Paradox of Choice

I have a dilemma.

Thankfully, it is neither life threatening, nor particularly important. It's really rather silly, truth be told. But it is a dilemma nonetheless, one that’s bothering me tremendously.

I have bought a ridiculous number of books over the past couple of years. Books of all shapes and sizes. Books that cover the spectrum of topics: crime fiction to theology, historical fiction to fantasy, productivity to ancient Roman wars. I’ve bought so many that my buying to reading ratio is in excess of about 20:1. And that’s being generous to the 1.

I have accumulated quite a beautiful library. It spills into four rooms. And that TBR pile, the one that I used to have panic attacks if it dropped below ten books, now numbers in the hundreds. So many that we were forced to buy three large floor-to-ceiling bookcases to hold them all. We jokingly call it the Ellison Family Lending Library. The term is more than applicable.

With so many books to choose from, I’ve suddenly lost the ability to make a choice. It’s like walking into a bookstore on any given Tuesday and being overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of books on the shelves. So many times, I end up buying something on coop or a wall because it's face out. It’s easier. I take chances on new to me authors all the time, but it gets too distracting to wander the stacks (and disconcerting, now that I know so many of the people I read. Every time a familiar name comes up, up pops the last conversation we had, or the realization that it’s been too long since we’ve been in touch, or…)

You get the idea.

I've lost the love of browsing.

When I started writing, there was something like 170,000 books published per year. Now that number has doubled, what with digital and self-published books on top of the slew of traditionally published novels. (And they say reading is dead. I beg to differ.)

New books that I want to read are thrown at me daily. Blogs, magazines, Facebook, Twitter – I’m constantly finding material I must have. It’s gotten to the point that I find myself loading the bookshelves (which are now overflowing, the non-fiction double stacked and the fiction forced into face-out coop) and promising myself I WILL NOT BUY ANY MORE UNTIL I FINISH ALL THE BOOKS ON THE SHELVES.

So we’ve established I have a book fetish. Okay then. Here’s where you come in.

It’s gotten so bad that I don’t know where to start. With names I know and trust? Alphabetically, starting with the As and working my way through? Or should I start at the end and work backwards? Next in series? New to me? Fiction? Non-fiction?

(Ahhhhhhhhh – screw it. I’ll just reread Harry Potter.)

Told you this was a ridiculous problem.

I told Randy of my predicament, and he said “Paradox of Choice.”

“Huh?” I asked.

“There’s a marketing concept called the Paradox of Choice.”

Then he went on, using small words so I could follow. Sometimes, his marketing stuff, especially the complications of statistical sampling, are well beyond my tender abilities. But this, this I understood immediately.

At it’s most basic, here’s the definition of the paradox if choice: if consumers have too many choices, they’ll either get confused and pass on making a decision, or will revert to brands that they recognize. Say you’re going to the bookstore, and you’re assailed (as I often am) with a plethora of choices. Too many choices. You see a James Patterson novel, and seize on it. You recognize the name—you’ve read his books before, you were satisfied, so you buy that. No searching, no discovery. Just a mindless choice. An easy choice. Because who has the time to put into making a decision anymore?

This is me. This is my dilemma. I have too many options, so I’m just not bothering and returning to the books I know will transport me, instead of taking a chance on something new.

Turns out there’s a lot more to this. A guy named Barry Schwartz wrote a whole book entitled PARADOX OF CHOICE: Why More Is Less. Here’s a great quote from the book that sums it all up pretty well:


Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don't seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.



When I look at that quote, my life comes into sharp focus. Over the past year, I’ve been minimizing. Getting rid of the excess. Unitasking as much as possible. Trying to enjoy life, a moment at a time, rather than rushing forward into my future. We’ve given away half of our household.

We’ve cut our expenses, too. We only buy things that we need, and when we do buy something, it must replace an older version of itself. New shoes? Sure, but I have to get rid of at least two pairs first. iPad? As cool as it would be to have (and trust me, I LUST after it) I got a Nook instead. Cheaper, does what I need it to do, and gives me great pleasure, and no possibility of eye strain! iPhone 4.0? Absolute necessity – when my iPhone 3G dies or the Verizon rumors come true.

(Note on that last, I’m trying, very hard. I may cave, we’ll see. But why buy a new phone when mine is working fine??? )

We have been actively practicing the less is more mentality, so I find it ironic that I’m suffering from more is less with my reading material.

I long for the days when my reading order was determined by when the book was due back to the library. It was so simple. Or the days when I would not leave a book unfinished. I must have eight books lying around that I’ve started and lost interest in, or ran out of time, or simply couldn’t get into and put back on the shelf for another day. And that’s just in the living room.

So I ask you, if you had hundreds to choose from, and you were becoming paralyzed by your ability to actually commit and finish a book, where would you begin? Any and all coping mechanisms are welcome.

Wine of the Week: Heredad Ugarte Crianza 2005 Inexpensive and lovely.