The Utter horror of the 'three for two' offer

I was in Waterstones today to buy a present for a relative. I had a rough idea what I was after and went straight to the appropriate section. There, stacked neatly on the shelf, were two books by John Lindqvist, the writer behind the hit Scandinavian film ‘Let the Right One In’, which I think is currently being remade in America on the grounds that the original is full of foreigners who talk funny. They’ve also shortened the title to ‘Let Me In’. I guess this is because a) no movie about Vampires should ever refer to them as ‘The Right One’ or b) Five words in a title is too long. Since ‘Twilight’ and ‘True Blood’ are incredibly popular and are stuffed full of blood sucking creatures of the night who somehow retain tender romantic feelings while their souls sit writhing in the nethermost depths of hell, I’m guessing it’s mostly about the title length.

Film tie-ins aside, I picked up the two books by Lindqvist that I wanted. Sorted! I could go home and have a cup of tea. Then I spotted something. Sitting prominently on the front cover of both books was a sticker marked ‘3 for 2’. Oh. That’s good, I thought. I have two books I want. I can pick up a third for nothing. I looked around casually. There were lots of ‘3 for 2’ books on the tables around. I’ll definitely want one of those.

The only thing was, each one I spotted I didn’t want. All of them seemed to hover in a shady realm where you know the book might be worth a go but you’re not sure why. You’re scared of getting fifty pages in and realising that you’re just trying to enjoy it and not actually enjoying. You struggle on. You skim. You hope the minor character on page 14 comes back again because he was fun and you’re fed up with the main character and his personal flaws. Knowing that he doesn’t send Christmas cards or talk to his son in between having sexual encounters with Swedish waitresses doesn’t make you want him to be a better man. It makes you want him to get run over so you can read about someone more interesting having sexual encounters with Swedish waitresses.

Rejecting the ones before me, I moved beyond the ‘3 for 2’ table. I looked at the shelves, the alphabetical section where you’re actually searching for a particular book rather than wandering into the shop like a zombie moaning ‘plot!’ and grabbing whatever’s nearest and brightly coloured. No joy. There wasn’t a book that I wanted to read. I went to the popular science section, the history section, the travel section, the teenage fiction section. They had books that I did want but they weren’t ‘three for two’. Panic was starting to set in. Time was going by. What was I going to do? I staggered back to the fiction section. I toyed with the idea of buying a book I’d already read, such as ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’ or ‘1984’. But what was the point of that? I probably even had the book already. It would be like getting a porcelain version of my favourite chocolate; decorative, a ringing endorsement of the quality of the original but otherwise, utterly pointless.

I stared at the two books in my hand. I thought about going to the till with just those two books. I could do that. These were the only two books I wanted. Why not? Then I imagined the scene. The counter staff person would look at what I’d brought and say ‘these have the three for two offer. You can choose another for free.’ and I’d say ‘but I only want these two.’ And everyone in earshot would think I was completely mad. I’d stand there and feel the warm tingly glow of acute embarrassment breaking out all over me like a dose of hives. I’d probably start to rant or jabber or possibly both, a sort of rabbering. ‘I know I can have another book but I don’t want another book even if it’s free! If I get one I’ll be forced to read it out of a sense of moral obligation and then I’ll be stuck reading it for pages and pages and all those hours of my precious life will be gone, lost in a world of half baked character studies and obsessive observations of sexual activity or dead bodies or Victorian London! I can’t face it! And don’t, whatever you do, say to me that it’s free because it’s not free, not because of some clever contract clause but because we’re in a world of dwindling resources and the very idea of taking a book home because it cost nothing and tossing it in the recycling box after three minutes of half-hearted reading would make me want to puke organic vegetables all over you!’

So I didn’t go to the till. Instead, I stood there in the shop under the bright lights of the Self Help section feeling weak, paralysed and numb. I was trapped. The bookshop I was in was no longer a place of literary discovery, of happy self-indulgent book buying for the sort of person who thinks libraries are a desperate last measure. It had become a postmodern torture chamber, a cruel and vicious trap in which one dark spirit marked ‘morality’ and another dark spirit marked ‘special offer’ were slowly pulling me apart while laughing in high, shrill voices. I might have whimpered then; I don’t know but at that moment, at that nadir, salvation shone on me. There, in front of me, in a section probably marked ‘Books for everyone who thought Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point was good’ was an interesting looking book that I hadn’t read. ‘Smile or Die’ it said, which was both a catchy title and a rule for life. I picked it up, skimmed through its pages about twentieth century mind fads and was genuinely interested several times. And it was 'three for two'. Oh bliss.

I headed straight for the counter, only twenty feet away, clutching the three books beneath my arm like a rugby ball. Eight steps in, just past half way there, I spotted a quite interesting book that someone had mentioned to me. What’s more, it was on special offer.

It was ‘three for two’.

Post scriptum addendum thingy: After taking my free book home, I realised that my enthusiasm was entirely down to my desperation to find a third book. After fifteen pages I gave up. Hey ho.