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Bedevilled books

I while ago, I wrote a post about the irrational and insatiable urge to own printed books (see Beloved books). My conclusion was that even though I know there are a number of convincing arguments against buying lots of books, I still do, because at that time, I thought that the perceived advantages simply trumped the disadvantages. Since then, I’ve changed my way of thinking a bit, and as a result of this, I will consciously avoid buying news books in the future. In this post, I’ll explain why I’ve changed my mind.

But why?

Before I go through the various exceptions to this seemingly harsh rule of not buying new books, I’m going to talk briefly about the rationale behind the decision. Buying books is simply a waste, and it comes with very few genuine advantages. It wastes money, paper, the environment and so on. It makes it harder to move house, and even though I still think a huge number of accumulated books is very nice to look at, I don’t think that there are enough arguments to keep on adding to the pile.

Two of the advantages with printed books that I pointed out in the original post are that they are nice to look at and that they constitute a good way of presenting myself as a person. However, I think that neither of these will suffer I stop buying books as before. I own around 800 books and, living in a small apartment as I will most likely do, that’s more than enough to get the living-in-a-library feeling. Buying fewer books and getting rid old, bad ones should further enhance the representational value of a book collection, not decrease it!

Some exceptions

Naturally, there are a few exceptions when I will buy books anyway. If any of these applies, I will try to buy the book second hand. If that also fails, I will consider buying it new, but as you can see, that will be very rare indeed.

1. I can’t borrow the book, either from a library or friends
2. I want to keep the book for reference (seldom fiction)
3. I need to take detailed notes in the book
4. The book is so good I want to be able to lend it to friends

As you can see, this will almost entirely eliminate the number of new books I plan to buy. In fact, my goal will be to not buy any new books at all, as long as I’m not forced to for some reason (such as text books and course material).

What about electronic books?

The observant reader will have noticed that I haven’t mentioned what seems to be all the rage now: electronic books. I have tried to read books on screen and even if I this is occasionally okay, I don’t own a device which is portable enough to be convenient and which, at the same time, offers a screen good enough for comfortable reading. However, this is an option that I will try to explore more, because I feel that that’s really the only rational direction to go, although I don’t feel any need to run. The future belongs to the e-books, no doubt about it.

What do you think about e-books? Have you stopped buying printed books altogether or do you feel a shiver down your spine every time you think about reading something on a screen?

Books I already own

What about the books I already own? A rough estimate tells me that at the moment, I own around 800 books. A large number of these books are books that if I didn’t own them, they would never fulfill any of the above criteria to bought new. However, most of them I have bought used and very cheaply (or even received as gifts), so they weigh more in terms of kilograms than imagined weight on my conscience.

Still, I plan to go through the books I have and get rid of the books that I neither have read nor want to read. I don’t know how I will do this yet, but I will try to sell them somehow. If that doesn’t work, perhaps I can swap them or simply donate them to charity. In any case, I don’t plan to move all my books with me next time I move house, which might be sooner rather than later. Trimming my book collection will be a gradual and painful process.

In any case, I still love books, both reading them and owning them, but I feel that I can no longer continue wasting money and resources buying things I could find used or in electronic format. Yes, I do like to live in a library, but I already have enough books to do that. If I really need more books later, the second hand market on the internet is quite extensive. So, no more new books from now on, if it can be avoided!

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Beloved books

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!

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The first task I complete on my 101 tasks in 1001 days-project is a rather surprising one. Admittedly, it is not the most inspiring or interesting one, but it needed doing. First, I bought a new Seagate Barracuda (250 GB), almost a duplicate of the one I’ve already got. This enabled me to backup and rearrange almost everything I cherish on my computer, including audio books. Then I spent about ten hours sorting and renaming files into a new directory structure. Doing it piecemeal instead of a ten hour consecutive marathon made it a lot easier than it might sound. And now I’m done. Yay.

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