My Books. My Life.

"Let us read and let us dance – two amusements that will never do any harm to the world." ~Voltaire~

Books and the Good Life – Book Buying March 31, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michelle @ 4:01 pm

This section is on the longer side, and it involves the question of why we buy books.  Emily, I hope you don't mind that I used you as an example and referred to the Reading Like a Writer toilet story. 🙂

When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food
and clothes.



brother and I were wandering around Borders a few months ago trying to find
some books for my mom for Christmas. 
Like the cliché mother, she loves Danielle Steele and had requested her
latest novel Amazing Grace.  After ducking into the romance section unseen,
we found the requested book.  It was
$27!  My brother and I, both poor
students, looked at each other and immediately decided that $27 was too much to
pay for a book.  I told him we could get
her a library card for free and she could get the book there.[1]

            Why do we buy books?  I currently have four book shelves and hardly
any space left in them.  My husband has
three in his apartment and they are even more jam-packed than mine.  We own a lot of books.  Sometimes I look at our collection and wonder
how much money we would have if we did not like to read.  Then I stop wondering because I am afraid at
how big the number will actually be.  We
like to read, but that does not necessarily mean that we have to own so many
books.  We could get them from the library
or borrow them from friends.  I am
embarrassed to say that before this summer, I did not have a library card.  I got one when I was living in San Francisco because I
did not want to lug a bunch of books out there and back.  And then when I returned home, I got one at
my local library.  It saves me a little
money, but I still keep buying books.

might be a showing-off thing.  Strand in New York allows you to
hire someone to design a library for you.[2]  You buy books by the foot.  You can pick a theme, but they choose the
books.  They are meant to look good, not
be read.  The notion that you can
decorate a room with books is strange, but it shows that owning books does have
some showing-off factor.  We could keep
our books in closets and bins under the bed, but instead we buy shelves
specifically made for them.  I think
those of us that read a lot want people to know that fact.  We want people to see that we are intelligent
people.  That’s why the classics get the
best space while the books we may be a little embarrassed about are likely to
be obscured.

reason that we may buy books and display them is that when people see your
books they get a little glimpse into who you are.  This is different from showing off.  Instead of displaying books to show how smart
you are, you are displaying books to show what type of a person you are.  The books you love will probably have the
most visible space and people will be drawn to them.  Someone may display their collection of great
Russian novels to show that he is intelligent. 
Someone else may present their religious books as a display of their
faith.  Looking at a person’s book
collection gives you some idea of the kind of person they are, and the person
who stocked the shelf knows that.  I have
books that I do not put on the shelf because I do not want others to think that
I am a type of person that I feel I am not. 
For example, a few years ago I ended up reading the Left Behind
series.  I am not a conservative
Christian and I would be appalled to be viewed as one so these books are safely
tucked away behind others.

we buy books so that we can own a little bit of something that we love.  No one can really own a story (aside from
possibly the copyright holder) but we can own books.  I have a friend who reads a lot of library
books but also ends up buying most of the ones that she likes.  You can tell how good a book is by whether or
not she owns it.  I think she likes
owning books purely to own something that she loves.[3]  I think a lot of us are like that.  I like knowing that certain books are always
within reach.  I can find a favorite book
or passage when I need it without leaving my home.  It makes me happy to know that I can reread a
favorite book whenever I like.  When I
love a book, I want to keep part of it with me always.  We like keeping the things we love near us.

may also be that we buy books to keep from being lonely.  When you are surrounded by books, it is hard
to feel alone.  You can instantly be in
the company of Jo March or Mr. Darcy or Scout Finch.  Not only are you surrounded by characters you
love, you are connected to everyone else who has ever read that book.  You can read a book that someone recommended
to make you feel like you are with that person. 
Or you can look at the inscription your grandfather wrote in a book
before he died.  Above, I mention how we
read to escape, but we also read to feel like we are part of something.  I feel at home among my books.  I do not feel at home in a new place until I
have unpacked my books.

people buy books so that they can write notes in the margins.  I have never been much of a margin-writer but
I always wanted to be.  Occasionally,
when reading a book for a class or a book club discussion, I will write a few
things in the margins or underline certain passages or sentences, but for the
most part I just read.  But I do know
that some people do like to own books in order to make their own notes.  As it is impolite to mark up library books
(and useless since you have to return them), people must buy books to make
notes in them.

this is just another example of excessive American consumerism?  We certainly do like to own things.  It makes us feel good.  I know that the book buying addiction is not
a uniquely American thing as many of my international friends are just as
culpable as me, but it could still account for some of the massive book buying
that happens.  Whatever the reason, the
fact that people enjoy using their hard earned cash to purchase books shows
that it must be important to them.  For
readers, buying books is an enjoyable activity in life.

Eventually, my brother did purchase the book for her when he found it for much

[3] There is
a very funny story of hers which involves one of her favorite books, a toilet,
and an immediate trip to the bookstore to get a replacement.

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31 Responses to “Books and the Good Life – Book Buying”

  1. Maria Says:

    I think buying books for me is a way of owning something I love… It's not so much about being able to read a book whenever I want, just knowing that it's there is comforting! It always makes me feel better -especially when I'm lonely- to know that a story that touched me or the characters I could relate to are always with me, within reach…

  2. Emily Says:

    hahaha I love it! 🙂

  3. Kristie Says:

    I'm not exactly sure why I like owning books. Lots of people own many DVDs because they want to watch the movie over and over again, so I think maybe I'm the same way with books. It's nice to have some of your closest friends–because sometimes you can really connect with characters and they seem like friends–there whenever you want them. And I definitely agree about the knowing a person by the books they own. The books I own would definitely show that I am a very diverse person when it comes to likes and dislikes. My top shelf at home has first Austen books and those similar (JABC, Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, Bridget Jones) and then Harry Potter :oP My shelf shows that I will try almost anything when it comes to books :o)

  4. Aubrey Says:

    I do think that books on display is a shortcut to knowing a person…however, I keep mine in cupboards: I'm able to squeeze out some more space that way; so I can buy more books!
    I like to buy books so I can hold them – to feel the weight of the words in my hands. Many of my books are old – I like the smell, the creases, the illustrations protected by a yellowing piece of tissue. Many of my older books already have notations written in them – some have signatures as well. I love books for the histories that they bring me.
    Browsing through a bookstore can be a very exquisite adventure!

  5. Emily Says:

    Yay! Congrats on making the culture page! And I feel famous in connection!I didn't get a chance to say earlier, but you're spot on about why I buy books. I buy them because I absolutely love them. I love owning the ones I've read and loved, and I love the endless potential of my ever growing books to be read collection.

  6. Starlight Says:

    I also like owning books because sometimes you need to have a copy to lend to friends… And lending often turns into having to buy yourself another copy.

  7. jawa stew Says:

    Hello! I saw this on the front page and I felt, after reading, I had to comment. I like owning my books, but I have different reasons for the ones you speculated on. Hardcover books are expensive, I'm not going to try to reason out of that. But, authors also get a bigger share from hardcover books so, if given the opportunity on a book I really enjoyed, I'd rather spend the extra money (if I have it) and make a purchase that's going to support the author. I'm getting a Bachelor's degree in English Literature this spring and am a "margin writer" as you put it, but I tend to do this to help me write papers or remember insights I've had while reading.I tend to buy books to support the author of a book I love, but also for reference purposes and the ability to reread something I've enjoyed any time I want, however many times I want.There's one thing I disagree on with your post. You mentioned how you hide some books so others don't make assumptions about you based on the fact that you own them. I don't believe owning a book means anything other than you were interested in a subject and wanted to learn more. Therefore, if I saw the Left Behind series on your bookshelf, I would never assume you were automatically a "conservative Christian." My first assumption is always, that the books must have been good enough of a series to spend money on and own. I think that type of thinking is what the ALA fights against when people or groups attempt to ban books.Anyway, from one book lover to the next, thanks for the post!

  8. LeendaDLL Says:

    I buy books simply because I enjoy reading – but don't enjoy extended reading on monitors (I assume there is some non-observable, but annoying, difference in visual vs monitor refresh rates). Also, in high school, I had a bad experience with a library/librarian and have not been to a public library since.While I keep some books for awhile, I almost never re-read anything and most books are eventually donated to charity or "set free" via BookCrossing.comCongrats on getting on the [Culture is Good] page today!!

  9. I grew up in a house filled with books. Shelves upon shelves. My father was in the Air Force, and my mother worked all sorts of white collar jobs, mostly dealing with labor unions. In the end, and due to a waning economy, my mother went from store manager of Crown Books to going back for a second masters degree in Library Science. So, in owning as many books as I do, and knowing the resources of my local library, I find I own so many books so that I can share them with others.I have created my library to be exactly that, a library. Working with the Navy as I do now, I find I've left trails of books at every duty station I've been to, but in that I've left trails of myself, and I realize there are certain books that I have bought over and over again, some as gifts, because I loved it so much, other times to supplement my missing copy. I think the books I've bought the most is Johnathan Livingston Seagull by Bach.Books are who we are, and how we share them can be how we share ourselves.

  10. agathafrye Says:

    I too have three sets of bookshelves that are jammed with books I own and a need to buy at least one more set, but I also have a designated shelf that is completely packed with only library books. I do find that I will buy a book often if I've checked it out from the library and loved it (just bought The Invention of Hugo Cabret because I had to have it). Leenda, you're breaking my librarian heart! Please think about giving your library another chance- they have so much to offer, and I'll bet you'd find that most of the librarians are very nice.

  11. Amanturiel Says:

    I buy books simply because I love the stories, & by extension (in some cases), I admire the authors. Although it's more for the love of reading than anything else, I also get an extra kick from buying most of my books from second-hand bookstores. It's one my fave things to do in my part of the world because, I guess, books that were read before seem somehow more interesting – different from the sealed-in-plastic appeal of brand-new ones. Used books have quirks & individuality that may give clues about its previous owners; and best of all – if you're really lucky, you come across an edition that's not available anymore, or one that's got *gasp!* the author's signature!
    Oh, and you save a lot too! 🙂

  12. LoW Says:

    Authors appreciate book buyers, they wouldn't make a profit much if everyone bought used or borrowed books. 🙂 So I do it to help the economy. 🙂

  13. As an author I am always interested in why people buy books and hope to understand better what attracts readers to my books. Getting feedback from readers is always interesting and insightful. I'd love to know from avid book readers if they buy books because of requests, advertising, whim, reviews, the attraction of the cover, loyalty to an author etc. Is there an aversion to buying books on line? If so why? Does it have anything to do with instant gratification? Is it only because they are cheap from Amazon?
    I love books and have many shelves of books. I love just to see the spines and recall the story or information I learned from that book. Sometimes when I travel I take a book intending on leaving it for someone else to find after I've read it, (see but very often I bring it home again to add to my family of books.

  14. Michelle Says:

    I felt famous by connection when you were on the main page before so I'm glad to return the favor. 🙂

  15. Wanda Says:

    My husband only buys Star Wars books. ha ha He collects them for some reason. I buy books to read them, most of them over and over and over again. When I lived in NY I didn't buy as many books because we had a huge beautiful old library. I could do anything at that place. But now I live in the middle of nowhere in NC and we do have a library but it is very small and rarely has anything I would want to take out. So I buy for now in hopes that someday we will have a bigger, better library to call our own.

  16. Jennifer Says:

    I have so many books, I can't keep them all shelved. And still I buy more. There's just something about having the book in your hands, knowing it's yours…one day I'll have a gigantic room stuffed with books (and no way am I letting someone else pick for me!). When I'm rich and famous, of course.A few of my friends wonder how I can read books again and again. It's an escape, a way to get lost in another world, to meet your favorite characters again, to laugh or cry or thrill at what happens. Who wouldn't want to do that again?Great quote, btw.

  17. Koios Says:

    I buy books because I love to think. There is something about reading that really makes one think. Not to mention, books contains so much knowledge and wisdom. 🙂

  18. michelle Says:

    Saw your post on the front of Vox and I enjoyed reading it! I am picky about the books I own. They have to be something I'd read more than once. I own 10+ Italian memoirs and read them every few years – I own them because I love the destination. Reading them takes me back to Venice or Tuscany or Rome. And there's just something so magical about going to a bookstore, whether used or new. Knowing that you can open a book and go anywhere, learn anything or be anyone that's just so incredible!

  19. Pete Says:

    Brilliant post, Michelle, I don't think it's an American consumerism thing as I'm British and I'm just the same. I bought my second bookshelf the other week as I had so many piling up on my floor – I filled four shelves just with those that had been in piles. I haven't read them all, as I can't always read at the rate I buy which is probably rather bad! But I certainly want to read them all, sometime. I think what you say about not being alone with a book is certainly true – for some reason I love having them there, I love that feeling that within arm's reach of my bed I have the means to be transported to different ages and places, to get to know amazing characters etc. Also it's the fact that books feel like something for life, you know? I know that when I buy one I'm generally going to keep it, there is something lovely and permanent about them that I don't find I get from technology and such, which I always think of as soon to be replaced, books are timeless.

  20. Michelle Says:

    Thanks everyone for the wonderful comments – I wish I had time to respond to each of them. 🙂

  21. maggiemoo Says:

    I love to read and I love books. I buy them so I can read them over and over. I also borrow books from friends and the library. I can't imagine not having a library card. One of the first things I did when I moved was to get a library card. As many books as I have, I too, mostly borrow and then purchase the ones I love. Books are our friends and our adventures. I have been to many places I will never get to see because of my library.

  22. mcco12 Says:

    i'm a "dipper." once i read a book, i put it on my shelf and then, from time to time, i take it down and dip into it here and there. i also like the variety and am a "mood" reader so that if on a whim i suddenly feel like a victorian romance, i have several to choose from. if want to read a book from 1920s paris, i have some, etc.
    but i am trying to be more conscious of having books. i feel guilty about them sitting there wasting space and collecting dust when they could be out in the world, circulating and being read. i had a friend once, perhaps the most well-read person i've ever met. but he never had more than two books in his house. he just gave them all away after reading them. (having said that, though, i realize that when i enter someone's house and see that they have NO books, i feel they are very very unfortunate and, dare i say, not really bright?) perhaps blogging about books is my way of "showing off" my bookshelves. i still have my physical books (and i keep buying them) but i WANT to slowly start getting rid of about 90% of them.
    if i can.

  23. Phaedrus Says:

    HI, I have always loved buying books rather than borrowing them from the library. Something about owning a good book and being able to put it on my bookshelf always appealed to me. I always feel like a kid in a candy store when I walk into my local bookstore and I feel like everyone in the store can see the joy on my face as I walk through the doors.My girlfriend, on the other hand, much prefers the library. I still do peruse the library as well though, and I love the library atmosphere but nothing beats owning your own personal library, something you can pass on to future generations, something you can show off to visitors as a way for them to get a peek into you life and who you are as a person. Thanks for this lovely post.

  24. I have always been an avid reader. As a matter of fact, my friends have a tendency to make fun of me because of it. I'm not too sure what my obsession is with buying books. In an age where books can be easily downloaded online, I would still much rather read a real book. There's something about being able to turn the pages with my own hands and to feel the pages and words with my fingertips that appeal to me. There's also the satisfaction of knowing that those books are just within arm's reach anytime I want to go back and look through them again.

  25. Sue Schmitz Says:

    Great post and no need to respond, Michelle. Like so many others I have the same feeling about books as well. I love owning them and love re-discovering books I haven't read in years. I'm sure in 10 years, I'll pick up the Harry Potter Series again and re-read them all in a short amount of time with as much fascination and obsession as I did the first time. It's for the love of reading that we buy books because those are how we are able to indulge. Thanks for the great read and for the many posts.

  26. Somebody may have already said something like this; I'm not sure because I am currently procrastinating and thus didn't want to take the time to look through all of the comments above me. Anyway, I think the main reason I buy books is because all of the ones I own are either ones I can't find at my local library (and don't want to wait for interlibrary loan) or ones I read so much I would be checking them out every other week.
    Libraries are nice, but it's also nice to know that your favorite books are right there at hand, and you don't have to go out and get them. (With that said, I rarely buy books unless I have a gift card to use or something. I like to get them as gifts, but unless I really want the book right then, I won't usually spend money on it. There have been a few exceptions to this rule, most notably books in a series I've been waiting for.)

  27. kat Says:

    My sentiments exactly! There's something nice about actually holding the book in your hands and physically feeling it as you thumb through the pages. I buy books, rather than borrow them, because I too like the idea that I can re-read them anytime. And I don't really like parting with my books, so borrowing from libraries isn't my thing.Unfortunately, libraries where I'm from aren't really stocked with the
    kind of books that I like, therefore looking for them there isn't
    really an option. And to address the cost issue, I often scour secondhand book stores or trade with other book enthusiasts. 😀

  28. Duke Says:

    "After ducking into the romance section unseen, we found the requested book"
    Hahaha! I always do that. I don't know why but I really felt dread the thought that someone might caught me snooping around the romance section. Especially when I'm with my guy friends…
    By the way, this is a very good post. As a self-professed bibliophile I just can't control the urge to buy more books. Given the chance I might purchase the whole bookstore! But being a college student and my main source of income is my scholarship money, I just have to keep this obsession of mine in check.
    I used libraries to find books that I might like to read but doesn't feel the need to own them. But if I happen to find one that I really like, I'll get myself a personal copy.

  29. Lucia Says:

    [ciò è buono]

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