Buying Books

The Personal Library Series

Previous Post: Introduction to the Personal Library

This is the second post about the personal library. I’ll start tracking them on a separate page soon.

It’s a rainy day in Austin, Texas. Not a good day to bike to work, but a good enough day to sit at your desk at home and read and write. Today’s post is about why we buy books, and it offers several overarching reasons we buy books and some context on what that means. The reasons are biased by my experience, a little pedantic, and far from exhaustive, but they help to justify later arguments on this journey. Here goes.

First, let’s begin with the means of acquiring a book. A book can be bought, received for free, or borrowed. Buying a book implies the greatest amount of personal ownership at the cost of greatest investment. Even a book received freely tends to carry the small burden of previous ownership, with at least the good-faith assumption, usually, that the book will be read by the new owner. Given the free or reduced-cost methods of obtaining a book and therefore accessing the key function of a book — the opportunity to read its contents — we must examine what motivates someone to buy a book in today’s context.

The reasons a person would buy a book are many, and I will attempt to briefly describe and discuss the most currently prevalent reasons I can imagine:

  • Autonomy
  • Timeliness and Scarcity
  • Pride of ownership / Personal Meaning / Credibility
  • Long-term reading or recurring reference
  • Topical Coverage / Perspective / Insight into the Unknown
  • Supporting the author, publisher, bookstore, cause, etc.

Autonomy with a book is the simplest and most encompassing reason for buying a book. When you own a book, you are welcome to read it at leisure, mark your thoughts in the margins, fold corners of pages, and more. If the mood calls for it, you are free to burn your book or toss it into the sea. In a crude sense, you are the book’s master. The open-endedness therein is often reason enough to buy a book.

Timeliness often marks the decision to buy a book. Either it’s a sequel to your favorite novel that you need to read the second it’s released or you need that textbook now so you can study for that test. Timeliness runs hand in hand with scarcity, following that classic economic model of supply and demand. Maybe you’re desperately bored on a cruise so you buy the first thick novel you find at port. let’s face it — with books, as with many media, it is quicker, easier, and more reliable to purchase them than to acquire them any other way. Of course, that’s not always necessarily true.

I propose that the most profound drives for the purchase of books are pride and sentimentality. In the ways they contribute to the amassing of a collection of books, they are nearly indistinguishable except perhaps for the nature of the stories within and their relative prominence on the shelf (pride always rises to the fore). The need to purchase books to fulfill these urges ties back to the sense of autonomy. It also appeals endlessly to the owner’s definition of self — a certain kind of person will own a certain kind of book, naturally. Moreover, a person wants to be seen by others and associated with books that describe them in some way. What better way to establish this connection than by ownership? Often this motivation is unconscious or obscured by more mechanistic reasons, but it plays a role in every book purchased or kept on an individual’s shelf.

On the other side of the spectrum, long-term reading or recurring reference and resource are overt and rational reasons to purchase a book. This is often applied to history books, scientific writing, and textbooks, but it is far more interdisciplinary than that, as an actor will often return to a script or a novelist to an insightful story that informs their writing, often in new ways with each careful review. Such books are integral to education, and they are often read piecemeal or left untouched for years at a time until they are wanted or needed again. However, it is often more worthwhile to have these volumes owned and readily accessible than to have to seek them out anew each time they are needed. To describe the alternatives, and this is relevant even for the long, linear book, borrowed books imply or clearly state an expected point of return. Though libraries have developed methods of renewing a borrowed book with minimal effort when there is no other demand, the act of borrowing remains uncertain and, at best, a minor reoccurring hassle. The longer a book is expected to be used, the greater the worth of a one-time investment. This is an obvious general concept, but it’s important in the upcoming idea of personal libraries.

Another source that drives more “which” books you purchase than “why” you purchase — but the two are so intertwined — is the sense of topical coverage, multiple perspectives, or filling out a perceived unknown space. The sensitivity for a curated consistency. This is also important for personal libraries. I have a friend whose appreciation for science fiction has made me aware of my own deficiency of expertise in literary science fiction, and my father is such a thorough scholar and collector of both Napoleonic wartime history texts and thorough books, both fiction and fact, on exploration-era naval warships that I feel I would be wasting my time to ever start in on those subjects myself. Once one becomes self-aware of the nature or trend of their personal library, it becomes a bit of a calling to them and a beacon to those around them of where to invest in literary purchases and gifts, for better or worse.

Finally, and perhaps my favorite category in these broad, overlapping strokes of reasons for purchasing books, is the altruistically capitalistic decision to buy a book to support a message, cause, author, publisher, bookstore, or some other aspect of the providing process. In some sense, this motivation is unassailable and will live on forever. It is at once impeccably moral, highly privileged, naturally self-serving, and all the other surprising evolution and civilization have led us to be as purchasers, readers, and borrowers of books. The same motivations have driven the U.S. to be an untouchable bastion of culture and pushed capitalism into some of the most unwilling and resistant places in the world. (Note: I think I was thinking about China and North Korea when I first wrote that. Regardless, it’s a strange and largely irrelevant sentence.) Anyway, that’s enough grandstanding. I think it’s good, and it continues to keep books competitive for attention, but it wouldn’t be able to sustain the mass creation and sale of books without all the other motivations.

I’m sure there are plenty more motivations to buy books and some may be wholly independent from the above groups, but these should suffice in the context I am addressing, so I’m moving on to the next argument: what we do with the books we buy and what we should do, if I get that far. This is already taking longer than expected.

If you’re still reading, please consider these questions: Where is the last book you purchased? Have you read it yet? If so, what are you doing with it now? Anything? Have you done anything with that book since you finished reading it? What about your favorite book from five years ago?


Next Post: The Bought Book

The Personal Library Series


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