‘Read What I Own’ – my 2019 challenge

I love books.

No, I really, really love books.

One of my earliest memories is of sitting on the floor of our kitchen in Edinburgh, “reading” my mum’s cookbooks. When I went to nursery, my mum got a ticking off, because I could already read, but I had not learned in whatever way it was that was approved in the early 1980s. Thankfully, she ignored the ticking off and both my parents (and my wider family) encouraged me to read through my childhood and teenage years.

It’s probably not surprising then that I chose A Level subjects where you did a lot of reading, and then a degree where you did a lot of reading. But the real light bulb moment for me was a visit to Palace Green Library in my final year of undergraduate studies at Durham, organised by the late Jenny Britnell, to see several sixteenth-century French bibles. These books were beautiful, and practical, and dangerous, and I fell in love with sixteenth-century printing there and then, and *ahem* years later, I make my living teaching and researching about early modern books and the impact they had on the people who made them and read them.

For the most part, this career choice was perfect. I travel, I read, I write, I teach. However, over the last few years, I’ve noticed a few bad habits creeping in – mainly to do with my attitude to buying and reading books. When you study books for a living, any purchase is justifiable. When you travel a lot, you have to make quick decisions in strange bookshops you might not return to about what to buy – and I am haunted by the musings of a senior colleague who once noted that they’d never regretted buying a book, just the books they had not bought. I even prefer taking the train and Eurostar to Paris rather than the plane, so I don’t have to worry about my bag being overweight on the return leg, after a trip to Gibert Joseph and Gibert Jeune. Back home, I buy books in high street book shops (good value), charity shops (extremely good value and virtuous – kind of), and independent book shops (extremely virtuous). I try not to buy in supermarkets and I would never buy a “fun” book that I can get on the high street via an online retailer. I’m less saintly when it comes to work books, I must admit, as colleagues who’ve seen my pigeon hole at work can attest.

There were signs that this was getting out of hand. I’m not just talking about accidentally buying another copy of a book I already own. No, I’m talking calling a colleague to check my office because I was in Gibert Joseph and I couldn’t remember if I already had copies of three separate items. I’m talking setting myself a book budget per month in 2018 which I had blown by January 10th. I’m talking opening a parcel with a book inside, not sure when I’d ordered it, putting it on my shelf and only realising three months later when I picked it up and a note fell out that it was a gift from a friend. I have piles of books on top of books on top of bookshelves in every room of my house apart from the loo (and that’s mainly because the loo is so close to the spare room and the bedroom, so I don’t have far to go). Most of my family now refuse to buy me books – they are scared they will get me the wrong thing, even though I’ve said that’s pretty much not possible.

And the ridiculous thing is, I don’t read as much as I used to. I read so much for work and think about books so much that when I get home, often the last thing I want to do is to read a book. Certainly not the kind of *important* literary fiction I think I should be reading. And how to pick which book to read anyway? I recently posted a tweet of the books by my bed and there were 27 AND A KINDLE. Over the years I’ve got more and more into the habit of having several books on the go at once – and rarely finishing any of them. That’s possibly linked to how I use books for work – it’s relatively rare that I will sit down and read a whole academic tome cover to cover, unless I am writing a review of it, but that’s not great if you want to while away a few hours reading for fun. I am just spoiling myself with choice. Book historians are very aware that just because people owned books, that doesn’t mean they read them – but I was starting to feel overwhelmed by my books. And that was horrid.

I don’t really do New Year’s Resolutions – except for my annual one to always accept a glass of sparkling wine when offered – but I did want to set myself a challenge this year. I’m calling it ‘Read what I Own’ and I’m categorising it as a resolution-challenge. The rules (or criteria, which sounds a bit less harsh) are:

  • I have to read ten books I already own before I can buy a new book
    • I can save this up to make the most of bookshop offers – so if I want to do a ‘buy one get one half price’ affair, I need to have read twenty books
  • This goes for work books as well as “fun” books
    • I think I will have to do these as separate lists, otherwise I might not get to buy any “fun” books all year
  • I can use libraries (I’d not be able to do my job otherwise) but these reads don’t count towards the total
  • I can suggest books to our university library for reading lists (again, so I can do my job)
  • I can be given books as gifts (and I can buy books to give as gifts – but I have to actually give them, not sit up reading them carefully so I don’t break the spine)
  • There are two situations where I can “buy in advance” – when I am en France, and when I am at academic conferences. As any academic will tell you, academic books are very expensive, and the discounts at conferences are essential to make them affordable. But if I do this, I have to make it up (so if I’m only seven books into my ten, I have to read another thirteen before I can buy a new book).

I’m not making up too many rules about the order in which I read my stockpile. I’ll be posting about the challenge on Twitter (as it seemed to strike a bit of a chord) and writing up longer thoughts here. And we shall see how it goes.

Bonne lecture!


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Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. Interested in all things early modern, European, news & print-culture and higher ed teaching related.

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