Owning Books

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?

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10 Responses to Owning Books

  1. Moriah Jovan says:

    I’ve read many stories of people converting to the gospel of ebooks because they were tired of moving their books and/or they ran out of space, and then realized a bunch of other benefits.

    I buy certain authors in hardback for my shelves. I like books-as-decoration, but I like them like I like my (very few) knickknacks: They have to mean something to me personally. They can’t be there just for decoration or exhibitionism.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    Growing up, I was a library kid, partly because I read so many books, partly because I thought libraries were cool, and partly because (reading as many books as we did) money to actually buy books was pretty scarce, at least as regards children’s books. My best friend and I would actually go to the library just to spend hours reading there, in the music room, where we could have them put on a record and listen with headphones on. (Ah, the Eugene public library of those days!)

    I think the first time I felt the impulse to actually own my own books was in college, after I started going to and organizing sf&f conventions. Because, you know, you want some kind of relic of the authors you encounter, and what could be better than signed copies of their books? And of course there were all those textbooks I’d purchased, and which it would be sheer sacrilege to sell back. I still think there’s a good argument for not selling back textbooks, since (if you learn nothing else from a class) the thing you do learn is how to find information from those books. The fact that my wife now works (and I have taught part-time) for a college that lends textbooks to students as a matter of policy (and a selling-point for potential students) feels, to me, like going to a church at Christmas and finding pictures of Santa Claus instead of Jesus.

    Even today I spend money more easily on used books than new ones: not just because you get more for your money (and aren’t as disappointed if something you get isn’t all that great), but because the books you find in used bookstores or used book sales (my great bane these days) tend to be those that you won’t find at a library. I have a weakness for obscure, out of print sf&f–and reference nonfiction that I might possibly want to read or look up something in someday. I justify it all by the fact that as a writer, you never know what I might need to know. The result is that I have hundreds of books I’ve never read, many of which I’ve never even looked at in any depth. And I think there’s also a sense that it’s a work of charity to provide a home for used books, on the skids toward the shredder.

    My wife has put her foot down, in light of our shrinking potential bookshelf space. So I try to avoid used book sales, and when I go, I try to limit my purchases to something I think I’ll really want.

    Someday I’ll make the transition to electronic books for many purposes. It only makes sense. But if you need to find a 1940s copy of the World Crop Series volume on rubber (print, inevitably–because who would bother to scan it?), I’m still your man.

  3. Julie Nichols says:

    Jessie–laughing–I do NOT think you’re a terrible person because you don’t buy books. I go through cycles: for a while I buy every book that strikes my fancy (used, from amazon, for a penny + shipping). Then I don’t buy any for a long time, because I need to read the ones from the last buy-a-thon. (I have over 20 on my bedside table right now, and I WILL read them.There are bookmarks in most of them.) When I bought an Amazon Prime membership, I quit going to bookstores. I think that’s my guilt-offering: not that I don’t buy books, but that I don’t buy them at bookstores any more. I do have lots of books on my Kindle and in iBooks on the iPad, I do, but I prefer the multi-paged artifact I can hold and fold in my hand, and I prefer to be able to write in it with a pencil and to return to it according to the notes I’ve written to myself inside the front cover (“cf p. 78 to Barfield’s “Saving the Appearances,” “Use p. 135 to support argument in favor of moral fiction,” “show p. 264 to cw classes as a brilliant example of segue in braided cnf,” etc). And yeah–I like to be able to lend and show books to my friends and students, too.

    But I think ultimately what matters in this issue isn’t whether or not you buy books, but whether you read them, and know about them, and can talk about them knowledgeably and critically and enthusiastically. Libraries, library databases, virtual bookshelves, real ones–all these are as important to me as air and water and sleep. And I don’t have to buy those, either. I just have to know where to get them, and how to preserve and conserve them, and how to use what they give me in ever more wise and glorious ways.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      In The Clockwork Testament, or, Enderby’s End, Anthony Burgess has Enderby praise a female fan who comes by to have him autograph is books for being someone who not only buys, but reads, who not only reads, but buys, his books. I think both are important. Of course, the fan ends up killing Enderby, but that’s a point for another post.

  4. Scott Parkin says:

    Answering the questions asked–

    On owning vs. borrowing: both. I both own books and use libraries (perhaps to excess). I don’t see them as exclusive, just more of what I already like. I tend not to borrow from friends, and when I do I try to return them as soon as possible. I do tend to purchase (opportunistically) books that I have borrowed and liked.

    On the quality of your personhood: whatever works for you. I own because I want to own; it’s a personal value that says little about whether one is a terrible person. I would suggest that one good way to encourage more books to be written is to actually buy some now and again (thus paying royalty, thus funding the authors you like to write more) rather than relying purely on friends or libraries. I will often read a borrowed copy of a book I’m not sure of (or haven’t heard of), but I tend to buy hard copies of the books I like.

    I’m a hopeless romantic; I own many (many) printed books. I still dream of the day when I can build a two-story, wood-paneled, ladder-adorned library in my home (easily its largest room) to house my vast collection of both hard- and soft-cover books.

    I still collect limited edition and special-issue books (signed first editions, Pulitzer prize winners, classic reference books), and happily buy very old books precisely because they’re old (and interesting—it must be interesting or I won’t buy anything).

    My 1901 copy of The General Handbook of Surgery is a regular source of information for my writing. My 1938 Michelin Travel Guide to Europe (which regularly references “the Jewish problem”) is a constant reminder of changing social assumptions over relatively short periods of time. My world atlas from 1911 is both beautiful in its own right and useful as a model of how rapidly (and significantly) nations redefine themselves and their borders). My 1991 Britannica Atlas is wonderfully out of date already.

    Some classic titles are simply not available in any other form.

    I still trawl both used bookstores and the remainder table at new bookstores (I’m not big on trendy books, so getting a title a year [or two, or three] later doesn’t really bother me all that much. Our household’s largest discretionary budget item is for books, and we buy significantly more hardcovers (or trade paperbacks) than mass-market paperbacks.

    I like to own books (or at least control the unrestricted right to read them). It makes me part of a self-sustaining economic model that I would like to see continue. I also own well over a hundred ebooks and will continue to buy more, so it’s not the medium so much as the ownership for me.

  5. Scott Parkin says:

    And on a totally unrelated note…Go Higgs boson!

  6. Marianne Hales Harding says:

    That’s pretty much my experience too! I have about 6 boxes of books in my parents’ basement that haven’t seen the light of day for at least 13 years and I haven’t really missed them. I love books but I’m just as happy borrowing them from the library or my dad (a prodigious book purchaser–he purchases enough to offset my non-purchasing). I only have room on my shelves for sentimental books. I also like to purchase reference books or the sorts of books that I know I’ll want to make notes in the margin (but that doesn’t happen as often these days). And I give books as gifts all the time (reading them myself very carefully before wrapping). For my general reading, though, I don’t usually purchase. In fact, with my busy schedule I don’t actually read as many books any more: I listen to them on cd in my car!

  7. Jessie says:

    I have yet to convert to e-books because I don’t own a smart phone or iPad or anything I could read them on. If I ever get something like that, I’ll probably check out e-books from the library instead of buying them.

    I have also started buying more used books that are kind of old or interesting; I live in Utah and local thrift stores are a treasure trove of old LDS titles. Last year I found a fabulous book about the history of the Relief Society that was published in 1964.

    I also think that you can support books without buying them yourself. As a few of you have pointed out, libraries are a great way to support authors and reading. My local library has author visits fairly frequently and the lines for book signings are often out the door. People are much more likely to buy a book when they can have it signed by the author and have a chance to meet him/her. During the last 10-years it has become a fad to talk about the ‘death of the library’ but I don’t see that happening at all. I also don’t think that libraries will quit buying printed books either.

  8. Mark Penny says:

    Reading all these confessions and apologies focused my memory on two book-related events in my relatively recent personal life. The first event happened about twenty years ago when I walked into an obscure used book shop in Calgary and saw what looked like a complete bound collection of Punch, the magazine Sherlock Holmes and many other famous tales were serialized in. It hit me right there that if I had the money to allow myself some decadence, the infection would start with that collection right there and spread throughout the house with other well-bound books with smells, feels and histories they don’t make anymore. The second event was marriage to a Taiwanese accountant who prefers the news and Asian soap operas to anything in print. It didn’t take me long to realize that the main reason I was well-paid but nearly penniless when we decided to tie the knot was my rather indulgent fondness for valuable reading material. Prior to taking on a household, I would often leave a bookstore (new or used) with much of a week’s budget sitting in the till while I worked out how to carry all my purchases on my bike or scooter. It took time, but I gradually came to see that I didn’t need to own every book I liked—and that I could resist temptation better by frequenting the many sites of iniquity less often. Nowadays, most of my visits to bookstores occur on Saturday evenings when I need a little quiet before the end of the work week and my date with whichever member of the family I’m taking out that day. More often than not, I just browse. Sometimes I spot a treasure and pick it up on the spot. Often I let the treasure sit where I found it for a while so the Taiwanese accountant in my head can have her say on the matter. The lag between finding a treasure and forking over the cash can be as long as a year.

    Mind you, none of this is obvious from looking at my “den”, which looks like a crowded library or bookshop all on its own. I keep thinking it’s time to weed the stacks, pare the collection down to what I can’t voluntarily live without. There are a lot of impulse purchases in there.

    One thing I learned after swearing off the book hunt for a year or so was that not slipping in and out among the books I don’t own but could took away a fair fraction of my happiness. Libraries are helpful that way. You can own the book long enough to actually read it without adding another dust catcher to the furnishings—or siphoning your children’s education funds. Unfortunately, Taiwanese libraries are not as well stocked with English titles as your average library in North America would be, but I still manage to flush out a decent read here and there.

  9. Point #1 — How can you really “own” a book if you haven’t read it?

    Corollary to point #1 — And if you’ve read it, and it changed your life in some way, how can you not “own” it, even if you don’t have a physical copy in your possession?

    Point #2 — Returning books to the library, or donating your used books to DI (or wherever) makes the books available to others and gives them the opportunity to “own” such books by reading them as well.

    (Though I should talk–I have a whole wall of books I haven’t gotten around to reading yet, not to mention all the other such piles around the house. I need to listen to myself more.)

    Point #3 — As a favorite t-shirt (which was given to me by a dear LDS writer and friend) says, there are “So many books: so little time.”

    Do you think we’ll get to catch up on our reading in the celestial kingdom?

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