when I do get to sit down to actually read a book, my attention span is rarely long enough to get me through more than 20 pages.
What do I do to cure that stress? I resort to “book retail therapy”—I go to a bookstore and buy more books.
Thus the vicious cycle of “too many books—no time to read—stress—more books” continues.
I console myself that being addicted to book-buying is much better than other addictions.
After all, books are good for you.