Those who know me know that I have a thing about books that borders on fetish. I love buying and owning books. Consequently, I never have enough shelf space. (I recently bought a new 6ft bookcase that was filled instantly with the overflow from my other shelves – the new shelf is all music books and scores, and “literary non-fiction” now has its own full bookcase. Forget about fiction – I still have tons of novels stacked on the tops of rows, and a few on the floor!)
Of course, living in a fairly small studio in New York City isn’t terribly conducive to owning a book collection swiftly approaching the one thousand mark. But we all need an obsession. I’ve never been much of a collector of anything, really, save for books. There’s just something wonderful about them, and I take great pride in my library.
I have some odd little quirks when it comes to book buying, but these ‘quirks’ mostly just keep me from going completely broke. First, I mostly – not exclusively – buy used books. They’re infinitely cheaper on the whole, which makes my bank account happier. And there’s something more satisfying about a book that’s been around for a while. Sure, a new, shiny cover can be a nice thing once in a while, but old books need homes, too. Second, I try my hardest to spend $4 or less per book. For special books, I’m willing to ignore that particular guideline. (My resolve is steadily wearing down on the first two volumes of Letters from a Life, the published Britten correspondence, which I’ve only found at particularly high prices. I suspect that I’ll break down and buy them in the next few months.) Books on web design, and similar books that date quickly, I always buy new, and just grimace as I dish out the $30-40. And you can just imagine how I adore the dollar racks at used book stores!
I decided last January that 2008 was the Year of Buying Books. (2009 has been designated the Year of Buying DVDs since my video collection is pathetic, and there are so many great movies and television shows out there that I’d happily watch again and again.) I tried to spend around $12 a week on books. Most weeks, I did fine and limited myself to $12. Some weeks…. We all have our moments of weakness.
While I love taking trips to used book stores and wandering for hours, poking into rows of books hidden behind other rows, I do the majority of my book buying online. I started last year buying mostly through the Amazon.com Marketplace and Half.com. On the Amazon Marketplace, people can – and a surprising number do – sell their books for a penny. Shipping, of course is $2.99 per book, but that’s still under my $4 limit! [Edit: was – shipping is now $3.45 at Half and $3.99 at Amazon. Sheesh!] My new favorite online bookseller for any number of reasons is Better World Books. Not only are their used books priced perfectly for my budget (and their stock is impressive – I’m all about little-known collections of essays and such by authors like Andre Gide or Jean Cocteau, or out-of-print biographies and analyses of music or literary works, which they carry an astonishing number of), but the proceeds go to literacy programs around the world. A really neat thing they do is to show you which program or charity will benefit from the sale of each individual book. They’re always my first stop when I’m looking for something in particular. (Plus, shipping is free within the Unites States!)
To make the whole book-collecting thing more obsessive, I love re-organizing my collection every so often – incorporating new acquisitions into the larger body, shifting things to accommodate the influx of volumes. As I mentioned earlier, I have one whole bookcase full of music-related materials: three shelves of biographies, memoirs, analyses, correspondence; one shelf of scores; and one of reference-type books (books on orchestration, harmony, conducting; anthologies I’ve used in classes). And one bookcase of “literary non-fiction”: biographies, memoirs, essays, diaries by and about poets, authors of prose, journalists, playwrights, filmmakers. (This bookcase also shares space with the ‘sexuality’ portion of my library: Edmund White’s States of Desire, The Homosexualization of America by Dennis Altman, Douglass Shand-Tucci’s The Crimson Letter, to name a few.) Fiction spans one and a half bookcases, with books stacked on top of the rows on shelves, and a few sitting off to the side since there’s no more room. Then one shelf of poetry, and a shelf that’s half scripts and half philosophy. My web design books still don’t have a home, alas!
At this point, I’ve sort of reached critical mass in terms of bookcases. I can’t possibly fit one more in my apartment – I’ve run out of wall space where I can shoe-horn them in. The only option remaining is to stick two back to back in the middle of the floor, and that’s a move of desperation! Especially since the floors (in typical New York fashion) are uneven, and I’d live in constant terror of someone accidentally knocking them over.
I am also completely enamored of LibraryThing.com, where I let my organizational compulsions run free. I’ve catalogued my entire library on the site, complete with tags to classify everything, and whether I’ve yet read a book, with dates when I started and finished those that I have. I do enjoy loaning books to friends, so I also use LT to keep track of who has what, because I’m likely to forget who has what!
What prompted this little ramble about my bibliophilia? A very good friend of mine is currently in the process of moving and is having to evaluate his collection of books, which has grown quite large over the (I think) 17 or so years that he’s lived in that apartment. He recently piled up the books that he’s decided to part with, and I was given a crack at the piles. Some were set aside specifically for me, but there were another 7 stacks that he’s giving away. I came away from our visit today with a stack of books and a small stack of scores, and I’ve left another pile of books in a corner to pick up later this week. But it made me consider when the day comes that I move out of this apartment. Moving the books will be unpleasant, to say the least. I will not relish boxing up so many volumes and carting them around.
In the meantime, though, I’m happy to keep expanding my collection.