Monday, March 16, 2009

Serendipity, mostly

I just love books. I love holding them. I love smelling them. I love turning their pages. I love reading them. So you'd think I love new bookshops, right?

Actually, I don't. I find myself so overwhelmed by our society's wealth, by the sheer amount of stuff that is available to us, that I usually can't face a shop full of new books. I shrink in the face of those towering shelves stuffed full, perpetually refilled from boxes and crates which were trucked from factories, perhaps even flown in. I feel sickened by the waste involved; I read somewhere that more than half of all new books manufactured in the US are pulped. I worry about the clean water that has gone into making the paper. I feel manipulated by the beautifully designed covers and gorgeous new editions which are aimed at bibliophiles like me. And, anyway, I'm not that interested in a book which is too easy to find.

So how does someone like me buy books? Second hand, of course! and on instinct. I don't look for books unless I get a particular buzz. When I feel my antennae tingling, I'll pop into an op shop or a used bookstore and comb the shelves. I never know what I'll find, just that something is there waiting for me. And when I see it, I start feeling dizzy. The world whirls, and for a moment there is nothing except me, and The Book. I pick it up. I take it to the counter. I hand over my dollar. I buy it.

Anticlimactically, I take it home and add it to a pile. What? you say. But you just bought it, antennae quivering!

But finding a book doesn't mean it's time to read it yet. It sits on a pile, even a bookshelf, waiting. In our house, a book might wait for years. I know it's there, but until I feel my instinct tingle again, I wait too. There's no point reading a book at the wrong time; I won't engage with it. But when I feel that tingle, that itch to read a particular book, then I know I will be carried away.

So that's how I find and read new (to me) books. What about books which I have already read, but have given away, or have never owned but absolutely must? Especially those that are out of print? How do I find those books? Then I wait. I lurk. I creep into old bookshops and check if they have this, or that. I mope and sigh, pining for a book. And then one day, joy! After months, usually years, of looking, it turns up. Such delight! It's like being united with an old friend.

(I must admit, the waiting sucks. From time to time, in sheer desperation, I check out an online secondhand bookseller. But while a package in the mail, even one sent to oneself, is gratifying, it certainly isn't the same as finding a book on a shelf. I don't feel an emotional attachment to books bought online; it's just too easy.)

There are books I can't decide whether or not to buy. I'm hooked on Patrick O'Brian's novels, and plan to read and re-read them for the rest of my life. But a friend has the series, as does my public library. Am I happy to keep borrowing these books? Or should I purchase them so I can lend them out to other people too? I might keep an eye out and buy any I find second hand. Then I can slowly build up the series, without having to face a new bookstore, and without feeling completely wanton in my spending.

Quite bluntly, O'Brian's dead, so he doesn't need the royalties. What about living authors, particularly those with a small market (ie Australians)? I feel some responsibility to buy these books new, on the radical assumption that authors have to eat. For a new book, I go to my local independent bookstore and, if they don't stock it, order it in.

I don't buy books from chain stores. I worry about having my information controlled by large conservative corporations; and anyway, the sheer mass of goods is overwhelming. Paradoxically, it's in a small store with handpicked stock that I am more likely to find something nestled against something else that I'm interested in. I've checked out Amazon, and the 'picks' that the machines suggest don't even come close to the cover that catches your eye, the title next to the one you went to get, that serendipitous find.

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