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Saturday, 10 July 2010

Shopping Failure (F*** bargains)

You are becoming increasingly obsessed with Stalin, mass-murdering despot of choice for truly grand-scale politics (Hitler is too obvious. Overplayed. Old news). Or, rather, you want more detail on the Russian revolution in general. You also fancy reading more Kafka, y’know, for the laughs. It’s a lovely sunny day, a jaunt up town seems essential. It’s a joy to kick about all slow and lazy in public on a day like this... and uncommon de-stressing to put yourself in a situation where you really have nothing to do other than browse and shuffle around. So, a trip to the book shop – good idea. On initial first-pass browsing you find not one, but two books you’ve meant to get for a long time, and are confident you will indeed read, sharpish and with gusto, if you buy: Charlie Brooker’s Screen Burn (for the existential distress) and Camus’ The Outsider (for the laughs). The Camus is in a “3 for 2” offer, but you ignore this. You are not here to buy three books.

One cannot be haphazard about bargain-buying. Shops bank on people being seduced and bamboozled into spending more than they wanted or needed to by multi-buy bargains. That's why bargains exist. You end up with crap you never meant to buy and probably won’t have a use for; and you probably didn’t stop to work out that, in real terms, exactly what you’ve saved or gained is negligible. The house always wins. For this reason you normally ignore multi-buy bargains altogether. Not worth the mental energy of weighing up – just go in, get what you need – what you intended to get – and to hell with that shit. It is certainly possible to make substantial savings on bargains if you are dedicated. But to do this you have to show forethought, be always on the lookout, paying attention to the details, calculating your costs and benefits. You have to be vigilant – it takes effort. You also suspect that you have to be on the fringes of the autistic spectrum – it takes a certain kind of personality to have the motivation for this. Even in distressingly tight financial circumstances, you will never have that motivation.

But then you see that another Brooker book, The Dawn of the Dumb (his second compilation of Screen Burn columns), is in the “3 for 2” offer. Hmm; now; since there’s nothing to choose between the two Brookers (they’re two books of more or less the same thing) you may as well get the one that is in the offer, and pick a third book for free. So – to the Modern World History shelves, Russian section. But alas: None of them are in the “3 for 2”. So you are cast adrift, free-wheeling about the shop, and it becomes clear you have a problem.

You have become cautious about whim-buying books – you don’t do it anymore. Unless it’s something you deliberately set out to buy, or intended to read for a while, you will not read it. Reading takes a considerable time investment, time you too often don’t have. To be sure you will have the sustained interest to commit to this book you have to respect the ungovernable flow of your moods and inclinations, especially with non-fiction – unless you’re really motivated by the right frame of mind you will not muster the drive to pick that book up consistently enough to finish it. You have more than one pile of books that you bought because you thought “Ooh – that looks interesting...” whilst browsing; and they still look interesting whilst sitting in those piles by the side of the bed – but not enough that you ever get more than two chapters in. They are not by the bed for easy bedtime-reading access – they are there because that tract of carpet-real-estate has been designated “bookcase over-spill”. Your bookcase credit is in overdraft. You do not have space for more unnecessary books. Stop whim-buying.

Kafka cannot help you. You just remembered that you have The Trial at home which you still have not finished. No point in buying another, especially with Camus’ The Outsider to get through first. Nothing is leaping out at you as an essential purchase. So: What about a present for someone else? Good idea, but alas, again nothing presents itself as obvious, and your brain is suddenly blank, shrugging its shoulders at requests for suggestions as to what anyone might actually want. After what feels like a good 15-20 minutes, this is futile. But – you cannot buy two books in the “3 for 2” and not rock up with a third. No! This would be an admission of fundamental shopping failure. The store staff would not be able to comprehend this. It would blow their tiny minds, and engender suspicion, confusion and contempt. Don’t be absurd! You have been made to feel absurd by money-saving offers. God-damn it! This is now wasting your time.

So what course of action can you take here? You go back upstairs. You swap the Brooker for the original one not in the “3 for 2”. You buy the books. No questions asked. Safe. You can go to the library for your Bolsheviks intel. Admit defeat. Fuck bargains.


  1. Haha - I know the feeling exactly. The bastards put 90 percent of their own books out of commission by not putting the stickers on them, and you end up shuffling them around for 20 minutes for that perfect three. Stick to the library I say, and just use Waterstone's as a - well - library.

    I'm with you on the Stalin obsession. You may well have read it but Montefiore's Court of the Red Tsar is a deserved bestseller - a haunting window into the mind of a total prick. Though not without a sense of humour. He liked to have his henchmen's wives arrested by the secret police just to mess with them. Well, it made me laugh.

    But for weapons grade cuntishness, you've got to go with Mao. Unlike Stalin, an actual revolutionary, he forced a third of the planet spend all their time chasing sparrows and forging steel in their back gardens while they died in their tens of millions. Have you ever tried to make steel? It's really difficult.

    And Mao did it all without a secret police. He looked at Stalin's huge state apparatus and said fuck it - we'll use schoolkids! And children are bastards.

    Mao the Untold Story by Jung Chang and John Halliday. Can't recommend it highly enough.

    For an entertaining romp through all the worker's utopias (difference between the Bulgarian and Hungarian regimes; interesting detours into batshit craziness like Cambodia) I really liked Robert Harvey's Comrades: The Rise and Fall of World Communism. Underlying lesson - if you're going to live in the 20th century, try not to do it under communism because it will almost always suck balls.

  2. You should have got the two books in the 3-for-2 and told the checkout person to pick a third one for themselves.

  3. then asked her out, you smooth devil

  4. What's wrong with the Andy McNabb/Maeve Binchy/Katie Price cellophane wrapped triplebills from Asda, you elitist bastard?

  5. the brooker books are only 3 quid a pop in your local hmv.

  6. or free to borrow from my own library (and his latest one)

  7. If you have bookshelf overspill that you've not read, why are you buying new books at all? Make yourself read what you have.