I used to say that I had a drinking problem. Then I would explain that the problem was that I couldn’t afford to drink, at least not in the quantities I desired. This was meant to be a joke but it was funny, if at all, only after a few drinks. Anyway, I solved the problem by giving up drinking, at least the alcoholic sort of drinking. Tea is a lot cheaper and I have never felt guilty driving after a cup of tea or even several.
There is a not entirely dissimilar problem with buying books. The problem is not which books to buy as there are so many candidates positively demanding to be bought, but which not to buy. This turns a trip to the bookshop into a fraught experience. I often find myself walking around the shop carrying armfuls of books, only to go around putting them all back at the end because I cannot decide which to fit into my meagre budget.
Take this morning. I had been to Camden Passage to have a good look at the antiques stalls and shops and on the way home happened, just happened, quite by accident – you know how fate arranges these matters – to find myself standing in front of the Waterstone’s bookshop at Islington Green. “Walk on by,” said the stern voice inside, the same voice that would say “Walk on by,” whenever it saw me looking at a pub or at a special offer on booze in the supermarket. I used to ignore it then and I ignored it again now. After all, there is no harm in looking, is there?
Once inside, I had a happy thought: nestling in my wallet were some book tokens, a souvenir from some birthday or Christmas. This meant that I was not only able to acquire books without laying out any cash but was more or less obliged to do so in honour of the person who gave them to me. That’s where my problems started.
The Islington Green Waterstone’s is fairly small as their branches go and that should make it easier though it fact it didn’t, at least not on this occasion. There were so many books that absolutely deserved to be bought and it seemed a crime not to. For example, I saw that Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion is now out in paperback. Surely, every right-thinking person should have a copy on his or her bookshelf? I won’t bore you with the list of titles that caught my attention. Suffice it to say that I went round the bookshop, as I had gone round the antiques stalls earlier, picking things up, admiring their sparkle and reluctantly putting them down again.
When in doubt, make a plan. I always make a plan but rarely do I stick to it. Maybe that’s why I am always amazed when I get anything done. I followed a sort of plan, going first to the philosophy section, then to science, then to computing, then to antiques, then to… whatever takes my fancy. Maybe there’s plan in that. I went through the philosophy books systematically: “Got it, got it, read it, don’t want that one, got it, didn’t like that, read it……” until my eye lit on Fifty Major Philosophers by Diané Collinson and Kathryn Plant. I could justify buying this book because it can be read straight through and/or kept as a reference book. It is a second edition, which suggests it has had some success. I read the chapter on Schopenhauer just to see what it was like. Seemed OK.
Then off to the science section. Oh my! So many books on must-know topics! What could have proved an impossible task was slightly eased by the sight of a Famous Name. Richard P. Feynman, to be exact, one of my heroes of science. His slim volume was entitled QED, The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. Not for late night reading, probably, but a good book to have. Decision made.
I also went round the other sections but fortunately nothing caught my eye or a fine dilemma might have ensued. My book token covered the cost of the two books but for 98p and who was going to quibble over 98p?
Leaving Waterstone’s, I wondered whether to walk home or take the bus. It wasn’t far and a walk always leaves me feeling virtuous but the bus would drop me nearly outside my front door and save me the effort of crossing busy roads. Thus was I reminded of the Bus Dilemma.
The Bus Dilemma can be expressed as a simple question: Which is faster, waiting for the bus or walking? If the bus comes soon, then taking the bus is obviously the quicker solution but if it doesn’t come soon, the Dilemma clicks in. The longer you wait for the bus, the less it is worth taking the bus and if the bus is very delayed, then waiting for it will slow you down not speed you up. On the other hand, if you wait for the bus and then walk, you have wasted all the time you spent at the bus stop. The problem is that unless you have your pocket crystal ball with you, you have no idea how soon the bus will come. Hence the Bus Dilemma.
In the end, I walked. It was fortunate I did. I noticed that the buses were packed and could hardly move because of the slow heavy traffic. I think there must be road works somewhere nearby and this is causing massive tailbacks. So walking turned out to be the best option but I still wasted time at the bus stop.