Confessions of a Compulsive Book Buyer

I’ve lived in China for almost six years.  Aside from friends and family, there are few things that I truly miss about life in the United States.  Interestingly, those few things can be alliteratively summed up in three words:  baseball, beer, and books.  Chinese people don’t like baseball, local beer all tastes like skunked Keystone Light, and English books are expensive and hard to come by.  Once a year, I make a trip home to visit with family, see friends, and gorge myself on the three B’s.

Buying books in China is possible but it’s as if you had to do all your book shopping at a Wal-Mart:  lots of mass-market thrillers and romances, best-selling popular fiction, self-help nonsense, and Harry Potter.  There are also plenty of classics available.  If you’re looking for a decent collection of contemporary fiction, there are very few options on the mainland (with some exceptions in the bigger cities).  Cost is also a prohibitive factor.  Books tend to be at least 50% more expensive than their cover prices.  Amazon will deliver to China, but shipping alone usually costs more than the actual book.

So, my trips home every summer usually end up with me using a half of my airline baggage allowance on a suitcase full of books.  I have a friend who has avoided this problem by buying a Sony e-book reader.  Without getting into that debate, I’ll just say that I’m hopelessly old-fashioned in this regard and enjoy the tactile sensation of holding a paper book.

I’m also a bit of a compulsive buyer when it comes to books and, as I see it, there are far worse compulsions to be afflicted with.  I love the feeling of snooping around a musty used book store and walking out with enough books to strain my shoulder carrying them.  Before I came to China, this wasn’t a problem – the books would all go on my massive bookshelf and I’d get to them eventually.  Having to lug a suitcase full of them half way around the world makes it a bit more problematic, so I try to curb my purchasing habits as much as I can.  Still, I always end up with more books than I could possibly pack and have to abandon some to a box in my parents’ basement.  Always sad, but the silver lining is that I have a box of forgotten titles that I can sift through upon my next return.

Next week, I leave for my annual trip home.  Over the past month or so, I’ve had a list by my computer where I jot down titles or authors that I want to look for while I’m back in the US.  It’s by no means comprehensive – I won’t buy all of these books and I’m sure that I’ll pick up many others that aren’t on the list.  But, it’s a good place to start as I hop from flea market to used book store to garage sale to Barnes and Nobles.

I’ll post my list here – it’s handwritten, but I think it should be legible.  Barely.  Any comments or suggestions would be most welcome.  Cheers!


  1. I haven’t read..any of those..but I’ve HEARD really good things about the new Gabriel Garcia Marquez. God speed, my friend, God speed.

    1. Thanks for the wishes Amanda. I’ve only read One Hundred Year of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. Liked them both and would love to pick up a few more of G.G.M.’s while I’m back. I am actually really excited about being able to go book shopping again. It’s been a while.

  2. Pete,
    Can I send you a few of these titles? I have some of the Bill Bryson books, as well as Let the Great World Spin. I also have a few titles like Siamese, etc that I could send to your folks place. I can’t handle holding on to books, I don’t have the room, so I’d love to see them get a new home and think they may get passed around China!

    Just e-me a regular address and I can have it shipped to arrive before you do.

    It would be a pleasure to help a bookie!

  3. Wow, I had no idea that you live in China. How intriguing. Do you teach English there?

    Hearing about your difficulties in obtaining new books makes me feel more grateful for my little local library that never seems to have the titles I’m looking for. It’s unfortunate that you can’t be a part of! (Not trying to rub it in or anything) 😛

  4. Like your list ( some I’ve read, most I haven’t). I used to keep all my books until we moved a few years ago & downsized, in about a month I got rid of a couple a 1000 books or more that had occupied everywhere. Friends & colleagues were asked if they liked an author, if answer was yes they ended up with the complete works.Now although I can still obsess over a writers work, most of my books now come from the library(its amazing what you can order from the online section).Still they keep sneaking into the house & every now & again I have to relocate them.Problem is now you’ve given me some names to check out.
    Thanks Parrish
    ps. enjoy your trip home.

  5. @amy – Thanks so much for the offer. If you’re sure you can spare a few paperbacks, I’d love to take them off your hands and get them circulating around this side of the world. I really appreciate it. I’ll drop you an e-mail.
    @Kathy – Yup, I work at a university a few hours north of Beijing. It’s a really nice job – the students are great, pay is decent, and it’s such an interesting place to live. I live in a small city which makes getting books even more difficult than it can be in Beijing or Shanghai. A library would be nice, although I am a sucker for buying my own books. I do prefer used ones, however. I’ve never even heard of I’ll have to check it out just to sate my curiosity.
    @Parrish- I know the feeling about books. I have a thousand or more in storage in the US and, after coming to China with three or four paperbacks, I’ve managed to amass two bookshelves full over the years. I’m planning a move within China next year and I’m still debating what to do with all of them. Would like to keep them – they’re good currency for trade with other teachers – but moving books is such a hassle. If you read any I’ve put on that list, let me know what you think.

  6. I think in your situation I would have to get a kindle. Its not a bad addiction to have though really, their not as expensive as sneakers or designer clothes and they last.

  7. 2666 I’m reading at the moment ( on page 50 so just started),have read both the moores lamb’s funnier. grotesque was good the Hurakami’s loved & the Kenzaburo I think was called The Silent Cry which took a while to open up but was worth it. Not as isolated as you, but remember the struggle of carting books around when I worked in Berlin, although they had english language books, not those I was reading at the time.

  8. @Jessica – have thought about a Kindle. I have a friend who loaned me an e-book reader (not a Kindle) and the thing distracted me from the content. Also, while e-books are considerably cheaper than new books, they’re more expensive than what you can pick up in used book stores and consignment shops. I don’t know. I’m still considering buying an e-book reader of some sort, but I’m not sure I could stop reading physical books.
    @Parrish – Ive been wanting to read 2666 ever since it came out. Looks marvelous.

  9. I’m with you on the compulsive book buying…unfortunately for me, I don’t always have enough reading time to keep up with my buying schedule. As a result, I have hundreds of books at my home that have been sitting on shelves forever. Part of my “responsible budgeting” for the year is to force myself to only buy books that I honestly feel like I’ll force to the front of my TBR list. Otherwise, they’ll stay on my list, but I’ll hold off on purchasing them until I feel more compelled to read them.

    As for your list, I honestly don’t recognize most of the books there, but of those I recognize, I’ve either read and loved or heard good things about them. Enjoy them. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comments. My book collection is massive, probably more than I’ll ever be able to read. I look at it like this: I usually only buy used books for a few dollars (or less) a pop, I do end up reading a lot of them, I like lending them out, and buying books is better than buying crack. So, there we have it. Still haven’t bought any books yet on this trip, but am making a trip into Philadelphia today where I know of a great used book store. Let the buying begin!

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