Sunday, September 14, 2008

On Buying Books

When should a starving grad student with access to a large library buy a book? There's an ethical issue here as well as the prudential one -- university libraries let you borrow arbitrarily many books, and you can usually keep them for a long time. In principle your renewals run out at some point, but you can always hand in the book and borrow it again in a day, or have someone else borrow it for you. Nevertheless it seems wrong to hog the library's copy of, say, a novel that you could buy for $10-15 on Amazon, just because you sometimes unpredictably feel like rereading it. And there are also the books you -- at least if you're me -- haven't read and like to have lying around in case you're ever in a mood to read them. I remember running out of renewals on Halldor Laxness's large novel Independent People (strongly recommended, btw) before I read it, and finishing it about five minutes before Frost library closed. If I owned my copy I might never have read it; on the other hand I had no business keeping the library's copy for eight months.

Apart from textbooks, which one always ends up buying regardless of price, the following seem like well-motivated purchases:
  • Books to travel with. Three library hardcovers are a lot heavier than three paperbacks. Besides, you can't slough library books.
  • Books with passages I return to. Poetry, of course; but also the more aphoristic types of nonfiction. Montaigne or Johnson, say. Some literary criticism -- W.H. Auden's The Dyer's Hand, William Empson's Some Versions of Pastoral. Some picaresque novels, like Tom Jones or Don Quixote, that are readable in sections. Not Dostoevsky or especially Tolstoy; if I were to reread War and Peace, I would probably have to reread the whole thing. It follows that I don't need a copy, since I can borrow it whenever I want to reread it.
  • Of course, one's very favorite books are always rereadable in parts.
  • Remaindered books. The bargain/remaindered books at most bookshops are, of course, there for a reason -- there are very few masterpieces, but a lot of the lesser works of good writers.
  • Books perpetually checked out of the library. Camus, for instance, or Arendt or anyone else of that sort. I tend to avoid these except when I can get them cheap. Which isn't always possible.

Of course, I often make stupid purchases, like buying books I probably won't reread because they're on sale.

Given that one wants a book, there's a decision to be made about whether one should hang on until one finds it at a bookshop or use Amazon. I like to support what Mary Beard calls "Real Bookshops," i.e. independent bookshops with better collections than Borders/B&N. I don't mind the big-box stores, but they tend not to have what you're looking for, and, more importantly, not to have anything you didn't know you were looking for. I don't think these bookshops serve a useful purpose, except as pretentious cafes; I would rather support Amazon, which tends to have better prices and more books in the long tail, where most of my reading list is. I especially like shops with medium-sized, idiosyncratic collections; there's something to be said for the acres-of-random-stuff model, but one tends to zone out and miss things one isn't specifically looking for.

Apart from the social responsibility high, I guess there's the rationing effect of saying something like, that's a book I want to own, but I'll wait until I find it at a bookshop.

[These reflections were triggered by seeing the name Alcock somewhere in a news story, and remembering this observation in Littlewood's Miscellany p. 128:

At a Scholarship Examination, Dykes pointed out to me that the list had the consecutives Alchin and Alcock.]

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