Why buy?

| 1 Comment | | »>

Apparently I'm way into internet-based, book-related games of late, because I just discovered Booking Through Thursday and it seems fun to play along. The question this week is, essentially, what makes you want to buy a book? If you normally buy rather than borrowing from the library, why pay for something you can get for free? And if you normally borrow, what classifies that special book that you add to your permanent collection?

It so happens that this is a subject close to my heart: despite all my efforts at ecology, reuse, minimizing consumption et cetera, when it comes to books, I BUY. Even when David and I were living together in 300 square feet, and books were spilling over every surface and packing every nook and cranny, I still persisted in buying more. According to LibraryThing, we live with just under five hundred volumes, and that's my bare minimum; there have been many books over the years that I sacrificed to space considerations, and which I bitterly regret losing. Just the other night, I was trying to remember that Byron quote that cleverly rhymes "adultery" with "climate's sultry," and discovered when I went to the bookshelves that I apparently got rid of my copy of Don Juan in a fit of rash abandon. Why would I do such a thing? The mind boggles.

Yeah, I know I can look up things like this online. In fact, I did just that, and found that the lines I was thinking of go

"What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,
Is much more common where the climate's sultry."

But that's not the point. For one thing, Googling does not have NEARLY the tactile appeal of taking a volume down from the shelf and paging through it for a remembered line. And what if the lines I was looking for were less famous, or not in the public domain? What if I was trying to remember the exact imagery Ian McEwan uses in that scene with the wet footprint from Atonement, or wanting to relive that crazy warren-of-thieves dénoument from Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans? The internet would be much less useful.

In the case of Don Juan, the lines I was looking for would have been even easier to find because I specifically remember that I marked that couplet for easy future reference. Which is another, more minor reason I buy books: I write in them, which is frowned on by most libraries. But more important than pristine versus besmirched volumes, is the function the marking serves for me: I can take the book off the shelf and easily locate a passage I haven't read for years. If it's eleven at night, and I'm engaged in a passionate conversation with a friend which reminds me of lines from Mary Oliver, I can look up the exact wording. If I'm working on an art project in the middle of the night and I want to incorporate the fantastic closing of Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable, there it is within easy reach. If I'm mired in a political argument and can't recall the facets of Andrea Tone's points in her chapter about 19th century mail-order contraceptives, I can take it down, page through it to my marks, and read out the passage for which I was looking. Even if I were willing to wait a day or two to check the same book out of the library, it wouldn't have my reference points inscribed on it. My own books are customized reference tools, specially suited to me. Not only that, but we - the books and I - exist in a synergistic feedback loop: I am more likely to remember a passage because I've marked it, and more likely to want to find it again because I remember it.

When I explain this to people, I get a lot of skeptical looks. "But how often do you actually want to refer to something?" they will ask, eyebrows raised. I think some of them go so far as actually to disbelieve me when I answer, "ALL THE TIME." Like, multiple times a week, week after week after week. I'm constantly looking up remembered lines and passages, whether to support a point I'm making, revisit a favorite literary haunt, or find inspiration for a project of my own. Not only that, but just sitting and gazing at my bookshelves, letting my mind free-associate among the titles and plots, often sparks interesting ideas. I sit on the couch facing the wall of books, and think about designing knitwear based on fictional characters, or about compiling my ten favorite love scenes of all time. I conceptualize the shelves as a giant dinner party, with each author a guest, seated next to the person next to them on the shelf: Bulgakov and Bukowski are in their cups, Colette is fast seducing Wilkie Collins, and the conversation between Loren Eisely and Norbert Elias must be fascinating. I'm sure the people sitting around the Foucault/Freud pairing want to stab themselves with their salad forks, but as a hostess, there's only so much I can do.

So, as long as I continue to so enjoy them, my bookshelves will keep getting fuller. The first order of business? Retrieving another copy of Don Juan from Powell's.

1 Comment

June 2012

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30


link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography