Monday, February 27, 2012


I buy books that I've never read because I want to read them. I buy books that I have read because I no longer own a copy—either I borrowed it or checked it out from the library or loaned it out and never got it back. I buy books that I already have because I discover a different edition that's more attractive and/or valuable (sometimes I get rid of the old book, sometimes I don't). I buy books I've already read to give to my friends and family. I buy books for my kids to read now. I buy books for my kids to read in the future. I buy books for my friends' kids to read now or in the future. I buy books for my kids' teachers. I buy books because their covers are irresistible. I buy books because sometimes I can't believe the book exists. I buy books with a vague intention of selling them. I buy books because I'm a collector and a completist.

The latter reason is why I bought these beauteous Anchor Doubleday paperbacks designed by Edward Gorey. I documented my obsession with this series here, and I'm glad to say I only have around 193 to go. I doubt I will ever read The American Transcendentalists or The American Puritans. Maybe The Secret Agent but I'm not a big Conrad fan. Basically, I bought them so I could admire them.

I love books, as tangible objects, but don't get the wrong idea—I also read lots of books on my phone. In this way, and probably no other, I'm practically like a Japanese teenager.

Two Fridays ago, I went to an estate sale at a home that had the sort of library that no one has anymore. In addition to several sets of Encyclopedia Britannica and various editions of the OED, they had a complete set of the Great Books of The Western World. The Yale Shakespeare. The Heritage Press/Limited Edition Book Club. Numerous Modern Library books. And great towers of Life, Look and Time magazines. The rest of their library consisted of hardcover best-sellers and paperback literary classics and trade paperback book club fodder. I scooped up practically every book written by Barbara Pym (even though I already have them all) and a few by Kingsley Amis that I didn't have. These folks had been true generalists and serious readers, though I'm sure, like most of us, they couldn't claim to have read every book in their library. Let the record show that I purchased the Heritage Press editions of Herodotus, Picture of Dorian Gray, and Somerset Maugham's Moon and Sixpence and not one appeared to have ever been cracked open. Will I crack them open?.

They had also been book subscribers—you forget that mail order book clubs were once commonplace. I understand, having just googled it, that the Book of the Month Club does still exist, but does anyone know anyone who actually subscribes to it? And if there is any real value to it? Okay, your first four books are just a dollar, but how about the rest? Somewhere online I read an argument in favor of mail-order books—they're relatively inexpensive, the selections are made by highly trained, knowledgable editors and you never have to worry about going out to a bookstore in bad weather, or worse, finishing a book in the evening and not being able to get a new one because the book store is closed. Um. Somehow I'm thinking the book clubs need to rethink their business model before it's too late. Their demographic is aging—dying. I've seen it firsthand.

At this estate sale, I was, as usual, the youngest person in the room. Several elderly folks wandered around, peering at titles, and their verdict was unanimous: "What a lot of books!" One remarked: "I've never seen so many books." Still another said: "I don't need any more books! I have enough at home." An elderly gent mused: "I need another book. I just finished mine. What was it again?" His wife prompted him: "Have you read this one? You like this author."

Many of my old friends and colleagues are writing books, creating content, apps, scrambling to keep the printed word relevant. Meanwhile, that Friday afternoon, I was feeling very much out of the game, having relegated myself to the role of scavenger/savior trying to build the perfect library before it all disappears. I felt like Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey—while all the useful people were out in the trenches in France, I was obsolete, shuffling around the library with a few elderly companions and tsking over the latest news from the front.

After I paid for my books, one of the estate sale ladies helped carry them to my car. It was raining and we leaned over the boxes as we walked, trying to keep them dry. We chatted:

Me: They sure had a lot of great books. Did you have a lot more yesterday?
Her: Yes, but not that much more. We don't get the people coming to buy books like we used to. Everyone has to have one of those Kindle thingies now!
Me: Well, I love my Kindle but that doesn't mean I don't love real books as well...
Her: I can't imagine reading on a machine. I used to be a teacher and I have to feel a book in my hands. Like I taught my kids, and now my grandkids, "Let's read a few pages and then stop, put the book down, and try to visualize what the author is saying."

I thought it must take her a very long time to finish a book, but I didn't say so. What's the hurry, right?

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