Taken as a whole, reading books is by far the most expensive hobby in my life. I currently own around 600 books, and even though most of them are bought extremely cheap, acquired second-hand or gifted by family and friends, but that does not change the fact that hundreds of them have been bought new at market prices. Of course, I have bought books for many years, but even taken per year, literature accounts for a significant part of my spendings on spare-time activities.
Providing that I like to read, which is taken for granted in this post, most of the time there is no apparent reason to buy the books I want to read. Our libraries, both the municipality one and those on campus, are pretty well stocked to handle most requests. Given that I read a lot of science-fiction, I would have to borrow some books from my friends, who are like me in this craving for printed books. This means that it would be perfectly possible, even legal, to consume as many books as I have done, but pay perhaps ten percent of the money I have spent so far.
The big question here is of course: Why? I have considered this question a lot of times, especially when poised to order another shipment of books from an online bookstore, even though I know fully well it will take me years to read what I already have. The answer has to be somewhere outside the reading experience itself, or at least, that is what I will assume for now. I will give a few hypotheses as to why I like having books; then I hope we can compare and see if you agree or have more insightful things to add.
First, having a lot of books enables me to lend books to friends. For instance, if I read a book I really like, I would like others to read it, too, which is made much easier if they do not have to buy the book themselves (or find it in the library). Also, this kind of thinking has given rise to an informal network among friends, where everybody buys for his own sake, but where everybody is prepared to share with others. This enables us to share the cost or inconvenience of obtaining books that are out of print, difficult to get or not interesting enough to buy individually. Even though I am sure my friends would not stop me from borrowing book if I did not contribute myself, I still feel it is a nice setup and something I would like to support.
Second, books sitting in a bookcase look adorable. I like having books as an integral part of my apartment, especially when it is a small one without much space for other things. Now and then, we make half-serious jokes about wanting to live in a small library, but perhaps there is more truth to that than might be apparent at first glance. I also think books feel nice, and I enjoy fooling around with them (such as arranging them, handling them for various purposes and so forth). I think this is something intrinsic to books in general and has nothing to do with the fact that they happen to be mine.
Third, a personal collection of books provide a useful self-presentation. If a complete stranger walks in to my apartment, there is a fair chance the he or she is at least mildly interested in reading (most of my friends are), which will inevitably lead to a quick overview of what kinds of books I read. Two valuable things can be obtained from this. To begin with, I am pretty sure that my personality is mirrored in what books I read. Seeing a lot of science-fiction, classic English literature, books about language (primarily Chinese and English), a person might get a quick glance of my taste and background. Furthermore, we can almost always find common favourites or at least shared experiences from which a conversation can ensue.
Fourth, the advantage of having a lot of books close by should not be overlooked, even though it might be obvious. Reference literature and language-related books are essential for me, something I have noticed here in Taiwan, where I of course have no means of accessing my books at home, in Sweden. Apart from that, re-reading fiction is also an option, or checking various sections of old books. This is especially useful if one’s ambition is to become an author oneself, in which case checking what other authors do is sometimes a great help.
Fifth, there has to be some sort of vanity in all this, perhaps in connection with the self-presentation mentioned above. Having a lot of books implies that I am interested enough in reading to spend lots of money on it. Of course, it also presents myself as a certain kind of person, perhaps with a specific set of talents. It will of course have no effect whatsoever in people who do not read, but for those who read, it will have some effect. The mirrored situation is definitely true: I can feel both at a loss when I visit somebody who simply have no books, and greatly impressed by people who have a large quantity of books, especially if they are still young.
So, why do I post this article? Normally, I have pretty clear, rational reasons for what I do, especially if the behaviour is sustained over time. Buying books, however, sometimes seems to fail this criterion, which is why I find it interesting to elaborate a bit on the motives behind the action. Also, i would like to hear your opinions about this. If you read and buy books, do you agree with my five motives? Which one is most important for you? If you read a lot, but seldom buy books, I assume that you do not agree with my reasoning; which points do you agree with and which do you find irrelevant? Even though I feel that I have made my best to explain my point of view, I stil think buying books is a mystery, so please help me solve it!