Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Horrible Wonderful Weight of Libraries

    What a wonderful legacy is a library.  What better collection to leave your children? 
    And yet, of all the books sold in the past fifty years, how many of them are worth passing down?  How many private libraries out there are worth heirs fighting over?  "Suzie can have the furniture and Marcus can have the cash, but I want the books." 
    I'm blessed, I suppose, in growing up with a library I'll fight for.  Almost all the books date from the 1930s or before.  Many of them are from the nineteenth century.  The complete works of Wilke Collins.  A six-volume history of The Great War.  The world's 100 best short stories in ten little volumes.  A similar edition of the world's best 1000 poems.  The complete works of Rudyard Kipling.  All hardcovers in multi-volume sets, and in good condition.  They were so rarely read.  It was my great grandfather who was the most recent reader in my mother's family.  She kept the books (and packed them and moved them time and time again) because they made such a lovely statement, interior-decorating wise. 
    Growing up around these books, I vowed that I would read them all.  But between school and piano practice and Dungeons & Dragons, I never really got through too many.  As I got older it started to feel kind of arbitrary, that I should read these particular books because an accident of birth left them close to me.  There was a brilliant used bookstore in my town, that sold science fiction paperbacks for half their 1970s cover price (75¢ minimum).  Then I moved away and figured those books could just wait for me.  They've waited this long already, after all.  Certainly they'll stick around until I have the leisure and patience for them.
    Is this situation unique?  Do any of you have an inheritance of books in your future?  Have you received one already?  And do you buy your volumes with an eye to the future, thinking, "This hardcover is expensive, but my grandson might enjoy it someday?"
    I don't, to be honest.  The life-cycle of a hardcover is, what, a couple of months, these days?  They cost a fortune, but have the shelf life of produce.  Many of them hit the bargain racks the same time the paperbacks editions come out, leaving me bitter about the brand new ones I indulged in. 
    Meanwhile, even the paperbacks are more expensive than they should be.  (Adjusted for inflation, about three times as expensive as they were in the 1950s.)  They're not as heavy as hardcovers, but they do pile up.  Accumulating books seems like a sucker's game, now that I've moved house every two years.  Just the thought of boxing all these books up again makes my back hurt. 
    In Boston, I rediscovered the joy of the public library.  You get to read the book for free and then they take it back from you.  Perfect!  You don't have to throw it away.  You can't give it away, or course, but if you know someone else who might like it, you can tell them where to find it.
    So for all of these reasons I haven't bought a lot of books lately.  There seemed to be more of them around every year, and more ways to get at them, purchase them, collect them.  Superstores, online retailers, craigslist, ebay, garage sales, used book dealers, library fund raisers.  Everyone wants to sell me a book. 
    But have you noticed lately that bookstores seem to be slashing their inventory in favor of e-books and e-readers, and toys?  For the past fifteen years we have had temples to books in every suburban mall.  Will these sanctuaries shrink around their gadget kiosks?  Will they become cafes with little bookstores inside, rather than the other way around?  Will they abandon their shelves entirely and install a print-on-demand bookbinding machine, where you can select your title and swipe your card, no cashier necessary? 
    This coming scarcity of real books makes me covetous again, like I want to hoard and warehouse these paper artifacts.  I suddenly want a copy of every book I've ever read - even those ones from the library - on my own shelves, where they can't be discarded because of last quarter's sales figures.  How many of these titles will be lost in the move to digital reading?  Who else will love them?  I'll pile them up among my manual typewriters and obsolete computers - other discarded and neglected artifacts.


  1. Oh! I adore old books! The smell! The crinkle of the pages and crack of the spine as you let it fall open after having been closed to the world for years, maybe even decades! I admit that I have my eye on some early editions of Oz tales. *^_^*

  2. We were a family a book LOVERS and now our children are married we've lightened our load and sent many of the wonderful memories in pages, along to them. I think the old adage of only having in your home, things you use and love is something to which to aspire... but what if you love most every book you've read and those of your children's? At this stage in our lives we are down-sizing and must be disciplined with ourselves. It is a delight to have much lightened book cupboards but people at a different stage in life, like planning on having children should be accumulating. There's just so much richness being reared in a house full of books.. (here's the secret).. that are READ. (Although they are adorable for interior design too.) Linda