How Much Is Your Library Card Worth?

If someone would pay me to read the literature I would never have to work another day in my life.  I love reading.  Some people have bumper stickers that say, “I’d rather be golfing/hunting/knitting/fishing/etc.”  Guess what mine would say??

My old behemoth of a bookcase used to be filled with all the books I ever read from high-school on.  I’m a pretty big minimalist, but I always wanted to hold on to my books.  They were a big part of who I was, and I liked the idea of having them on display as an identity signifier in my future home (and also maybe to re-read, but that never seemed to happen).


Maybe I matured enough to realize that I didn’t need that external identity validation or maybe my minimalist instincts simply won out in the end.  Either way, I eventually donated all my books to Goodwill and took a tax write-off.  The tax write-off was pretty nice but nowhere near as large as the original face value of the purchased books.

Fast forward to today… I get my books from the local library for free (or as hand-me-downs from friends), I maintain a digital bookshelf at Goodreads, and I don’t have any traumatic scarring from the hasty Goodwill book donation of yore.

The Numbers

So how much is this new lifestyle worth (borrowing from the library vs. buying books)?  It all depends on how you frame the situation, but going to the library versus buying new books is worth about $800 dollars over ten years.  I’ll get into more details below.

  • 10-Year NPV: $773
  • 10-Year ROI: 94%
  • 10-Year Payback: 0.6 years
roi - library vs new books
click for link to live spreadsheet
chart - library vs new book
chart – library vs new book

These numbers aren’t that impressive, unfortunately, but there are a few things going on here.  First off, average people don’t read a ton; therefore they don’t spend a lot of money on books in the first place.  The median adult reads 8 books a year according to a 2011 PEW study.  If an average new book costs $16, then this person is only spending $128 per year on books.

Secondly, I’m assuming that the average book buyer is going to buy from Amazon, which means free delivery and no wasted travel time to and from the bookstore.  Versus the library scenario, where someone has to physically walk or ride a bike to both pickup and drop off their borrowed books.

Each situation is unique, but my personal library time costs are a lot lower because I borrow and download ebooks directly from my home computer. Removing the time/labor costs of library trips essentially doubles the value of borrowing books versus buying them, meaning that my free library card is actually worth about $160 every year, or $1,600 after 10 years.

But, working against the library ROI is the fact that I actually bought my books used in the past, at prices well below the suggested retail value.  Assuming no library trips are needed, the library still wins out versus buying used books; however, if library trips are required, the scenario is much more of a toss-up.

And then there is even another variable that I didn’t want to model… driving costs.  If someone is driving to the library versus walking, biking, and/or not even having to go at all, the value proposition becomes even more difficult.

As usual, it all depends on the details of the situation, but on the whole it appears that borrowing from the library is usually a smarter decision.  Seventy bucks a year isn’t something to retire on, but it is definitely a marginal improvement.  Think about it this way; multiplied by three people, this is about 1.2% of a $25,000 family budget.  And of course, the savings are higher for people that read more than 8 books a year.


  1. Buy 8 new books a year (PEW)
  2. New books cost average of $16 (School Library Journal)
  3. Library trips don’t involve cars and take 30 minutes each way
  4. Your time is worth $10.00 per hour
  5. $2.00 in late fees every year from library (building in some wiggle room for when your running behind on finishing Infinite Jest)

More Thoughts on Reading

Reading might not make us better, more ethical human beings, but there is some evidence that it improves social skills, empathy, and emotional intelligence.  If I had to guess, I would say it probably also helps with language skills and keeps the brain a little sharper.  Some people even argue that readers are the best people to fall in love with.  But I’m not in this for the icing, like Jay-Z, I’m after the cake (cake, cake, cake, cake) (aka the reading experience itself).

There isn’t anything like getting lost in a great novel (or literary non-fiction book).  For me, the main pleasures of reading come from well-developed characters and new ways of seeing the world.  I don’t have a source, but I came across an article that said people’s brains react to reading fiction in much the same way they do to socializing with actual people.  It is well-known that socializing with friends and family is one of the most important determinants of happiness, and based on how pleasurable reading can be, the findings aren’t all that surprising.

To top it off, in the context of how long a book might take to read, the value per dollar of reading for pleasure is hard to beat elsewhere.  You might not be producing or earning money, but you definitely aren’t throwing it away either.

So with that being said, here are, in my humble opinion, some books that will really stretch your dollar per unit of reading pleasure:

  • Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
  • 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Schteyngart
  • Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
  • Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
  • Underworld by Don DeLillo
  • Bangkok 8 (series) by John Burdett
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
  • The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
  • Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
  • The Sacred Book of the Werewolf by Victor Pelevin
  • The Wind-up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami

You can find most of these books at your library I would guess.  I have a longer list here too.  And if you want to be really systematic about it, I have an old awards-based ranking here (and below), although the sizing leaves much to be desired.

I also really like the n+1 and Paris Review literary magazines if you’re into that kind of thing (I’m really enjoying the work Kristin Dombek is putting out at both of these magazines lately, particularly her essay, “How to Quit” in n+1, although “Letter from Williamsburg” is great too.)  And finally, from a more conservative side of the spectrum, I thought this Marilynne Robinson meditation on beauty was really solid.

What about you?  Do you have a penchant for reading fiction or non-fiction, or for certain books or authors?  I’m always looking for new recommendations and more generally just curious to hear more about what you’re enjoying these days.  Let me know what’s good and thanks for stopping by!


*UPDATE: I forgot to mention how much I like the New Yorker Fiction Podcast.  Check it out here.


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