Monday, July 29, 2013

How to Buy a Book

Part of a series of Lists of Cool Things.

Aww yeah, look at those sweet, sweet books.
Words, words...
—"Words (Between the Lines of Age)," Neil Young

I buy a lot of books.

There are books everywhere in my apartment: on my desk, in piles on the floor next to my desk, scattered across the various tables and other surfaces in my living room, and (of course) sitting on my bookshelves (my current bookshelf count: 6).

Once, I organized a bookshelf by color.

And, while some of them are gifts or things I've found in free book boxes, I own most of my books because I bought them.

Like most people, I love buying new things. I love the feeling of satisfaction that comes with new ownership, the surge of joy I feel when I hand the cashier my money and the desired thing becomes mine. I love this feeling so much that I routinely forget how quickly it fades, and so I sometimes get stuck with a book that seemed great in the store (or on the internet) but which, in reality, I don't have for, I'm not actually that interested in, or just isn't going to make me happy for whatever other reason.

To try avoid the state of unhappy book ownership, I've developed some techniques to help me get through the process successfully whenever I get the urge to go book shopping:  

1. Go to a real bookstore. 

My go-to: the neighborhood used bookstore, Myopic Books.
  • This is a tradeoff: while I find it much easier to avoid actually buying something if I'm just browsing on the internet, it is much more likely that I'm going to find something that will actually make me happy if I'm browsing in meatspace
  • In a bookstore, I can pick up the actual object and check whether I enjoy its physical qualities before making a purchase (...yes, I smell books before buying. Also at other times).  Here, I can generally get a much stronger sense of whether the book will be something that I will actually enjoy owning than I would when buying electronically.  
  • Also, the experience of browsing for books in person is actually fun and enjoyable in a way that internet browsing just can't really match. 

2. Think about books that I already know I want.

Display tables like this one at the Sem Co-op are dangerous.
  • For me, the best book to own is one I've already read or, failing that, one that I definitely know I want to own for some reason. 
  • If I check a book out from the library and really enjoy reading it, I'll look for it at the bookstore and consider buying it, to read again and lend to friends.
  • If I can't think of or find a book that I've read and enjoyed already, I try to look for books written by authors I trust (like Alastair Reynolds or Patrick O'Brian) or on subjects I know I'm passionate about (like Biblical scholarship or linguistics). 
  • I also try to look for books that friends or written reviews have recommended.

3. Sit down and read.

I wish more bookstores had places to do this.
  • Whether I was able to comply with 2 or especially if I wasn't (sometimes, a book just catches my eye and I just want it, okay?), I take a moment to read parts of the book, while sitting if at all possible.
  • I like to read the first page and then skip to page 99, just to get a feel for the quality of the language  and whether I'm really going to enjoy it, both at the start and after the real meat of the book has begun. 
  • Contrarily, I never read the blurb on a book's back cover or dust jacket if I can help it. Book blurbs can be fine, but they often give away major plot points or distort the actual essence of the book. If I don't know enough about the book to feel comfortable buying it yet, I'll skim the introduction if there is one; blurbs are a last resort for me.
  • While I'm doing this, I also check the physical quality of the book itself, especially if I'm buying used (and I usually am). Is the cover ripped? Pages stained? Can I live with any physical defects the book may have, or is there something that's going to actively decrease my enjoyment of the book itself? 

4. Ask a few final questions. 

These may include "How do I get out of here?"
  • My dad recently shared with me how he sees the process of starting a new book: it's a matter of trusting yourself to the author's care, giving yourself over to their power for a time. The wrong book can waste your time, bore you, or leave a bad taste in your mouth. When buying a new book, he needs to take a moment to consider that hours of his life will be spent in the author's care, so he needs to do everything he can to discern whether the author is trustworthy. 
  • My final book-buying thoughts tend in a slightly different direction; before buying, I try to ask: 
    • Do I have the time to give to this book, or will it languish on a shelf for five years after I buy it because it won't ever fit into my schedule? 
    • Do I have a good reason to own this (will I read it multiple times? will I lend it out?) or am I just in the mood to buy something? 
    • Can I pay for this without feeling guilty about it?

5. Read my purchase as soon as possible.

Yeah, read that book, past self!
  • I find that if I don't read a book pretty soon after purchasing it, it often won't get read for years. I have the bad habit of buying new books while unread ones sit on my shelves. 
  • I often get distracted by something else on my reading list if I don't read a book soon after purchase. It's best to read books right away for another reason, though: there's always a chance I'll lose interest in the book altogether, for one reason or another, later on down the line. Best to get the joy I can out of my books before that happens!

Good books are among my life's chief joys. I love finding a new piece of fiction that presents me with a fully realized world and shapes the way I think about my own world. And I love working through a good non-fiction text, learning things, teasing out arguments, and debating whether I agree with the book's thesis. I feel like these joys are my reward for putting the real work into acquiring a new book, which is why creating a good process has been so important and useful to me. It doesn't work every time, and I don't always remember to follow it, but when it does work, the results are like nothing else I know.

Photo sources:
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Photos 2 and 7: me

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