The Things We Read and the Things We Buy

I can’t explain it. I’m being completely irrational. Why ever am I buying books that aren’t at the top of my reading queues? Oh sure, these are still books that I have a significant, positive probability of reading. They’re books like Mark Changizi’s The Vision Revolution, Mike Lofgren’s The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted and Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. They’re not books like Nora Robert’s The Next Always, Stefan Petrucha’s Paranormal State, or Robert Weintraub’s The House That Ruth Built. These latter books, unless you were paying me money to take them, I wouldn’t. (And you would have to pay me a fair amount of money to actually read them; either that or bore me half to death, give me these books, and let me escape your company.) Some of them are just crappy, nonsensical books — books that I’d prefer watching Judge Judy over reading — and others are decent, good books that I just haven’t the slightest of a sliver of an iota of interest in the subjects they’re discussing.

So I don’t buy books that I know I’ll never read (barring unmitigated disasters). But then I don’t buy books that I very much want to read either. I haven’t bought Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t, Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: A Memoir, or William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. These books, the books that I really want to read, I check out of the library.

Why? Certainly the books that I buy are invariably the books that are on sale. None of the first set of books mentioned at the beginning of this post exceeded $3.99 in price when I bought them. I know that I buy them because they’re cheap; I know that I get a little rush of adrenaline when I buy them; I know I derive satisfaction from getting “the bargains”. But are these books really bargains if I don’t get around to reading them? Haven’t I then wasted $3.99 on something I would never get any use out of? Wouldn’t I be better off spending that $3.99 on a tasty chocolate bar instead?

I know that unlike the standard theories of consumption, I get utility — happiness — from not only the act of consuming, or using, something but the mere fact of purchasing them. Shopping and buying are thrills of their own. But then why wouldn’t I just save up the money I would’ve spent on all those $3.99 books and instead buy Silver’s for $14.99, or Rob Reid’s Year Zero for $12.99, or E.J. Dionne’s Our Divided Political Heart for $9.46? I would get a rush from purchasing these books as well, and I would actually read them in the immediate future. So why do I not buy them? Why do I prefer the small but frequent dopamine rewards instead of the less frequent but presumably bigger releases? Why are the things that I read and the things that I buy don’t coincide?

Do you have a similar problem?

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