A few months ago I left my job at a public library for a new one at an academic library. My former coworkers all contributed to a thoughtful, and rather appropriate, parting gift: a generous gift card to Barnes and Noble. And yet, the card sat in my purse for quite some time before I got around to spending it. As I walked around the store, I saw many books that I wanted to read, yet very few that I wanted to own. I ended up buying one book that completed a series I already owned part of and a board game to play with my kids. I feel a bit of shame about the fact that I had a gift card for a bookstore and I used it to buy a board game.
From an early age I cultivated the belief that owning books was a signal to the outside world that you were a smart person who loved to read. My parents own a lot of books and have always subscribed to magazines and newspapers. When you walked into our home, you knew we loved reading and were ‘intellectual’ to a degree. I can still remember one of the first books I owned; for Christmas when I was about four or five years old I got a picture book that collected stories by Beatrix Potter. A few Christmases later my dad gave me my own copy of The Wind in the Willows, a book that I still have on my shelf nearly 25 years later. I remember the excitement of book orders in elementary school and junior high. By the time I reached sixth grade I had a paper route and my own disposable income; every month I’d choose a few books, carefully write down my order on the little form, and bring it school in an envelope with the some of my hard-earned money. I generally bought the latest books in the Babysitter’s Club or Sweet Valley High series, or gory mysteries from Christopher Pike or Lois Duncan. These were the kinds of books that I couldn’t easily get from the public library, probably for good reasons. To be fair, I did occasionally order some real gems from book orders. Another book that I’ve managed to hold on to through multiple moves is a battered copy of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry that I’ve read numerous times. Reading that book as a seventh-grader changed my life in many ways.
When I went off to college I brought with me a bunch of books, and added to my collection as the years went by and I took more upper-division literature classes. My shelves reflect the fact that I took a classes on young adult literature, Victorian literature, Early Modern British literature, contemporary literature by minority writers, and a number of classes on literature in Spanish (I have nearly an entire bookshelf of those). I gradually developed a philosophy for buying books; I decided that I would buy books that I liked enough to share with other people, or books that I would want my kids to read some day, or books that I would want to loan to other people. And so I often stopped by the thrift store, or the library book sale, or the used book store to see what I could add to my collection. My former husband and I moved frequently, and every time we would spend hours boxing up books, lugging heavy boxes up and down stairs and in and out of moving vans, and buying more cheap bookcases from K-Mart as our collection grew (and as we lost a few bookcases along the way since they don’t move well).
Then, a few years and a few moves ago, I started getting rid of books. I found that this didn’t hurt much. It felt good, in fact, to get rid of some of the extraneous things that I was never going to read again and only left on the shelf as a point of pride. Since that moment of realization, I’ve shed quite a lot of books and now rarely buy more. To be clear, I feel terrible outing myself as a person who does not buy books on a website frequented by writers and publishers. I’m well aware of the precarious state of publishing today and I feel a lot of guilt. But, I also feel guilt about taking a lot of resources to buy, move, and store a bunch of books that I read once and then leave to languish on my shelves. The only part of my collection that is growing in size is my Mormon literature collection. I generally try to buy new books by Mormon authors when I can, because they are people I want to support, their books are not readily available through most libraries, and they are books I want to own so I can lend them out to people in an effort to evangelize. If the predicted end of the paper book comes to pass someday, at least I will still have a few good ones in my basement to keep me company through the Apocalypse.
Do you like to own books or do you prefer to borrow them from friends or the library? Do you think I’m a terrible person because I don’t buy books?