Why Do People Buy Books They Don’t Read?

0. TBR! TBR!

Regardless of whether your passion is for books, films, games or comics, the chances are that your home contains a large stockpile of unconsumed culture. Depending upon the exact nature of your passion, this stockpile can take a number of different forms including:

  • A pile of books marked ‘To Be Read’
  • An array of downloaded or recorded TV series you need to ‘Catch Up On’
  • A Steam account containing games boasting zero hours of play
  • A shelf groaning under the weight of shrink-wrapped DVD box sets

As perverse as this kind of cultural opulence might seem, it is as nothing when compared to the mind-boggling absurdity of our tendency to buy new books and films when we have dozens of perfectly wonderful titles sitting at home on a shelf. Why do we do it? Why do we buy books we don’t read? The answer lies in our postmodern condition, the economics of human attention and the ever-changing nature of the self.

1. We Are What We Buy

There is a wonderful scene at the end of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) where the adrenaline-soaked bomb disposal expert returns home to the US and finds himself frozen in terror before a wall of supermarket peanut butter. The source of the man’s terror is not the peanut butter itself but rather the realisation that he has no basis for making a meaningful choice between the different brands, textures and flavours of peanut butter. Horrified by this newfound freedom, the character promptly returns to Iraq in search of a simpler (albeit far more dangerous) existence. This scene perfectly encapsulates what some thinkers refer to as the postmodern condition.

Postmodernism means a million different things to a million different people but one can think of it as the realisation that the world contains no objective values. On one hand, this realisation is liberating because it allows us to live our lives unconstrained by the feeling that what we are doing might be objectively wrong. On the other hand, this realisation deprives us of the sense of satisfaction that comes from doing something objectively right. In other words, while postmodernism may have freed us from the oppression of traditional values, this liberation cost us the ability to live lives filled with meaning and certainty. To speak of the postmodern condition is thus to speak of a profound spiritual malaise that stems from the fact that all of our choices are arbitrary and that, no matter who we decide to become, we could just as easily have chosen to become someone else. Like the character attempting to buy peanut butter, we are inundated by choices and yet have no basis for making a meaningful decision.

This aspect of the postmodern condition is explored in the TV series Dexter.  Dexter Morgan is a psychopath who struggles to understand the thought processes of normal humans. Aware of Dexter’s proclivities, his adoptive father attempts to ‘solve’ Dexter’s alienation from human values by teaching him a code that might allow him to function in human society while also assuaging his urge to kill. Initially, Dexter treats the code as an objective value about the world but as the series progresses, he realises that the code is really nothing more than a set of arbitrary principles imposed upon him by a hypocritical authority figure. Once Dexter realises that there are no objective values, the code begins to seem flimsy and its moral elements cease to provide him with much satisfaction. Though Dexter explores a number of radically different solutions to this problem throughout the series, it is interesting to note that all of his solutions retain an obsession with the ritualistic elements of the kill. Indeed, while Dexter may kill a number of different people for a number of different reasons, he always has his killing room and he always retains a physical trophy.

Dexter’s obsession with the physical trappings of his passion reflects a very human need to lend the things we care about some kind of physical form. By killing in a certain way, Dexter is reminding himself (and the world) that he is a particular type of person. Similarly, when we purchase certain kinds of product, we are reminding ourselves (and the world) that we are the kind of person that buys those kinds of things. For example, my DVD collection marks me out as a fan of art house cinema, just as my collection of critical texts marks me out as someone with an interest in criticism. I buy these things because I enjoy them, but I also buy them because I want to remind myself that I am that sort of person. Purchasing decisions not only serve to broadcast my identity, they also lend a form of concrete physical reality to a sense of self that has been rendered flimsy by decades of postmodern deconstruction.

2. Clicking is Easier than Reading

The more observant of you will have noticed that, while the above paragraph talks about purchasing decisions as a means of broadcasting one’s identity, it does not mention the transformative powers of the books and films themselves. The reason for this omission is that buying a book is quite different to reading a book and this is precisely why people buy books they do not read.

Broadcasting one’s identity through consumerism is a mature and complex system in so far as it is possible to vary one’s identity through subtle shifts in purchasing behaviour. For example, when I buy Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006) on DVD, I am broadcasting the fact that I am someone who knows enough about anime to buy that kind of film. However, if I buy the exact same film on Blu-ray, then I am also broadcasting the fact that I care enough about the film to pay a premium in order to own it on a non-conventional format. Indeed, one reason why Blu-ray survives as a format is because it allows fans of particular films to reassert their devotion to certain films by buying them again in a more expensive format. People who own The Godfather trilogy on Blu-ray are not just saying they love The Godfather, they are saying that they love The Godfather enough to buy it twice. This also explains why people keep buying and re-buying all the different re-releases of Red Dwarf and Star Trek.


Aside from expressing varying degrees of affection for particular films and books, consumerism also allows us to express our aspirations. For example, when I purchase Paprika on DVD, I am not just asserting my identity as an anime fan, I am also expressing my desire to be the kind of person who has seen Paprika and who can discuss it in a knowledgeable manner. The gap between these two different identities provides us with some insight into the puzzle of unread books.

To become an expert on Dostoyevsky would require a lifetime of study and an inexhaustible fascination with comically scandalous dinner parties. While I can think of no goal worthier than becoming an expert on Dostoyevsky, it is nonetheless worth noting that the role of expert is not the only role available to us. For example, those of us who grow easily bored with scandalous dinner parties might refrain from devoting our lives to Dostoyevsky but this does not mean that we cannot read all of his work and enjoy what it is that we have read. We can become that person a lot easier than we can become the internationally renowned scholar. Those of us with other interests might even want to become the kind of person who has read and enjoyed a few of Dostoyevsky’s novels but ultimately prefers fantasy novels involving dragons and elves. Again, we can become this person as long as we have enough care and attention to fill that particular role. One of the reasons why consumerism is so popular as a mode of self-expression is because it allows us to begin climbing this sort of aspirational ladder without investing very much time or effort. Indeed, in order to become the kind of person who owns all of Dostoyevsky’s novels, all that is required is the time and dedication it takes to place an online order.

The French philosopher Voltaire once stated that, when faced by the collapse of all values and the death of God, the only thing left for us to do is to cultivate our garden. While this enigmatic response to the spiritual void of atheism has drawn a lot of different responses, my interpretation is that we should respond to the death of all values by investing our care and attention into a particular identity or worldview. The garden we are tending is the garden of our own subjective values and by investing care and attention in these values; we build a garden of meaning that (at the very least) distracts us from the meaninglessness of existence.


If we feed this idea back into our discussion of Dostoyevsky-related consumerism we find that the more one invests in a particular ladder of aspiration, the more satisfying that ladder becomes. I imagine there is a good deal of satisfaction to be had in looking back over a life devoted to the study of Dostoyevsky. Similarly, there is a good deal of pleasure to be found in reading all of his novels but while this pleasure and sense of accomplishment is far greater than the pleasure we get from being the kind of person who owns all the novels, this does not mean that there is no pleasure at all to be had in being that person. One of the great virtues of consumerism as a form of self-expression is that it allows us to make small investments for small returns.

We buy books we do not read because the act of buying a book is in and of itself rewarding. Indeed, while the pleasure to be had in being the kind of person who owns a Powell and Pressburger box set is much less than the pleasure to be had in being the kind of person who is an expert on their work, the economics of human care and attention mean that the buzz we get from expressing ourselves through consumerism is often more than adequate to justify the financial cost of the objects we purchase.

However, while the economics of human attention along with the self-expressive powers of consumerism may explain why there is value in buying books you do not read, they do not account for the fact that hardly anyone consciously buys books, films and games purely for the sake of owning them. In order to explain this, we need to consider the fact that our sense of self is in a constant state of flux.

3.    You are not the Person You were when You bought that Book

What were you thinking when you spent your time screaming and shitting yourself? Why would you just lie there while your parents changed your filthy undergarments? What were you thinking when you spent four hours sucking face with a thirteen-year old girl or gave a blowjob to the guy in the letterman jacket who said he liked your hair?

The answer to all of these questions is that we are not the people we were as infants and teenagers and so should probably not be held to account for our actions at the time.

Why did you spend an hour laughing uproariously at your own jokes before puking your guts out? Why did you lie in bed for an entire week without eating properly? What kind of person believes that they are a golden god and decides to jump off a roof?

Again, the answer to all of these questions is that we were ill, drunk or high when we did those things and so should probably not be judged by the same set of criteria we use to judge actions undertaken in a normal frame of mind.

So if we are not the same people we were in our youth and we are not the same people we are when we are off our heads, when do we get to be ourselves? What is a ‘normal frame of mind’? According to an array of philosophers stretching back at least as far as David Hume, there is no time at which we get to be ourselves because there is no such thing as the self, there is only the thing that does the experiencing at any given moment. As Hume himself put it in A Treatise Concerning Human Understanding (1739):

When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure.  I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.  When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist.  And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity

While I leave it to people more learned than I to flesh out the link between the rising popularity of Hume’s attack on the self and the postmodernist attack on the idea of objective narratives, it is nonetheless interesting to note how compatible these two ideas can be.

Thanks to the influence of postmodernism, we use consumerism as a way of making our lives more meaningful and our values less flimsy. However, while postmodernism asserts that there are no objective values ‘out there’, Hume and his intellectual descendants assert that there is no fixed self ‘in here’. Combine these two observations and you have a perfect explanation for why people buy books they do not read.

As our neural chemistry fluctuates and our sense of self is re-drawn, the things we care about tend to change. One day we are all about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and the following day we are all about the films of Michael Haneke. While some areas of interest stay fixed over long periods of time, there is no denying the fact that what we care about changes on a day-to-day basis. Indeed, what we care about changes because who we are changes.

While our sense of self is in a constant state of flux, the illusion of homogeneity is almost complete meaning that it is subjectively impossible to tell whether we are serious about Dostoyevsky or whether this is just a passing fad that will be gone tomorrow. The illusion of homogenous selfhood also explains why we struggle to notice when it is that we are being irrational. A beautiful example of this type of thing appears in the situation comedy 15 Storeys High. In this scene, a man announces his intention to lift weights using only one arm so that he can have one arm for tasks requiring strength and one arm for tasks requiring precision and delicacy such as icing cakes and stroking cats. After some discussion, it transpires that the man is only making this suggestion because he rode in a lift full of people smoking weed but his conviction that he is being perfectly reasonable is a beautiful example of how difficult it can be to tell the difference between a short-term self and more enduring long-term patterns.

One reason why we buy books we do not read is because when we buy them we think we are going to continue being a particular kind of person. However, when the neurochemical spike that created the Dostoyevsky fan dissipates, we are left with nothing but a collection of difficult books and the sheepish feeling that we might well have made a terrible mistake.


4.    In Defence of Unread Books

Many of us look upon our TBR piles with feelings of shame. Here are books and films that we know are worthy of our time and yet we somehow manage to find other things more demanding of our attention. Of course, the real source of our shame lies in the fact that we realise that we are not actually the kind of person who does care enough about Russian literature to read Anna Karenina or Oblomov. We may aspire to be that person but in truth, that is not who we are and these books serve as a very physical reminder of the fact that the self we have is not the self we would like. However, the more I think about it the more I think that these feelings of shame and disappointment are misplaced.

There is no way of telling what kind of person you will be next week, next month or next year. When you bought those books you never got round to reading you were the kind of person who was happy to spend a little bit of money for the short term pleasure of being the kind of person who owned those books. However, because there is no way of telling where your future interests may lie, tomorrow may well see you circling back towards those books. You could become the kind of person who reads and understands Dostoyevsky. You could become the kind of person who becomes an internationally renowned scholar of scandalous dinner parties. You could become any of these people and because you happen to own all the books, those identities are just that little bit easier to assume.

Many left-leaning thinkers pour scorn on consumerism as a hollow experience but my view of consumerism is that life is short and people need to take pleasure wherever they can find it. The great god Pan is dead and so is Baby Jesus and if owning a load of DVD box sets gives you joy then you should not feel any shame or regret about being that person because being the person who owns books he hasn’t read is far more rewarding than being the person who owns no books at all.


  1. Well, this is a much more uplifting post than your role-of-the-videogames-critic post! It’s made me feel rather better about my unread book stack (even if I am determined to plough through it this year, and am *almost* on-track to do so).

    There is perhaps something to be said about the projection of personality that consumerism allows and doing so through works of art, literature or entertainment feels more… legitimate to me than doing so through the things we adorn ourselves with. (I say this as a punk rocker who’s well aware of the irony that punks, like many subcultures, have their own ‘uniform’ – even if it is, or was, about ugliness rather than beauty.)

    All the same I’ve felt contempt towards those who knowingly do this since I was a teenager. We were reading a Doris Lessing novel in school and this was the first time I encountered the idea that well-off people would order in stacks of the latest highbrow literature purely in order to stock their shelves. They never had any intention of reading the books; it was naked cultural and class positioning.

    Still, it’s… really kind of nice to come at this idea from an angle of acceptance. I’ve certainly kicked myself over buying things I’ve never read/played/watched in the past. Sometimes my intentions have been good, on other occasions I was being thoughtless or greedy… but it’s all part of me.


  2. I think that accumulation of books is a learned response to their former scarcity. People who grew up during the 1940s and 1950s in the UK often have trouble with hoarding: they acquired their habits during a period of rationing, when consumer goods of all kinds were precious, and now find it hard to adapt to a material culture of plenty. Similarly with books: when I was young, I would visit bookshops regularly and scan the shelves for new science fiction. If I found something I wanted to read, if I didn’t buy it then I risked it not being there when I next returned.

    But that’s all changed. We now live in an era of plenty, where there’s no point in acquiring books unless you’re actually just about to read them, and no benefit to be had by showing off your collection. This is especially the case for the classics: it costs nothing to download the works of Dostoevsky from Project Gutenberg onto your e-book reader, so no-one’s going to be impressed if you do.

    There’s probably going to be a generational divide in how we adapt to this change, with the younger generation treating books as electronic disposables, and finding the older generation of hoarders as incomprehensible as we find those people who fill their houses with old newspapers.


  3. I think that your post raises a question of approval too. Do we tend to buy Dostoyevsky’s entire work just to get approval of other people or just for our own pleasure and comfort? If it is a shining, limited edition do they look upon us with greater appreciation? That’s why it might be possible to be more than simple consumerism.
    I am perfectly aware that I buy more books than I actually can read and plenty of those titles just wait on a bookshelf to be read, but I just want them for the reading experience and nothing else. Still, it happens sometimes for a book to come up into a conversation or a reference and I would like to pick it up immediately to see what it is about for myself. Then those acquisitions come in handy and I don’t have to wait for an order to be made or an access to a computer for getting the respective title electronically. It is just conveniently there. It is true that this thing happens more often with my geographical titles, but it does happen with my speculative fiction as well. Quite often lately.
    I guiltily thought of my books buying habit very often, but I accepted now. It is a part of me that makes me feel better after all. And my spending habits tend to limit only to books so no worries at the moment.


  4. Shaun — At the end of the day, life is short… way too short to find fault in the things that provide other people with joy. I know that I pad out my life with stuff and I think pretty much everyone else does too. My problem with a lot of the leftist commentary on all of this is that there’s an all-or-nothing attitude at work… either you become a proper Dostoyevsky-lover or you don’t bother. While there’s clearly something non-idea about buying yourself an identity, I think that that course of action is really no less sub-optimal than listening to cultural commentators who tell you that consumerism is a kind of spiritual poison.

    Punk is, as you say, partly about the uniform and I suspect that my observations about being a Dostoyevsky fan also hold for the punk rock lifestyle. Sure you can go full bore and spend your life riding the megabus and sleeping on people’s floors in order to play your music but you can also just wear the clothes and listen to the music. That second option is less rewarding because it involves less investment but it is still an option as it does provide its own (albeit limited) rewards.


  5. Gareth — I think that we are going to see a generational shift with regards to book hoarding. In particular, I think the hoarding of books as a means of expressing your erudition only has value in so far as people come round to your house and see the books. Increasingly, people are leading more of their social lives online or in public spaces as home sizes are shrinking and we no longer have the space to have people round. One result of this social shift is a move away from physical media and towards having all of your media stored in the cloud. Hence the rise of the kindle, the iPod, the iPad, TIVO, XBox achievements etc

    This is why people post pictures of their TBR piles to their blogs or use services like Goodreads to keep a public log of the books they have read. These are means of broadcasting your tastes and identity without the clutter of shelves full of books and DVDs


  6. Some really great observations! I felt that twinge of guilt for sometimes broadcasting my purchases, but than I think one of the purposes of social media is to allow us to project an ideal self to the world. As you say it makes us feel good about ourselves. For sometime I thought there was something wrong with me for not being one of those people who loves to have pristine hardcovers that have been signed or specific editions of books. I can see it as a way in which others identify themselves as book lovers when for me it’s more often the content that is important to my than its physical representation. Not that I am not proud to say what digital books I have bought to prove what kind of person I am. I wonder if the advent of social media has made us more consumerist to express ourselves now that we each have a built in audiance.


  7. Mihai — I think that some identities are more socially acceptable and desirable than others. For example, there’s more social cachet to be had from being the guy who wins all the shiny Dostoyevsky hardcovers than there is to be had from the guy who owns an extensive collection of bestial porn magazines.

    The question of how certain identities become socially desirable and whether or not a socially desirable identity is more subjectively rewarding than one that is not socially desirable is really interesting and I may return to it at a later date. Hmmm….

    I’ve actually gone back and forth a few times on my tendency to buy stuff I don’t need. For a while I loved in a one room flat with my GF and we didn’t have room for extraneous books or films and in those days I had what I actually referred to as an ‘identity shelf’ as it contained a selection of books that expressed who I was at that particular time. Now I’ve moved into a much bigger place with loads of storage space and the identity shelf is less clearly defined but it is still out there. It just changes place :-)

    One of the joys of hoarding is that while you may not be the Dostoyevsky guy today, you may well be him at some point in the future. In the last six months I’ve had a number of instances when I’ve suddenly wanted to have a book and have discovered that I actually did own the book in question. At the time I purchased those books, I wasn’t read to be the guy who had read them but now I evidently am :-)


  8. Hi Michaela :-)

    There is most definitely a sense in which facebook and blogs are a performative medium. Facebook is overflowing with apps allowing you to broadcast your purchases and the places you’ve been and the things we put online (whether they are essays, reviews or pictures of cats) do flow from some need to express ourselves in public forums.

    While I say in my post that consumerism is a mature system of self-expression, I don’t actually think that that’s true when it comes to managing one’s identity online. Consumerism works really well when what you’re doing is wearing certain clothes and having people round to your house to see all of your cool stuff but when everything is virtual, consumerism still lacks a solid vocabulary, which is why people use such vulgar and unsubtle language as blogposts with pictures of all the cool stuff they own. As time moves on and the vocabulary of online consumerism matures, these posts will become fewer and further between.

    I must admit that I don’t ‘get’ the first edition hardback thing either but that’s because I really don’t like reading hardback books. I think that kind of consumerism is similar to the act of purchasing the latest blu-ray collector’s edition as you’re saying that you care enough about a particular book to track down a rare first edition of it.

    As with all forms of identity broadcasting, it all comes down to care and attention. Do you care enough about being a fan of a particular book to be the woman who owns the pristine hardback first edition? I certainly don’t but I completely understand those who do. I don’t care about being the most fashionable guy in the world or having a successful career… but I understand those who do.


  9. I haven’t much to add to what has been said, only to mention I have been rereading American Psycho, and I was reminded of that second chapter where Ellis painstakingly describes the brands of all the things Bateman uses/has in his apartment when he gets up in the morning.


  10. Very interesting. Max’s post led me here.

    I always understood Voltaire’s conclusion that one should cultivate their own garden (“il faut cultiver notre jardin”) was an opposition between being publicly engaged in causes and finding happiness in private life, whatever your passion, interest or hobby is.

    Guilty! I have a TBR but not for the pleasure of buying, I think. When I was a child I couldn’t have all the books I wanted. Now I can. When you’re a bookworm, I don’t think you ever recover from book restrictions in childhood. (I had subscriptions in two different libraries, but it’s not the same as owning the books) I love to have a home library, to have a choice when I want to start a new book. For me it’s a luxury, like having a swimming-pool or a wine cave for others.

    I’m not sure about your idea of buying a sort of book or DVD in an attempt to become some idealized version of ourselves. It’s intriguing though and sure, human snobery has no limit. Personally, I’m not going to buy V because I don’t think I have it in me to enjoy Pynchon, ever, and that even if Pynchon is socially “cool”, the sort of equivalent of pricey snickers for teenagers but only for bookworms.

    That said, for me, buying a book not to read it but to show we have it can mean two things:

    1) you haven’t finished to mourn the idealized person you’d want to be. Sure it’s hard but accepting one’s own limits is a great step on the path of peace of mind. I’m not sure I’ll read Ulysses one day. I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to play Chopin and I love his music. So it goes. I’ll probably try though.

    2) you have around you people who can acknowledge that you have V on the shelf and share with them some recognition, like belonging to the club of people who read Pynchon. (who is more daunting to me than Dostoevsky, sorry). You see, I could have all Pynchon’s work on the shelf that nobody would notice because nobody knows him around me.

    I agree with the idea of a kaleidoscopic self, influenced by time, environment and people’s presence. (I’m not the same with my husband as with my children as with my friends, etc.) Sometimes it’s hard to recognise the self who has bought that particular thing but it’s not just for cultural goods. It’s the same with clothes: who has never bought a jumper and wondered afterwards “Why did I buy this? I’m not going to wear it!”


  11. Hi Emma :-)

    I think your use of the term “idealized person” is interesting as Idealisation denotes an element of impossibility that definitely makes the TBR pile seem unhealthy. For example, I could start buying books about martial arts and expensive training gear because I liked the idea that I could become some kind of latter-day ninja. While I suspect I may have left it a little late to become a ninja, in principle I could become really good at martial arts but if I’m not taking any classes or actually kicking people then I’m really not moving towards that goal. In that type of situation, it is clear that all the expensive martial arts gear is just enabling me to entertain the fantasy that I could become a ninja once I found the time. There is no denying the fact that this type of behaviour is common and incredibly unhealthy. If you want to become a ninja, go take karate classes, if you want to become a runner then start running as you can’t buy yourself into becoming a ninja anymore than you can buy yourself into becoming an expert of Dostoyevsky.

    However, I think that this type of thing is quite an extreme example of something we all do.

    I’ve often bought stuff for projects that never actually went anywhere. The reason for this is that it was only once I started working on the project that I realised that it wouldn’t be fun and so was not deserving of my time.

    The problem is that in both cases (both the extreme fantasy enabling and the honest mistake purchasing) you are buying stuff in the hope that you’ll grow into getting use out of it but while this type of activity can be unhealthy if taken to an extreme, it can also be hugely rewarding. For example, I remember buying a pair of walking shoes because I decided that I wanted to lose weight. 12 months later, the weight was well on the way to being completely gone and the shoes were full of holes. Those shoes were purchased in the hope that I would grow into getting use out of them and I did.

    Every change we make involves these kinds of purchases or changes and while some are unhealthy and unrealistic, some are just part of what it means to try something new. The danger isn’t in the act of purchasing new stuff, it is in having expectations that are completely unrealistic.

    A TBR pile is a perfectly reasonable way of expressing yourself and of keeping track of the stuff you want to work on as an individual, it only becomes unhealthy when the fantasies you entertain become unrealistic, in which case the problem is not with the TBR file, it’s with the fact that you’re a 35 year old man who seriously thinks that he can become a ninja :-)


  12. I am totally guilty of this for history books. Topics I’m interested in I buy. I have boxes of books ive owned for years now. If only clicking made the knowledge pour in. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading. But after graduating with my history degree I’ve been shying away from reading history books again. I may need a few more years off then I can tackle those dusty boxes. I fear by then I will be a changed person and not have the same interests though. We shall see! For now I will GLADLY read my Anna Karenina though. Seriously, just finished War and Peace not long ago. I love me some Russian literature. Mnye nravitsya!


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