How to get 300x return on your money

On this Black Friday 2010, as people around the country (world?) are doing their part to boost the economy, I’d like to offer a deal that beats anything else you’ll find. I don’t care whether you were in one of those Wal-Mart lines at 4am this morning or, for that matter, if you were a CDO salesman in the spring of 2007. The deal: a library card from your local library.  

Although I refer to myself as hailing from Austin, Texas, we don’t actually live in the city limits. We live in a separately incorporated city (Rollingwood) that is surrounded by Austin. Therefore, years ago, our community created its own library district that, since an overwhelmingly affirmative vote in 1998, apportioned half a percent of the 8.5% sales tax collected from the district to the library.

If you were to figure our family spent $25,000 per on eating out, clothes, dry goods, home furnishings, etc. etc… then that would come out to our annual share to the library being about $10 ($25,000 x .085 x .005).

Since library cards are free for people like us who live in the district and, as the photo of my most recent check-out receipt shows, we have checked out $3,382 of books and DVDs so far this year, we have gotten a return of well over 300 times on our money.

Even if you decide to value the books and movies that we checked out at 20% of their retail value (instead of $25 new, call it $5 used), we’re still making 60 times on our money.

Granted, our family may be a little bit out of the ordinary, with the amount we read. The present guesstimate is that the average American reads anywhere between 9 and 15 books per year. My gut tells me that the average Austin-ite is higher than that although, sadly, a 2007 Washington Post article claimed that nearly 25% of Americans don’t read a single book in a year.

In any event, if you are looking for deal – and who isn’t! – then a library card is a sure bet. And what did we get for our money? For your list-comparing pleasure, our check-out list from January through November (Title, Author) is provided below, with favorites highlighted in bold green.


  • The Return, Bolano
  • Lost: a novel, Maguirre
  • Fame: a novel in nine episodes, Kehlmann
  • Swan: poems and prose poems, Oliver
  • Solar: a novel, McEwan
  • Nothing happened and then it did: a chronicle in fact and fiction, Silverstein
  • The Penelopiad: the myth of Penelope and Odysseus, Atwood
  • Ilustrado, Syjuco
  • The Alchemist: a fable about following your dream, Coelho
  • The tent, Atwood
  • Point Omega: a novel, DeLillo
  • The Ask, Lipsyte
  • The Unnamed, Ferris
  • The Infinities, Banville
  • Nocturnes: five stories of music and nightfall, Ishiguro
  • Life among the Lutherans, Keillor
  • The white tiger: a novel, Adiga
  • Summertime, Coetzee
  • The Kingdom of Ohio, Flaming
  • Atlas Shrugged, Rand
  • Good poems, Keillor


  • The grand design, Hawking
  • Overhaul: an insider’s account of the Obama Administration’s Emergency Rescue of the Auto Industry, Rattner
  • Hail, hail, euphoria!: presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, the Greatest War Movie Ever Made, Blount, Jr.
  • What technology wants, Kelly
  • The mind’s eye, Sacks
  • Cognitive surplus: creativity and generosity in a connected age, Shirky
  • Common as air: revolution, art, and ownership, Hyde
  • The ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the darkest hour of the Roman Republic, O’Connell
  • Glimmer: how design can transform your life, your business, and maybe even the world, Berger
  • Superfreakonomics: global cooling, patriotic prostitutes, and why suicide bombers should be life insurance, Levitt
  • The Pythagorean theorem: a 4000 year history, Maor
  • I’ll mature when I’m dead, Barry
  • Art: over 2,500 works from cave to contemporary
  • The myths of innovation, Berkun
  • Wired for war: the robotics revolution and conflict in the 21st century, Singer
  • Encyclopedia of flowers
  • The singularity is near, Kurzweil
  • What the dog saw and other adventures, Gladwell
  • Witness for justice: the documentary photographs of Alan Pogue Bill and Alice Wright
  • Joan Miro, 1893-1983: the man and his work     
  • A new kind of Christianity: ten questions that are transforming the faith, McLaren
  • Total recall: how the E-memory revolution will change everything, Bell
  • A people’s history of Christianity: the other side of the story, Bass
  • You are not a gadget, Lanier
  • Remember how I love you, Orbach
  • We feel fine: an almanac of human emotion, Kamvar
  • The value of nothing: how to reshape market society and redefine democracy, Patel
  • Losing Mum and Pup: a memoir, Buckley
  • Woodstock: three days that rocked the world, Evans
  • The glass castle: a memoir, Walls
  • The long snapper: a second chance, a Super Bowl, a lesson for life, Marx
  • The purpose-driven life, Warren
  • Gorgeous leather crafts: 30 projects to stamp, stencil, weave and tool, Lee
  • Texas gardener’s guide to growing tomatoes, Rundell
  • Teach yourself electricity and electronics, Gibilisco
  • Organic gardening for the 21st century: a complete guide to growing vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers, Fedor
  • Casting for crafters, Browning
  • Handcrafted soap, Boone
  • Yard & garden basics, Ball
  • Complete massage: a visual guide to over 100 techniques, Maxwell-Hudson
  • The boy who loved music, Lasker
  • Meditation and relaxation in plain English, Sharples
  • Fabric dyeing for beginners, McClure
  • The new how things work
  • Digital video hacks, Paul     
  • The filmmaker’s handbook: a comprehensive guide for the digital age, Ascher
  • The last song, Sparks
  • Moon River and me: a memoir, Williams
  • Living history, Clinton


  • Alice in Wonderland: a film by Tim Burton
  • Amadeus: director’s cut
  • Being John Malkovich
  • The Blind side
  • Blindness
  • The Book of Eli
  • Bottle rocket
  • City of ember
  • Clockwork orange: 2-disc special edition
  • The Curious case of Benjamin Button
  • The Darjeeling Limited
  • Death of a salesman
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind
  • Gran Torino
  • High fidelity
  • The Hurt locker
  • Into the wild
  • Kick-ass
  • Knocked up
  • Lost in translation
  • Me and you and everyone we know
  • Metallica: some kind of monster
  • The Namesake
  • Neil Young: heart of gold
  • Network
  • Run, fatboy, run
  • Scrooge
  • Slacker
  • Slumdog millionaire
  • Step Brothers
  • Terminator salvation
  • Tropic thunder
  • Up in the air
  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona
  • Zombieland

One closing comment: Jesse Eisenberg may play a spot-on Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, but for my money, Zombieland was more entertaining!

Print Is Good

The news is full of stories about e-books and the shift from print to digital. While I support that shift and am a heavy consumer of digital content, I still love print for certain things. Here are a few of them:

I like print for handy, domain-specific data and tips. Take a look at the print items below, for example.  They are from various collections I’ve kept over the years from my days at two of the historic “Big Eight” consulting divisions. 

The first image is four, two-sided cards from Arthur Andersen (now Accenture).  They were laminated to last and sized to fit in a purse or suit coat pocket.  The examples shown are for effective presentations, effective written communications, management tips, etc.

The next image is a set of nearly a dozen similar pocket cards from Coopers & Lybrand (now part of IBM Global Services).  Each one was a guide – a checklist, really – for different aspects of microcomputer services, from design to testing of systems and everything in between.  Unlike the Andersen cards, these would fold out.

Speaking of IBM, the next image is a couple of IBM pocket cards that I used for quickly troubleshooting code in Assembler, JCL,  or COBOL.  I’ll admit, they are a little bit like the slide-rule equivalent of paper.  But, man, once you got proficient with these things, they were instant reference tools.
In every case, these print materials are like flash cards for business – info rich, easy to carry, quick to search, and not reliant on a power or network source.

I also like print for “right brain” publications. Go to the magazine rack and pick up a magazine on architecture, design, or other specialty subjects. A couple of my favorites are below. 

The first is from a multi-content magazine of poetry, short stories, criticism, and other writing and art, named Fishes.  And, yes, that is a fish hook tacked to the cover.  You can only find that kind of innovation with a print publication.

The other example is the most awesome vendor-sponsored newsletter I ever received.  The four issues I got in the mail are below.  Look at the amazing diversity in cover and interior typefaces and artwork.

Here’s another example of an interior spread – look at the page layout and the full bleed for the large image from Leonardo da Vinci on the left.

In addition to the innovative content, the form factor itself was innovative.  In the next image, you can see an example of one of the issues in relationship to an issue of Good Housekeeping and one of Craft magazine.  The Good Housekeeping is the typical magazine size you see in a bookstore or supermarket.
I consider these high impact publications which could only have the effect they produce through print.  They may be dangerous (as in a fish hook) or expensive (the “World Tour” issues must have cost a fortune), but no PDF could ever duplicate the impression they leave with the reader.
Perhaps my most favorable, old-school bias towards print is that I prefer to have at least one item that is principally designed for print for any company, organization, or major project (like an event, for example) that I run. 
Whether it’s a glossy, sixteen-page, full-color brochure or a suit-jacket sized pocket folder with a space for a business card and other on-demand inserts, I find that there remain too many situations where having something that you can physically hand to someone helps differentiate you from others and keeps your brand physically present on a table or the desk of the recipient.
Again, just because it’s print, doesn’t mean you can’t leave as innovative an impression as you would working only in digital form.  A couple of examples include the image below, where a company where I worked prototyped a version of the book that you see on the bedstand tables by most medium- to up-scale hotels.  Only, in this case, the book was intended to be another reminder of our “high touch” customer service to complement our high tech services. 
The sleeve on the upper cover of the book was designed to hold the business card of the customers, to personalize it.  Inside the book were:
  • a personalized welcome and thankyou letter from our company’s chairman to the customer,
  • business cards of our client service team assigned to the customer,
  • pre-posted business reply post-cards that could be mailed to our company at no charge to the customer indicating issues going poorly or well,
…and other customer- and project-specific materials.

The other image, below, shows examples of various print pieces produced for internal, company purposes – all focused on mission / vision / values, and important contacts.  They are all business card sized and could easily fit in a pocket or notebook.

Pardon my pop-psych analysis, but my opinion is that these kinds of unique uses of print have a way, by their very physical presence, of sub-consciously producing a recipient’s greater trust in the “real-ness” of the company or organziation.
The last instance I’ll admit to preferring print is for most of my book reading.  The preference is health-related in two ways: in one way physical, and the other way financial.
Regarding physical health, I’ll share that I probably spend half of my book reading time in bed at night.  And I don’t know about you, but I just can’t get comfortable with an e-book in bed.   But far more importantly, there are some early warning signs that the electronics of e-books may be bad for you – especially at night. 
For example, in a June GigaOm post, one commenter chided Om for not giving enough attention to the negative consequences, writing:

Reading for extended periods on an ipad (or similar device) in bed prior to going to bed has a significant effect on melatonin production and other key neurotransmitters and biochemistry…. drastically impacting the the immune system and your ability to have restorative sleep.

There is a huge difference between reading a regular book which reflects low ambient light into the eyes compared to direct observation of an intensely illuminated surface… bottom line .. this trend will lead to a broad epidemic of auto immune disorder in the coming years…

For the financial health side of things, I love that you can get all of the print books you want from libraries at no cost (well, almost no cost, if you don’t count the mandatory $4 per year library card renewal and the optional library donation of $20 or so). 
Our own local library even reminds you how much you have saved in books, movies, and other content you might check  out during the year, with a little receipt it prints every time you visit.  As you can see from the image below, barely half-way into August I’d saved over $2,200, mainly on books. 

While you can get books on CD or DVD and tape, many library collections remain limited compared to print and e-book content almost universally comes with a cost, for anything other than the classics that are available for free download.

So there you have it…at least four instances why I think print is good.  Will we ever have a paperless society?  To me, that’s like asking will we ever have a garden-free society or a bicycle-free society.  Yes, we could, but why would we?  Let me know what you think.