Books New And Used: The Dilemma Of A Bibliophile And Aspiring Professional Writer*
Some years later a friend introduced me to the wonder of used books. If I wasn’t paying as much for each individual book, that meant I could buy more of them. And I could find some older or more esoteric items than I could at a major chain. This was before I started also buying books online, a turning point my wallet still recalls with a twinge of pain. Even today, a grad student with little discretionary income, I gravitate toward online sellers and secondhand books over sleek new editions. I have to really want a book—or be an especially ardent fan of the author—for me to buy a book new.
Another fairly recent change in my methods of acquiring reading material is visiting the library. I always knew libraries existed and loved them, but from a distance, like a suitor who couldn’t muster up the courage to speak. But when I discovered the wealth those buildings held—and the further riches they could obtain through inter-library loan—I became a dedicated patron. I visit my local library almost weekly, and I’ve lost countless hours these past few months poring over volumes from my university library. Embracing used books and libraries both has brought me so much reading enjoyment I cannot begin to measure it.
As someone who wants to do right by the authors I love, I wonder which course of action as a reader is most helpful to them, financially and in terms of exposure. For instance, four of my favorite writers—Cat Valente, Theodora Goss, Jeff Ford, and Chris Barzak—all became part of my pantheon by luck. I won Chris’s first novel in an online contest and, in response to a blog post of Jeff’s, received his third collection after agreeing to review it. I bought Cat’s In the Night Garden used when I drew up my reading list for the first semester of my MFA, and I bought Dora’s collection used after reading two or three stories of hers. I’d seen Cat’s novel and Chris’s in stores for a while after they were released, so I could have bought them at full retail if I’d had the mind to. I hadn’t, however, seen Dora’s collection or Jeff’s in brick-and-mortar stores, which obviously would make it harder to buy them new. There is Amazon or the publishers’ websites, the latter especially good as they prevent a middle-man from taking a cut or selling at reduced prices. The downside to shopping online (besides shipping costs) is that you can’t browse a book the same way you can in person. And with each of these books, I was taking a chance—I had no idea if they’d be any good, hence getting them used or gratis. And the books were so good they’ve joined the ranks of my favorites and the authors of them have become important enough that I’ve been doing my best to buy their entire output from here on at full price. And I’ve talked them up to almost everyone who will listen.
What, then, is the best choice for the reader wanting to sample an author’s work? Buy a book new because even if you don’t like it, you give the author a fair shake money-wise? I did that with a major science fiction author; the book of his I tried was okay but didn’t impress me terribly. I doubt I’ll buy more of his work, though I might try another if the library had any of his books. (The speculative fiction sections in most of the libraries I’ve seen are wanting.) Maybe libraries are the answer. After all, they paid for the book at what I suspect is a price that makes a difference to the author. And many people can read that one copy, whereas one you own, whether new or used, has a much more limited range. Of course, I’ve always been happy when friends have rummaged through shelves, pressed a book into my hands, and said, “You have to read this.” I feel like something would be lost in simply being told to get it from the library.
I’m assuming here that authors want to be bought, whereas I expect that many of them want to be read. My personal library is an eclectic assortment; it is a reflection, albeit an imperfect one, of my identity and tastes. Increasingly, I consider my library as a curatorial endeavor, and, as such, I’m more particular about what I include in it. Yet the books I’ve bought are also a promise to myself—I spent money on them so I must believe (or hope) they are worth the time. So I do plan to read the two hundred-plus books I own that I have yet to open. If I were to buy, say, Liz Hand’s or Charles de Lint’s entire catalogue, I would invariably, eventually, make time for those books. And I could pass them on, as loans to friends or as a legacy to family. That’s at least one advantage over the library.
Maybe this topic cannot be parsed out neatly. After all, I want to own a lot of books, which means buying them used when I can. I want to support working authors too, which may mean buying fewer total books and paying full price for them. And above all, I want to read a lot, so the library is invaluable. Maybe there is no easy solution.
If you have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.
* I used to say aspiring writer, but a friend broke me of that habit. A writer, his logic went, is someone who writes. That describes me pretty well, though I still do aspire to professional status.