Post three in The Personal Library Series
Previous Post: Buying Books
I would venture that the path a book takes once purchased depends largely on the context of its purchase (see previous post) and the contents of the book itself. Let’s explore a few plausible scenarios as a lay-test of this concept. Of course, this approach is far from perfect, and it’s the opposite of comprehensive, but I hope it’ll provoke some thought on the fate of the last few books you bought or read.
Let’s say the last Harry Potter book just came out. You and everyone you care about have been anticipating it for weeks. Some of your friends reread every previous book, still others waited all night outside the bookstore for the moment of release. You’re a calm but dedicated fan, and you have all the other books, of course. You but it about a week after release. You read it quickly–it is easy and enjoyable reading, and you don’t want to risk hearing any spoilers before you finish. When you finish, you have to let your little brother read it, and he gets BBQ stains all over a few of the pages, and after him it goes to your cousin. Your aunt knows your family bought every book in the series, so your cousin has always read them second-hand (third-hand if you count little bro’s greasy fingers). Then your mom reads it, quietly and patiently, in the evenings when she has time to sit down. It has rested ever since on the shelf with the rest of the series, the darkening tones on their book jackets reflecting the increasing grave tales they tell.
This story may be common to many families of the 2000’s, and their Harry Potter collections remain intact today, unopened since the last movie came out, probably. Part of the success of these books, I would argue, and especially for the last in the series, is that this story touches on every reason for purchasing a book I described in the last section. Of course, the first book became popular for its contents, but I bet many of us had no notion of the wizarding world until the second or third books had already been published. Anyway, back to the analysis of the story. Autonomy is obvious, as your whole family wanted the autonomy to read the book, and it was scarce and timely since it had just come out, and, importantly, you did not want to hear spoilers until you got the whole story itself. Pride, sentimentality, and a desire to complete the set would have driven you to buy the book even if it were complete rubbish. And of course, when someone writes something so profoundly popular as Harry Potter, everyone wants to contribute their part back to the author, even if she’s already absurdly rich from her earlier books. And it worked, obviously, since we’re still getting original HP-world movies. Anyway, perhaps the most interesting result here is that the book series is nearly perfectly replicated in millions of personal libraries around the world, even though many may never be read again. It’s a little beautiful, wonderfully unifying and familiarizing, and at this point it’s a massive waste of material.
Here’s a less cliché situation: you’re in college, and you’ve been raving to your friends about a book you read for a class. One of your friends recommends a similar nonfiction book–part memoir, part guide to self-improvement with a fascinating look into a technical field you’ve never really considered before, all culminating into surprisingly universal life-lessons. You think about it a bit and realize you haven’t read a book outside a class in ages. You put it on a wish list, and a relative buys it for you at some holiday occasion. (Note: this isn’t quite an independently motivated purchase like previously described; the book is already associated with two individuals in your life.) You read it slowly, except for the last few chapters, which you finish overnight. It was a compelling story, and you remember to thank your friend for the recommendation.
You leave the book on your desk when you finish, and it stays there under a pile of class notes. A month later you recommend it to a friend but never make the effort to follow through. Eventually, you move it to your bookshelf. When your apartment lease ends, it goes to stay in a densely packed cardboard box full of books in your parents’ garage. It fades from your mind–still owned but forgotten. If you were ever home and thinking about it, you might sell the whole box to a used book store, but the moment never comes.
Many books follow this or a similar path. It’s not so flashy as the Hogwarts story, but that’s how real life usually is. When you read the book, it might’ve resonated with you–stirred some passion–but once you finished reading, the book itself had no practical value to you anymore. You might share or discuss the book with someone, and that may briefly rekindle the flame, but the feeling and interest will almost never outlast the physical text itself. In that sense, most books become thoroughly squandered utility. Selling the books recoups some of that utility at the cost of long-term nostalgia. It is an easy solution but not a wholly satisfying one.
Maybe there is a better way to treat our books. It would be more work, but it would be deliberate and far more meaningful. It would need a community, and it would flourish with an app or effective technology to connect that community in the real and digital worlds. It would take a shared commitment to understanding the core purpose of books and the importance in engaging in each other’s stories. It would require a lasting idealism, self-motivated erudition, and conscious curating. It would engender warmth and a humble sense of beauty. It could be the future of literature.
I hope this post has given you a minute to pause and think about where you put that book and what–if anything– you plan to do with it in the future. So many finished books are left by the wayside, and I can’t be the only one who finds that frustrating. So now that you’re actively thinking about that book, are you going to do anything different about it? You can go ahead and sell it. That’s a start. What else could you do with it? I’d like to hear your ideas. I have an idea, if you’ll stick around for it.
Next Post: Origin Story: A Parable of Endless Castles