Books: Buy or Borrow? (Here’s How I Decide)

I’m a book nerd. I’ve professed my love for the library and my personal (bulging) bookshelves, and today I’m answering a frequent email question: how do I decide when to buy and when to borrow?

It’s a good question. I have a low tolerance for both clutter and bad books, and the books I let into my personal collection have to justify their place. How do I decide which books make the cut?

In my eyes, a book really has to earn its spot in my personal collection. My local library is close, convenient, and well-stocked, so my default setting is set to “borrow.” I can buy later, once I know it’s a keeper. Exceptions are books written by friends (like this one), books written by favorite authors (like this one), and books I’m dying to read but the library doesn’t have.

Here are the questions I ask myself when I’m deciding if a book is worth buying:

1. Is this a book I’ll come back to again and again? I love re-reading favorite books. I like to see them on my shelves. I like to flip through them, lend them out, and push them on my kids.

Examples from my shelves:

A Circle of Quiet, The Happiness Project, Emma

2. Is this a book I want to mark up? Some books are so rich I want to star, underline, and scribble notes in the margins. To mark it up, I need my own copy.

Examples from my shelves:

Walking on Water,Β Bird by Bird, The Great Omission

3. Is this a book I want to have reliable, easy access to? I’ve requested some books from the library so many times I finally decided to buy them. For me, favorite reference books, design books, and cookbooks fall into this category.

Examples from my shelves:

The Well-Trained Mind, Young House Love, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, Common Prayer

4. Will this book help my kids become life-long readers? I love the library, but I want to surround my kids with a rich selection of carefully-chosen favorites that live on our shelves. We’ve purchased a fair number of fantastic children’s books with that in mind.

Examples from my shelves:

Anne of Green Gables, Jules Verne, the Little House books

(Paper Gains will help you find books like to give this season or to stock your own bookshelves.)

Books that I’ve recently bought that fulfill these criteria are Happier at Home, Christmas With Anne, Not Your Mother’s Make-Ahead & Freeze Cookbook, and Emily of New Moon.

What’s the last book you bought, and why?

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  1. Oh, I buy. But I buy used. I have a very hard time justifying the price of a new book…unless it’s a gift card and there aren’t any used options. I love our local used bookstore because I can buy and return – usually still at a loss, but at least I’m getting some credit in return. I also try to do a lot of research about a book before taking the plunge to buy, but I’ve still been burned. Such is life.

  2. I tend to buy theological books but borrow novels. Most of the time I write in the theological books.

    I haven’t bought a new book for myself in some time, though, because of the different blogging for books-type programs I have joined.

    You could add another dimension to this too–which books do you buy an actual copy of and which do you buy on Kindle? My answer–all my Kindle books are ones that I’ve gotten for free, plus all the ones my mother has bought on Kindle [I have her old one and am not deactivating it until I read what I want of her books πŸ™‚ ]

    • Anne says:

      That’s so true! As a general rule, I like reading novels and narrative non-fiction on my Kindle, but some books were made for browsing…and those belong on real paper, preferably hardcover.

  3. Jillian Kay says:

    I borrow (or buy used and quickly send back) any thing I want to read. I buy anything I want to reference (like cook books and crochet books).

    For kids books I do a mixture of both.

  4. Jamie says:

    Being given a Kindle for my birthday has completely changed the buy/borrow equation for me. I try to never buy books I haven’t already read unless it’s impossible to beg/borrow a copy anywhere. I always buy used if it all possible.

    My rule for buying a book is that it’s worth owning a copy if it’s something I need/want regular access to for reference purposes or something I’d be extremely sorry not to have in the event a Zombie apocalypse prevented me from every borrowing a book again. πŸ™‚

  5. Corrie Anne says:

    I just started buying books again this year! I moved around soooo much in the last few times, and several times with only two suitcases. It wasn’t really an option! Now that we’re in a house, I’ve been buying a few books a month that I’ve been wanting forever. And I live close to a library again too! Hooray!

  6. HopefulLeigh says:

    Great suggestions/questions, Anne. We are completely in sync. I buy a fair amount of books but I borrow way more from the library than I buy. There’s no way I could support my book reading habit otherwise!

    I was just at a bookstore today but those were gifts. The last book I bought for myself was Overdressed by Cline, examining the high cost of cheap fashion. Absolutely fascinating. I’m reading it for an online book club. The library wait list was too high but I was also pretty sure I’d want to own it based on the subject matter. I’m glad I did. I’ll be referring to it long after I finish reading it.

  7. Tim says:

    I just learned that the library a block from work is eager (and still has the budget) to buy books on request, so I did that and read a great book too.

    The last book I bought is actually 3 books because I had an Amazon gift card. I bought and loved Karen Swallow Prior’s literary memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (a review is going up on my site on Wednesday 12/5, tell all your friends), Lois Tverberg’s Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus (in the middle of that one now), and Susan Cain’s QUIET: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking (because you keep saying it’s great!).


  8. Elizabeth Kane says:

    This topic has definitely been on my mind a lot lately: to buy or not to buy? I just inherited a Kindle and the Amazon book shop looks like a candy store! I’m in LOVE with it. I’m glad I can download some e-book copies from my library, or all my disposable income would go there.

    I just bought NurtureShock because I found myself tempted to underline every sentence on the pages in the sample I downloaded – always a good sign that’s it’ll be a great purchase. I’m noticing that books that inspire me to think outside the box tend to make the cut to my collection.

  9. Kristin says:

    I can’t specifically remember the last book I bought, though our shelves are overflowing and we have books still packed away in boxes from our move 18 months ago, waiting to install (check) and paint (soon…) our built-in book shelves.

    My default is definitely the library. My kids and I make our weekly trek and always pick up a pile of books we’ve placed on hold. The library ladies told us a few weeks ago that we have the most check-outs of any other patrons!!

  10. Great tips, Anne. I use these same principles when I’m weeding out our at home library. We have moved 10 times in the past 10 years, so my English major book hoarding had to go. I only keep books that I love and reread, want my children to love, use for reference, etc.

  11. Thanks for the pingback…and the reminder that I’ve got some overdue library books. πŸ˜‰ My 3 year old girl is really into Beatrix Potter stories right now (some are better than others). I’ve thought of getting the hardback series for her. As for me, I love my hard copies of Celebration of Discipline, Gift from the Sea and One Thousand Gifts…as well as my writer’s reference books and some novels like Drowning Ruth and most definitely the Narnia books.

    • Anne says:

      I know what you mean about Beatrix Potter–some of her stories are pretty out there πŸ™‚ We have the hardback series, but only because my son needed it for school. It hasn’t gotten much use since.

      I love Celebration of Discipline and One Thousand Gifts, but I just returned Gift from the Sea to the library AGAIN without reading it. I’ll go request it again now…

      Drowning Ruth is a new title to me, but our taste seems so similar that I know I have to check it out!

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  13. Kelly says:

    I just found your blog and love it! It’s so cute! This post is great because I have a bad habit of buying books and then forgetting I bought them or not liking all of them. My friend and I started a baking blog so I always buy cookbooks and history books to add to my bookshelf. I use my kindle for the rest or borrow from a friend!

  14. Katie Neer says:

    I am late on the commenting, but I have to say I sincerely appreciate this post because I struggle so much with what books to buy (or not buy)! It’s so bad that right now I have $25 on a B&N gift card that I cannot seem to spend. We go to B&N, I drool over all the books, touch them, flip through them, sniff them. But then my constant response is, “Eh. The library will have this.” So I go to the library and feel happy that I didn’t spend money. HOWEVER, like you, there are times I want to highlight and write things. Oh, and I love lending books to friends & family. πŸ™‚ If I read a book that is really profound, I will usually put it in my collection (i.e. “Unbroken” needs to be in my house forever.) πŸ™‚

  15. Elizabeth says:

    I love, love, LOVE your last buying criterion! My kids are starting to get to the age where they’re interested in browsing our bookshelves, and it’s so important to me for them to find books that inspire them to read when they do.

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