Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Used Books - As Good As It Gets

My grocery store has placed anti-bacterial wipes near the carts so that shoppers can clean the handles. Restrooms now routinely have trashcans near the door, so people who use paper towels to touch the handles won't throw their trash on the floor. Gas stations near my house now have boxes of plastic gloves for consumers.

It seems that more and more people are turining into neurotics, a la Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. I'm not completely innocent here, but one place I'll surely draw the line is books.

An insightful post on a bookseller mailing list was recently provided by Larry Burdick of Book Oasis . Larry is a top-notch bookseller, and had an interesting encounter with a pair of customers:

I had an interesting experience a few days ago. Some customers had asked me to get them a copy of a Wallace Stegner book. I told them I could certainly do that, and then the husband leaned forward and said,

"It has to be a real book. Not a used one, a REAL one!"

Used books aren't real? What a distinction!

Have we really reached the point in our society where something that's not newly minted or wrapped in shrink-wrap loses all meaning? Or is this a subtext of the shopping mentality? It also begs the question about books and their place in reality!

To my mind, books are the quintessential form of reality. They comprise the thoughts and the feelings of the author. A book is the ultimate form of art, for it is one person's representation of events, experiences, ones which most of us will never do. More to the point, the fact that these same experiences have already affected the life of a previous reader makes them all the more valuable, because we know that the book has a valid effect! It is for this reason that the best books are secondhand!

As to used books not being "real", I would quibble with that as well. To me there is nothing more real than a used book. It has creases on the spine from being held up or folded back during a marathon reading session late at night. There may be a soil mark from a drop of soup during a sickday, or a drip of coffee. Forgotten bookmarks can be discovered between the pages: boarding passes with markings like London or Bangkok; sales receipts from fifteen or twenty years earlier; betting slips; tissues; fragments of torn up Dear John letters; and sometimes even money! A used book is not just the book itself, it represents a portion of someone's life, someone whom you will likely never meet face to face.

Added to which, the average run of a book in print these days is about two years, meaning that most of the books you see for sale in new bookstores won't be there for long. They will soon make the run of their scheduled printing, pass through hands of friends and families in a few years, and be relegated to secondhand bookshops. But at that point they will be carrying the creases and marks of loving hands, and carry in their pages the aforementioned cards and slips which will tell silent tales of passage around the world before landing on the shelves of a used bookstore.

In closing, I'm reminded of the story of the Velveteen Rabbit, who insists that he is 'real' because the little boy who owns him says he is. At the end, the stuffed toy has absorbed so much love that he achieves reality. In a like fashion, the books which pass through our own hands build up a sort of "charge" by virtue of the stories they tell, and the interest they build up in those who read them. A sort of "dry cell" effect, if you will. Brand new books don't have a charge, because they haven't interested anyone, yet.

So, if you want a REAL book experience, buy a used book!

I agree! The reality is, there are far too many books filled with interesting and relevant information that are now out of print, and becoming increasingly hard to come by. Libraries are less the archives of yesteryear and are now 'information resources', where the primary goal is not preservation of books, but 'customer service'. In this environment, the collector is more important than ever; but to have these books saved, someone has to be willing to TOUCH a used book.Categories:


Blogger jgodsey said...

You want to see NEUROTIC? you need to see Last Life in the Universe. An sian film about an Obsessive Compulsive librarian.

6:46 AM  

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