The point of owning books

Friday, August 29, 2008

A personal library was originally a repository of knowledge. University libraries or ecclesiastical collections existed, but were rare and far away. Even as late as the 20th century individuals kept private collections of books that were more comprehensive on narrow subjects than most research institutions. That’s just not the case anymore.

Sarah and I own a couple hundred books. They’re mostly paperbacks, not printed on acid-free paper, not first editions, not signed, and usually not read more than once. Until recently I’ve treated these books with the care I was taught as a child so I could “responsibly” handle library materials and grade school textbooks that went a decade between replacements. But now I realize that my books are nothing more than long-form newsprint – around for a while, but not ultimately valuable, archivable, or important. They are temporary appliances of knowledge, just like my dishwasher, television, or toaster and they are only as valuable as I make them through usage.

So, I’ve changed. I think books should be cherished by being consumed, not by being preserved.

I now write in my books (a good practice for any student at any age, regardless of school policy). I rephrase what’s been said to remember it. I make comments to other readers, most notably my wife and my future self. And, I use them as scratch pads for other ideas that relate tangentially if at all.

I also now loan my books out (with the knowledge that two thirds will never be returned). That’s fine. A new copy of anything is two days and $15 away on Amazon, and if I’m honest with myself I know that I go back to old books relatively rarely. This new attitude will probably cost $30/year, but should allow me to loan out ~15 books/year. Just as some say you should publish content for free so that more people support your thinking (and therefore, more people buy your books/ask you to speak), I plan to give away books so more of my friends can discuss them with me.

And now, that project to catalog all of our books doesn’t seem *quite* as silly. Let me know if you’d like to borrow one.


Ken August 29, 2008 at 9:35 PM  

think i could get confederates in the attic back sometime?

you can borrow my brother-in-law's copy of the outstanding "world war z" in return. or, on a similar theme, better-written but less funny and more depressing, "the road".


Steve P. Davis August 30, 2008 at 11:55 AM  

Definitely, Ken. I actually started writing this while looking at its bright green cover sitting next to the fabulous library checkout set that you gave us for our wedding.

Tara March 3, 2009 at 12:48 AM  

I love my books, but I seriously destroy them. I think you have even commented to me once that you were weary of people who underline text with red ink...welcome to my world.

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