A really thoughtful post about the joys of secondhand books by Prashant over at Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema has prompted me to make this confession. Partly because I feel the need to explain my guilt and partly because I wonder if I am alone or whether this is another one of those “there are two kinds of people” things that life throws at us.
I’ll wait here while you go and read Prashant’s thoughts if you haven’t already done so.
I don’t just not like secondhand books. I hate them.
Though in my defence my experience is not really like the one Prashant describes in his post. Perhaps if it had been…
For me books have always been special. Partly because of the escape they offered inside their covers but also because the objects themselves are things I was taught to treat with respect. In the house I grew up in there were only a few books – some my parents had inherited and a few my mother purchased for herself or us kids. They were always shelved nicely, dusted regularly and could only be read if our hands had been washed. Books that came and went – from the library or the annual allocation from school – had to be handled carefully too so that they could be returned in exactly the same condition as they arrived
I still haven’t quite recovered from the unfortunate incident in which I borrowed a copy of NORTHANGER ABBEY from Liliana’s sister without Liliana’s sister’s permission. In my defence I did have Liliana’s permission but whether she had her sister’s was subsequently questioned. I got a drop or three of spaghetti sauce on one of the pages. My mum made me borrow money from her to buy a replacement copy then I had to do extra chores to pay mum back. And I wasn’t allowed my weekly library trip for a whole month. Lesson learned.
Although we didn’t have a lot of money my mum tended to go for the library rather than secondhand books. I don’t know if this was due to the dearth of selling establishments in our corner of the world or perhaps she too hated them. I wish I’d thought to ask when I still could. Back in the day you had to pay an annual fee to join our library and everyone who did so treated the books with as much care as my parent taught us to do.
So my first exposure to secondhand books was when I did student volunteering for one of the large charities here. I was tasked with sorting donated items. About half of the items were books which was usually my job. Because who’d give a fashion-challenged 14-year old the task of sorting clothes meant mostly for adults? The bulk of the donated books were badly damaged (rips, tears, missing pages or covers) and many had worrying unidentifiable stains and smells. I don’t know what part of this was worse: that people would allow their books to get into this state in the first place or that they thought so little of others that they would put such rubbish in a charity bin. I do know I cried the first time I was put in front of a pile of these shabbily looked after books.
Later I encountered specialist secondhand book shops that weren’t a neglected corner of a charity shop but still I was not tempted. When I could afford it I would buy a new book, when I couldn’t I’d go to the library. This was especially true after my first trip to America. Back in the late 80’s when bookstores were the size of cathedrals and there were endless aisles of shiny new books that I could afford to buy by the suitcase (book prices in Australia have always been high by comparison). My housemates were unimpressed when I returned from my first overseas foray with a suitcase full of mystery novels rather than the duty free booze and sneakers they had anticipated. My return trips to the US were, ostensibly, to see family but I still recall those days spent in book stores very fondly.
Over the years I have bought the odd secondhand book. Most notably while travelling in the days before kindles were a glint in Jeff Bezos’ eye. The worst thing about backpacking in those days was not having enough room to pack several months worth of reading or enough money to buy new English language books in countries where English is not the dominant language. I think part of the reason I am so fond of Turkey is that it is – or was in the 90’s at any rate – replete with secondhand bookstores that had something other than Barbara Cartland novels for sale in English. But I left all the books in hostels once I’d read them.
I would have liked to be like Prashant. To be seduced by the lure of secondhand books and the stores that sell them. There’s a romance to it that I like the idea of. And it would fit well with my aim to leave less of a waste-filled footprint on our planet. But assuming I will never again be desperate (now that eBooks exist and I can borrow from any library in my state) I cannot imagine ever willingly setting foot inside another secondhand bookshop.
What about you? Do you love secondhand books or hate them? Why?