When my husband and I were both making good incomes in the U.S., I had the luxury of buying whatever book I wanted, when I wanted to buy it. Because I was a poet and many of my friends were poets, that meant buying a lot of poetry, and many books by writers I personally knew.
Fast forward several years. I am working freelance to support my family while my husband starts his own business in Germany. I can’t just buy the exact book I’m looking for in English, unless I want to order it online and pay an outrageous international shipping fee. I could also request it through the small English book shop around the corner—to save on shipping—and wait three weeks for the book to arrive.
The library near us in Berlin is not a great source of English books either, unless I want to read the Twilight series or Harry Potter.
What are my options since my funds are very limited?
One of the great things about Berlin is the Zu Verschenken (‘to give away’) boxes and stacks that people leave in front of their buildings. The other is what is called the BookCrossing Book Tree—a tree trunk that has spaces carved into it where people can leave a book or take a book—and there is one a few blocks from my apartment.
While I can never count on finding a book on my ‘wish list,’ I can usually find an English-language book or two. If I’m in need of something to read, I will pick up whatever sounds interesting. Usually, I enjoy the book, whatever it is. I have also, at times, been blown away, as was the case when I found and read A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami, and White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga.
When I had the means to buy whatever book I wanted, I usually adhered very strictly to my wish list—looking neither left nor right on the shelf. Now, my wish list is largely useless, except if my husband uses it to buy me a book as a gift. However, I feel a greater sense of freedom in selecting a free book out of the Zu Verschenken pile just because it looks interesting.
That is basically how I used to pick out books, back before the age of social media, before the age of the Amazon wish list, before the age of Goodreads and its timeline of books all my friends are reading. With the rise of technologies that fed book recommendations to me, I became much more passive about the books I added to my wish list, adding only what I saw my friends reading and not making the extra effort to research the great variety of books that were being published.
Watching my writer friends regularly post about buying each other’s hot-off-the-press books, I began feeling compelled to buy every book published by every one of my Facebook friends—until I had too many friends publishing books to make it feasible financially or time-wise to buy and read all of their books.
What I have now realized about my wish list is that it was very constrictive. Because I was in a particular circle of friends on Facebook, all of the recommendations I saw flowing through my news feed were of the same genre, written by the same people I saw recommended over and over again.
Friends of mine who weren’t writers didn’t seem to post about what they were reading, so my wish list grew from recommendations by those who were more likely to talk about books they were reading, books they knew would appeal to their friends on Facebook or Goodreads.
As people talked about signing up for challenges to read a specific number of books per year, it started to become some kind of weird competition as to who read the highest number of books by all of the authors that everyone was already talking about on their news feeds.
Quite frankly, it started to make me less likely to want to read what everyone else was reading.
So my move to a new country and a tightening of my book budget came at a good time. Living far away from the U.S. market has opened me up to a whole range of books that I never would have heard of, if I only paid attention to what writers in my social media circle were putting on their wish lists. Great books I’ve found either on the street (literally!) or in the BookCrossing Book Tree include Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, by Erik Larson; Love and Clutter, by Mirka Mora; Clothes Clothes Clothes Boys Boys Boys Music Music Music, by Viv Alberton; and A Short History of Tractors in the Ukraine, by Marina Lewycka.
I feel freer now to read what strikes my fancy—and to enjoy it regardless of how many other of my friends have already read it or liked it or recommended it. Goodbye shackles!
Bernadette Geyer is the author of a poetry collection, The Scabbard of Her Throat, and editor of My Cruel Invention: A Contemporary Poetry Anthology. Her writings and translations have appeared in Barrow Street, The Massachusetts Review, Oxford American, The Writer, and elsewhere. Geyer lives and works in Berlin, Germany.