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October 26, 2005

Confessions of a Book Review Junkie

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I love reading book reviews.

I read them every day in The New York Times back in the days when I bought it at the news stand or subscribed to it. I grind my teeth in mild frustration on Mondays -- that's the day The Wall Street Journal doesn't print a book review. And I look forward to Fridays when their Weekend section has one long review along with a couple shorties.

When my monthly copy of Commentary arrives in the mail I agonize over which to read first, the book reviews or Terry Teachout's music article.

And if they display the whole thing and not a teaser snippet, I read reviews on the Weekly Standard's Web page.

Furthermore, I feel guilty that I don't always buy and read the Claremont Review of Books more often. But it's a quarterly that I don't often see on news stands and I sometimes forget about it.

Worse, I now must confess the shameful fact that (shhh) I read book reviews as a substitute for reading the books themselves.

If you strip away the cultural/scholarly mystique, book reviews are, well, just reviews like one finds in Consumer Reports or car magazines. Read the review and save $34.95 ($26.49 at if the book gets panned by a reviewer you trust.

Even a favorable review might not be enough to get me to buy the book. If it's a one-idea book and the review conveys that single idea, I'm not normally motivated to buy the book to find out how the author dresses it up.

What's more, I use book reviews simply to keep up with intellectual trends, though I find the Internet increasingly useful for that purpose -- actually, I rely a lot more on the Web than reviews nowadays.

Another confession: I still buy a lot more books than I ought to. Without researching my Visa statements, I'll guess that I spend about $225-275 a month on books. That's way too much. Is there such a thing as Bookbuyers Anonymous?



posted by Donald at October 26, 2005


I buy far too many books, too. I just seem to like the act of buying them, looking for them, having them in bookshelves and stacked about the house (and if you what a minimalist, neat freak I am......). I find books comforting. That's my bougie explanation.

Posted by: MD on October 26, 2005 9:23 PM

Don't know if you have any kids. If not, get some! Magazine and book reading goes down immediately. Magazine and book buying soon follows as it becomes apparent, slowly (very slowly when you're a guy), that the great incoming tide of words will swallow you up unless you immediatley cease and desist with the purchasing.
The good part is that cd consumption increases with the drop in written word consumption. Need some music din to drown out the kid din.

Posted by: DarkoV on October 27, 2005 7:18 AM

I love the New York Review of Books, especially the online version. I can research lots of content I've missed, and while there's a lot of political content that doesn't apply to me as a Canadian, there's more than enough on other subjects.

Posted by: Aaron on October 27, 2005 8:32 AM

One in three has bought a book just to look intelligent

John Ezard
Monday October 24, 2005
The Guardian

Books are the new snobbery, according to a survey today. Social competitiveness about which titles we read has become one of the new mass forces of the era and only middle-aged people are relatively free of it.

Driven partly by pressure from incessant literary prize shortlists, more than one in three consumers in London and the south-east admit having bought a book "solely to look intelligent", the YouGov survey says.

It finds one in every eight young people confessing to choosing a book "simply to be seen with the latest shortlisted title". This herd instinct dwindles to affect only one in 20 over-50 year-olds.

Article continues,6109,1599060,00.html

[Linked to at Marginal Revolution, posting by Tyler Cowen: ]

Posted by: Dave Lull on October 27, 2005 9:14 AM

No, one must always have a store of books in reserve just in case. It's a worthy pursuit. (And, no, I'm not kidding. For once.)

Having been there, I can tell you a worse feeling is being in the position where you whittle down the stack and actually make it to the end. Bereft comes close to describing the feeling, but doesn't do it justice. Maybe the Germans have a nice word for it, like they do for weltschmerz. Or maybe the French have one. Anyone?

Posted by: Yahmdallah on October 27, 2005 10:13 AM

If there is a Bookbuyers Anon sign me up too. I find that nothing perks me up after a long day at my desk (in a law firm), when I'm staring out of the window and wondering why I didn't go into a creative field, like hitting amazon or alibris. Of course I do feel mildly guilty afterwards, sometimes, but I also do read the books!

Posted by: MJ on October 27, 2005 10:41 AM

I read reviews in lieu of the books, too. After reading a Commentary review you often know more about the subject than the book's authors. There's too much out there to be able to read every book that comes down the pike. Oh, and instead of buying books, you can always check them out of the library. This is especially sound when you're only mildly interested in the book. If you absolutely love it, you can always pick up a copy later.

Posted by: Rachel on October 27, 2005 10:43 AM

I have never, though, bought to look intelligent (I'm 35+). I was cured of caring about carrying the latest shortlist after the last time that I purchased a shortlist with intent to read and found that it, like so much else in life, was sadly overhyped. Think it was Atonement. Yech, enough already.

Posted by: MJ on October 27, 2005 10:44 AM

Rachel makes a good point and one that raises a question. My wife sings the same song about why I seemingly HAVE to buy a book instead of BORROWING it from the library. Without invoking the Sexism Inquisition, I'd ask the following question.

Which sex is MORE likely to BUY a book rather than BORROW a book?

Reviewing my own dilemna, I'd rather buy than borrow. so I'll say MEN. Possessive of ideas, I guess.

Posted by: DarkoV on October 27, 2005 10:51 AM

Full disclosure: I'm a librarian. (Though I don't work in a public library.) But I still don't buy that many books--well lots of secondhand/paperback mysteries, but those I give away when I'm through with them. Partly it's a matter of space. My bookshelves are full and so are my closets--between shoes and books I'll have to rent another apartment if I want to buy more. So I tend to be more selective in what I buy. There's an awful lot of crap out there. Not to mention stuff that I'll read once and know I'll never want to read again.

Posted by: Rachel on October 27, 2005 11:12 AM

I'm female and buy. I don't even bother with libraries any more (used to when I lived in a college town) - they never have what I want! Even affluent suburbs, if they have recently developed, still have small, lackluster libraries with too few volumes to offer (and most of which are too old).

Posted by: mj on October 27, 2005 12:00 PM

Thought my bookbuying is not typical and didn't comment first, than reconsidered: given divorce rates in US, it is typical, actually.

Filtering our books into two piles was the most painful part of property division.

Feeling like an one-armed invalid now, with half of familiar book spines missing, I'd made long lists of future acquisitions to fill up the gap: when I'll finally settle down for my own apartment and could measure up the wall for new bookcases.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 27, 2005 1:23 PM

Tatyana, wow, this sort of dilemma would never have occurred to me!

BTW, I just bought 100 books last weekend (for about $250) via (see also my list of tips for buying online).

Donald: I don't know if my book budget tops yours in the long run, but truthfully I have never regretted buying a single book in my life.

Think of it this way: a typical college course would cost several hundred dollars. Buying these books is just an investment in personal development. Of course, it's possible to take anything too far.

On another note: my recent purchase of an ebookwise 1150 changed my book acquisition habits pretty dramatically. The highlight of my day is visiting the What's New page on public domain texts and downloading texts. I usually download 5 public domain texts a day and read them on my ebookwise (for no cost at all!) It's a totally guilt-free form of acquisition.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on October 27, 2005 2:09 PM

I would be a book buying junkie if I could afford to be. New books are so much more gorgeous and lovely than library books, it's sad but true.

Reviews seem to be getting better though, they are often at least as much fun to read as the actual books, and do give you a lot of actual information in a shortcut way as well. I think they've evolved into their own art form with its own merits.

Posted by: Alice on October 27, 2005 2:44 PM

Wow, that's a big monthly book-buying nut! I haven't used a books library myself in years. Given that I live in a smallish apartment, I run out of bookspace about once a year and have to move some books along. So I pack 'em up and send 'em to a library. Charitable me, eh? I wonder if anyone's using that library ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 27, 2005 3:04 PM

As a librarian myself, I must admit that when I worked at the library I took out books every day. My problem was bringing them back.

I found some real treasures just by scanning the stacks--stuff I never would have found in a bookstore.

Women outnumber men in library use by about three to one, in my experience. Women like fiction generally and men love reading about the Civil War and World War II. There are many exceptions to this rule.

I seldom go to my local (bright, shiny, new) library. Why? The main floor is devoted to media. All the good books are either out or have been discarded, and are obviously considered beside the point to everyone involved.

If our public education system continues along present lines, no one will buy or borrow books. They won't know how to read them.

Posted by: miriam on October 27, 2005 4:30 PM

Okay, I checked my Visa bills covering mid-May through Mid-August. My average monthly book expenditure over those 3 months was $216. Actually, that's not quite right because at one place I shopped, the item might have been art supplies. On the other hand, I sometimes pay cash for inexpensive remaindered books. So call it $235 a month.

Now for a few specific replies...

Darko -- My kids are grown, but when they were young they were in bed in time for me to get some reading in. Later on, they managed their evenings (aside from me trying to keep them away from the TV all the time) and was able to read as well. Maybe I'll do a quick posting on how my reading habits changed over my life-cycle.

Dave -- Very interesting. I was guilty of that myself, though with other media more than books. (I saw a lot of Bergman movies -- oops, FILMS --when college age just, well, because. I found them really boring, but didn't admit it then. Today, I'm not sure just how I might react to them. Hmmm. Grist for yet another posting?)

Rachel, Miriam, MJ -- When I was a kid (through college years) and when my consulting business was doing badly I used libraries heavily. Now I buy, but a lot of recent purchases are for reference. For some weird reason, I won't buy a used book unless it's out of print.

Tatyana -- The same thing can happen when one marries. In my case, The Fiancee would like me to ditch a good hunk of my books. If I moved to California after the wedding, that would be a must because her house is crammed with her clothes. (And did I mention all my filing cabinets full of Xeroxed demographic data?) But if she moves to Seattle (the present plan) her house there has a basement that'll hold most of my stash -- though I'll still have to do some weeding.

Robert -- Are you familiar with Powell's, the big Portland, OR new/used bookstore? (

Alice -- Yes, reviews often are a decent substitute for the real things.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 27, 2005 8:45 PM

I've got around 4,000 books here, and I've got five kids. So the having-kids-thing won't stop it. I keep a "want list" which is now up to 75 single-spaced pages, organized by category and source which recommended the book. Library is useless for me, I'm into somewhat obscure stuff in all the areas I'm interested by now, since I have already read the obvious stuff. I simply am not going to find Maitland's "Domesday Book and Beyond", or "If Germany Attacks The Battle in Depth in the West" by Graeme Chamley Wynne, to pick two, in the library. Which is fine, libraries have their place. I read about five books at a time, so that if I start to run out of steam on any of them I switch. But I get through a fair number this way.

Book reviews: TLS is always good. My brother in law brings a shopping bag of them over here a few times a year. The book reviews in the London Spectator are frequently excellent, and they have very knowledgeable reviewers.

I agree absolutely that the book reviews at the back of any magazine are the first place to look.

I'll also note that it was very sad that the WSJ a few years ago introduced its lame Personal section, and in the process dumbed-down its book reviews. A real loss.

Posted by: Lexington Green on October 27, 2005 9:36 PM

LG, how do you catalogue it? I stole this link don't remember where now and forwarded it to friends with book interests similar to yours, i.e., obscure-treasure-collectors. They love it (it gives you an opportunity to see other people's libraries and compare)

Posted by: Tatyana on October 27, 2005 10:34 PM

Worse, I now must confess the shameful fact that (shhh) I read book reviews as a substitute for reading the books themselves.

Gee that doesn't seem too shameful to me, Donald. Actually, it's useful: by allowing you to quickly get the gist of many books at once, it's possible to see patterns that might not jump out at you while laboriously plowing through the books. For example, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s many writers of so-called 'serious' fiction clearly got their ideas of reality (e.g., ubiquitous violence) from watching TV, not from any personal experience. This only became clear to me by using reviews to get a 50,000 ft. overview of the fiction scene.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 28, 2005 12:18 AM

Friedrich -- As you can tell by my phrasing, I was largely just horsing around, tossing off some ideas in ways that I hoped would entertain people. Maybe it's me, maybe it's something generational, but I've had this back-of-the-mind notion that books were slightly sacred. For that reason, I don't bend page corners as bookmarks or otherwise abuse them, More recently, I'm drifting a tad in Michael's direction of book-as-tool. So that sentence was a riff on guilt-tripping; reading a free summary when you reaily ought to read the real thing. Actually, I do use reviews as a means of following intellectual and certain cultural trends, though the Web is now taking over those tasks, as I noted.

Your remark about fiction patterns is interesting. Fits into (medium) self-referential stuff in movies. Or perhaps lack of experience by writers, especially young ones. (In college I took a creative writing course and had to draw on other fiction since I had very little non-normal personal experiences as grist.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 28, 2005 8:03 AM

Did someone really write that "Atonement" is overhyped? The blasphemy.

Donald P: I read a lot, too, but it sounds like you've got to slow down.

Posted by: jult52 on October 28, 2005 11:22 AM

My greatest fear in life is that one day I will drive up to the elder care home with a stack of books to get rid of, and they will lock the door and pretend to be not at home.
If I can help it, I don't buy books, but the chain bookstore are open until midnight, even on Sunday. It's just so much easier.

Have we really been stuck with the "Personal Journal" for years? "Pursuits" has made me lose all faith.

Posted by: j.c. on October 29, 2005 3:08 PM

Tatyana, I don't catalogue it. I have it all on shelves and I know where everything is.

I'll check out that link, thanks.

Posted by: Lexington Green on October 30, 2005 11:21 PM

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