My little sister is obsessed with op shops (charity shops, second-hand shops, whatever you call them in your location). When we recently happened to drive past one in an area she doesn’t usually frequent, she made me stop and go back, then dragged me in. She went straight for the clothing racks. I went straight for the book shelves.
By the time we left, I had my arms full of books that had been bought and read by someone else, then donated to charity to be bought and read again. Because I’m posting book reviews at a rate of one a week, I’m buying and reading a lot more books in a lot shorter period than I have in the past. It can be expensive, especially if I pay full recommended retail price. But as I perused those book shelves, I noticed book after book with familiar covers, novels that I’d picked up in book and departments stores to consider and put back knowing I couldn’t afford to pay full price.
Many of these books were relatively recent, no more than two or three years since their publication, and you’ve been reading my reviews of them in recent weeks. They include Amnesia by Peter Carey, Sisters of Mercy by Caroline Overington, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent and The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman. There are even more coming in the next few months because I’ve found a lot of books in these charity shops that I want to read.
The book that specifically prompted this post was Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Because on the back of the first page was a handwritten message to Moppy (I don’t know who from as it wasn’t signed) that read: “This is going to be you! To read on the day bed in our hotel room with our own private pool! I love you! Happy birthday! XOXO”
In a couple of other books, people had inscribed their names on the first pages. In All That I Am by Anna Funder was the name K McLellow and in The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman was the name Jenny Urbaui. Both also had dates next to them.
I am not someone who writes my name in the front cover of my books so I don’t really understand the compulsion to do it. But I am especially confused by the compulsion if you are planning to give the book to charity after you are done reading it. And if anyone gave me a book as a present and wrote a personal message inside the cover, I certainly wouldn’t give it away. I would keep it and cherish it because I think it’s a very special and intimate gift, not the book but the message itself. Moppy clearly didn’t think so.
I have thousands of books. In fact, I have a library to house them all (it also doubles as a study – it’s actually the third bedroom). And every book I buy goes into my library once I have read it. Because for me, a book is for life. I only have one experience of giving away books and I still regret it to this day.
It was when I was living with my grandparents and I was running out of space so I made the ill-advised decision to donate my Sweet Valley High collection to charity. I was in my mid-twenties and I thought I was too old to be holding onto them. I had been addicted to them during my teens and I had a lot of them. What I wouldn’t do to be able to go back in time and change my mind.
I will happily donate clothes, money, even blood when the Red Cross contacts me every twelve weeks, but my books are the one thing that when I die my relatives will be sorting through, muttering, “Why does she have so many?” I frequently go back to books I have read to find passages or information as I write my novels, articles and blog posts. They are an essential reference to me, especially because I have a photographic memory when it comes to books. I can remember how far in, whether it was on the left or right page, and approximately how far down particular pieces of information were located. That kind of ability to remember is useless when it comes to electronic information; it only works for physical books.
Part of the answer to the question of what each individual person does with books they have bought or been given once they’ve finished reading them lies in whether or not they are a re-reader. If you never re-read, then there’s really no reason to hold on to books. If you do, it tends to be difficult to determine in advance which books you will choose the re-read later on so you might hold on to them all.
This is something that might not perplex readers for much longer given the number of books that are now read electronically. Online accounts that provide ongoing access to purchased e-books and music files and their ability to be inherited once the owner dies are currently under debate and consideration.
It’s almost ironic considering how the invention of the printing press allowed the mass distribution of books and ideas. The invention of the internet has allowed for the electronic mass distribution of books and ideas, as long as you have access, of course. The day will inevitably come when a worldwide disaster sends us all back to the “dark ages” – think the end of Battlestar Gallactica when the crew finally finds Earth and has to start all over again. Where will we be then if no one has secretly hoarded copies of all the books like a modern day library of Alexandria? Thankfully, I won’t be around to find out.