How many books should you start?

by on September 1, 2007 at 7:24 am in Books | Permalink

So few other people sample books en masse, yet the practice strikes me as trivially correct.  If I buy a book the odds that I finish it are reasonably high, certainly above fifty percent.  Why spend the money on a longshot?  (Btw, "What I’ve Been Reading" is almost always books I have finished, otherwise why report them?)  But when I troll a public library for free books, which I do virtually every day, should I pick up only those books I expect to finish?  No, I slide further along the marginal benefit curve and that means I grab lots of books with relatively small but positive expected values.

Yesterday’s haul from Arlington Public Library included You Never Call! You Never Write!, and Otherwise Normal People: Inside the Thorny World of Competitive Rose Gardening, neither of which I expect to finish (though I will if I love them).  The real question is should I read more on-line book reviews (which are free), or do my own "reviews" by pawing the free book for a few minutes? 

What are other reasons not to sample?  Are library trips so costly?  Are you so confident in social filters relative to your own judgment/pawing?  Have blogs outcompeted book pawing?  Is the goal of reading simply to share impressions with other people, and there is little uncertainty about what are the hot-selling books?

I say go and grab, go and grab, go and grab.

1 Michael September 1, 2007 at 8:19 am

How long do you spend in the library (or the book store) picking out books? When I go, I find that I can spend an hour reading bits of books, then I usually come home with two or three that I have a fairly good chance of finishing. This way, I don’t end up pawing through books at home.

2 Matthew September 1, 2007 at 10:24 am

For me a “go and grab” trip to the library turns into a $10 fine when I forget to turn them in on time. Lots of library books out at a time + absentmindedness is a recipe for hefty fines. Our library now has an email reminder system, so that helps, but it’s still a cost.

3 Ray G September 1, 2007 at 12:04 pm

Winston Churchill said something to the effect of how beneficial it was to him to at least go page through a few books on his own shelves, even if he was too busy to actually sit down and consume one.

I read 100% of the books that I purposely buy.

If I pick up a book because of a good sale, gift certificate, et cetera, I will eventually read them, but the impetus for buying the book was different, and so they may sit for awhile.

I probably read 20% of my library books to finish. The other 80% I simply “paw.” And I simply love bringing home stacks of books even though I know I cannot possibly read them all in the allotted time. My reading areas are piled high with books that I only peruse, but this kind of reading is very beneficial in its own right, much like skimming a magazine for a specific article or nugget of information.

4 Rob September 1, 2007 at 1:05 pm

I’m with Matthew up there.

It’s too hard to get to the library, find parking (I live in a city where transit is not very good), feed the meter, find a book in the allotted time, then do the same thing all over again for the book returns.

I did go to the library a lot more often back when I lived next door to a very good public library.

5 Jon September 1, 2007 at 3:55 pm

Like Mathew, I’m also terrible at returning books, so I end up sampling at used bookstores or special sales. When buying at full-price deals, I randomly sample and conduct careful page checls.

But we buy lots of nonfiction with the intention of only reading the important bits. For example. by page volume, I’ve read about half our baby books, and feel pretty satisfied. Most of the rest is either repetitive, unnecessary/boring, or can wait til the kid gets older.

*Most* of my casual reading time, though, is in books I’m pretty sure I’ll like, though I do tend to get very high toread piles of books that I’m really done with but haven’t admitted yet.

Using the library website wouldn’t resolve things for me, because I feel bad about keeping things in reserve unless I’m pretty sure nobody else in the library population cares about that book (e.g., Churchill’s WW *One* books were pretty guilt-free).

6 jim September 1, 2007 at 8:31 pm

I don’t see why the, fairly modest, price of books should have such a strong effect on Tyler’s behavior. I assume Tyler has a fairly high (upper-middle class) and stable income.

An analogy is eating out. For someone who loves food, and has a pretty good income, then stressing out about the price seems a waste of time. If you want to try several appetizers just order a bunch even if you end up “wasting” a lot.

Also isn’t Tyler’s time a bigger component of the cost here than the $10-$50 a book might cost?

I understand this strategy for a poor grad student, to a degree. But many young, well-educated people seem not to realize that, most likely, they will end up reasonably wealthy. Why deny your current (young, not wealthy) self a minor luxury or two so your future (fairly wealthy) self has a few extra bucks.

Your future self would probably gladly go back in time and spend the money on that book, or trip, etc. And scrimping on things that might increase earning power (like books) or help you find a good mate (travel, which increases status) seem especially penny wise and pound foolish.

I’m guessing Tyler just enjoys libraries and hunting thru the books — like a rich person who loves bargain-hunting. In which case his behavior makes more sense to me.

7 Harald Korneliussen September 2, 2007 at 2:38 am

So I take it you don’t share the common libertarian position that public libraries are an abomination?

Here in Oslo there’s a very real chance most libraries get closed now, on account of the progress party (populist, anti-immifgration, but a lot of objectivist influence. I don’t understand how they can keep the contradictions in their heads, but then again I never understood that for objectivism alone either) – in a local election.

8 Dolohov September 2, 2007 at 12:22 pm

I have to disagree with jim’s analysis. To me, the question comes down to, why pay $10-$50 for an asset that depreciates rapidly (I’ve rarely sold a used book for more than $5, even if it’s never been read, and rarely get as much pleasure out of a second reading than a first reading), when I can get nearly the entire benefit at almost zero cost. I lack only the ability to lend the book to friends. Further, I reduce my use of another very limited quantity: my bookshelf space at home.

The time spent browsing a library ought not be considered a pure cost, anyway: it gives me a chance to flip through the book and other shelved with it to get a better preview of whether I’ll enjoy the book than I’d get looking. By spending that little time at a library up-front, I can save myself a few hours of reading later. Tyler’s shotgun strategy changes that equation slightly by taking more risks, but he seems less willing than I am to sit down and read a dull book from cover to cover simply because he has it on hand.

There is also a social aspect to libraries in your interaction with other patrons and librarians. You can see what others are reading, ask for recommendations, and generally enjoy the outing. This is of course also true of bookstores, but I feel less free to sit and read a book that I’m not sure about in a bookstore than I am in a library.

That said, while I frequently get a dozen books at a time from the I library, I rarely start more than one or two books at a time (research use aside). It’s pure personal preference, and I can see the virtue of doing so, but I just prefer to commit to one or two. It simplifies things for me. If I’m not in the mood for whatever I’m reading at the moment, I usually go online or pick up a magazine.

The question of spending your time reading online reviews versus on-your-own reviews does not entirely make sense to me: both have different purposes. The first is to tell me whether I am likely to find the book interesting. The second is to tell me whether I will find the writing style unbearable. You should do both.

9 liberty September 2, 2007 at 11:01 pm

“In fact if the state mandated that every woman I wanted to have sex with had to comply, I would be a very busy man.”

— Wow. It isn’t often that you hear that kind of admission. As long as you can blame government for it, you would go around raping women. And we usually think that it is only soldiers in a particularly bloody time of war or revolution that do this.

In fact, your typical libertarian academic will do it so long as he can blame Uncle Sam, huh.

10 Harald Korneliussen September 3, 2007 at 5:02 am

libertysinane: Yes, it counts, and for once I agree with mr. liberty.

Erik the swede: Comparing Norway to Soviet Russia is an offense to the victims of the soviet system. No, having to pay tax for something you don’t personally approve of is not the same as being raped, or being put in a prison camp.

Taxation is not popular, but only a few fringe freaks thinks a democratically enacted tax is illegitimate. When the foremost political party that proposes this (DLF?) rises above say 1% of the votes, I’ll bother defending against that charge.

11 liberty September 3, 2007 at 7:23 pm


Then, I suppose the holocaust didn’t involve murder, either, because it was legal for the guards to kill the Jews?

How does government being involve actually make these things morally O.K. to you and Erik? I don’t get it. Haven’t we learned from the past at all– that government isn’t always right? That just because the state sanctions something doesn’t make it morally right?

And further, that just because the government makes something legal, that we still have a moral obligation to follow our own moral code.

12 Murphy September 5, 2007 at 11:09 am

The only problem I see in pawing books is that you may miss out on a book that gets great late in the book. In high school I had to do a book report on Steppenwolf by Hesse. The first 75 pages were among the worst I ever had to read in my life. The rest of the book was transcendent. Had I used Tyler’s method I would never have worked thru the book to the great part. So now I try to read a minimum of half of a book I pick up not wanting to miss another Steppenwolf. And librarys are great. I would have to throw away too many books for lack of space if I had to buy all the books I read.

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