On owning books

When I moved, the unpacking of books was prioritized above the unpacking of clothes. Or bedsheets.
When I moved, the unpacking of books was prioritized above the unpacking of clothes. Or bedsheets.

In every book I buy, I write my name and street address. This is relatively new for me; I only started doing it as an undergraduate, when I was living close to a lot of other people who also had books–but it really had very little to do with the fear that our libraries would get confused. I have lost many things (including, once and in a manner no one has ever understood, a clarinet), but never a book. More likely, the reason lies in the fact that I also no longer lived in one stable and narrowly-defined place. Bouncing from a room in college to a house on the Cowley Road, and then St Clements, by way of various relatives’ houses scattered through the south of England, I started writing my name and new addresses in my books as a way of anchoring both myself and them. In space and time, this is where you were and when, the inscriptions on the inside of the front covers say. This is where you bought us (Hebden Bridge for Our Mutual Friend, One Tree Books in Petersfield for To the Lighthouse), this is who gave us to you (‘from Mum and Dad after Finals’, in David Sedaris’s new essay collection; ‘from N.’ in the Vintage copy of Grimm’s Tales), this is where and who you were when you picked us up to begin with (Zadie Smith’s NW for this summer’s choir tour to Italy, for instance, or a strong memory of reading Cloud Atlas on the train away from Oxford at the end of my first term.) My name and address and sometimes a detail or two on the inside front cover provide a kind of map. In future years, my children (or the children of my friends to whom I function as a beloved mad auntie–there are worse fates) will see in those inscriptions the record of my life before I knew them.

This does, however, require a certain premise, which is that those books are mine. You cannot, after all, make an heirloom of something that doesn’t belong to you. My love of books has a corollary, which not everyone shares. I love to read them–that is the main thing and the important thing–but I also love to own them.

By this I do not mean that I love to collect them. People who like rare or shiny or pretty or valuable or otherwise aesthetically distinguished copies of books have their own preferences, which I respect but don’t share. I like a battered paperback. I like a book you can take on the train, in a handbag, to the doctor’s. Beautiful books, for me, obscure the real purpose of the written word, which is to be everywhere in your life, even–no, especially–the places where beauty doesn’t last, or at least not unless backed up by some serious substance.

By “I love to own books”, I mean that I love to own books. Buying them, possessing them, knowing that they’re mine and I don’t have to give them back to anyone. I can write in them if I like (and I do–mimsy puritanism about not annotating is simply misguided); I can bend the spines if I like. I can take them with me or give them away. They’re my books.

This is partly, I think, because I’m used to owning books, and I’m used to owning books because my parents used to give me a book a week–one every Friday–from the age of two until I left home. Believe me, I am thoroughly aware of the privilege that I’ve just revealed. Buying books is expensive. My family isn’t penurious, but we’re not well-to-do either, and frankly, I think at times there were some half-secret councils about the wisdom of continuing the book purchases. Luckily for me, my parents clearly concluded that it was worth it. I know that a lot of people cannot afford to buy their books, or at least not from first-hand retailers. I’m now one of those people. My disposable income is limited and I can’t justify £8 on a book when that sum could also be put towards two or three days’ worth of dinner.

Solutions: 1) Libraries. I will come right out and say that my personal experience of public libraries has never been good. In Charlottesville they function as impromptu homeless shelters, since they’re the only public space you can legitimately occupy without having to pay for something. This makes them valuable community centers, but nevertheless a bit weird, especially when you are a thirteen-year-old girl and have just been surprised by a large snoring man in camouflage jacket sitting in the young adult section. Public libraries are chronically underfunded, their staff are generally pinch-lipped and irritable, and the chairs rarely, if ever, invite you to make yourself comfortable. This could be remedied by pouring more money into them, and I think that needs to happen–especially as people like Caitlin Moran give us an excellent idea of what a lifeline public libraries can be in communities full of intelligent, bored, understimulated, economically disadvantaged kids.

I’ve joined the Oxfordshire county library system. It’s infuriating–most of the books I want are on loan across the county, if they’re stocked at all–but worth persisting with.

2) Secondhand shops. I’m actually going to stop myself from buying anything else until I’ve read through at least 3/4 of the books I’ve already bought. But if I really need a fix, I hit an Oxfam or the book stall at Gloucester Green market on Wednesdays. The books are £2 or £3, which, problematically, means I can get a lot more of them at once, but which also means that individually speaking, they’re less of a drain on the wallet.

3) Borrowing from friends. This gives the comforting illusion that the book is yours, while still enabling you not to buy anything. Also, book-sharing is actually intensely enjoyable, even though I disparaged it a little at the beginning of this post. There’s almost nothing that produces a sense of happy companionship, that wonderful this-is-why-we’re-friends feeling, better than enthusiasm for a shared book. Book-sharing may be the best bet for continuing to read books without actually acquiring them.

4) Reading surreptitiously in bookshops. Oh, don’t tell me you haven’t. When your favorite author releases a new book in hardback and you know you have got to read it, do you a) sell your soul to the devil to raise the cash, b) steal it and inevitably get in serious trouble, or c) find a comfy place in the bookshop and read the whole thing through in a few sittings? Duh. I did this with Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. Best. Decision.

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6 thoughts on “On owning books

    1. Hey James (although wasn’t it Matt for a long time?)–sorry it’s taken me so long, I’ve been doing work experience at a publishing agency in London this week and haven’t been online very much! I have no beef with ebooks. Some people love them, and as I’ve been commuting, I’ve seen more and more that they score major points for being light, portable, versatile–basically they’re a library in your hand. Unfortunately for me, I’m a materialist. I won’t waffle about how much I love the smell of books (they smell like paper, no magic there) or anything. I just like the different colors on the spines and covers, I like being able to stack them and hold them and look at them all lined up. I prefer them to the electro stuff out of pure self-indulgence, really–but it’s pretty convincing.

      1. It was Matt!, and that’s a bit of a non-troversy in my family. Anyway, I vote for material copies as well as I find something very satisfying about seeing my mental labor (and leisure) represented materially. It helps with the existential accounting work.

        I vote for that right up to the point they occupy moving boxes.

  1. I’m bringing a large selection of books back to Ox. You can borrow them, bend the spine back, turn down pages, and even write in them if you want. I don’t guarentee that they’ll all be good though! xx

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