Monday, July 26, 2010

The Laborer Is Worthy Of Her Hire

One of the greatest days of my life was the day I got a book of my own for the first time. I'm not sure how old I was -- six? seven? eight? somewhere in there. I was already a hardened library user, but I wanted my own library. That first book was a Berlitz children's book, telling the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in Spanish and English, very simple. (Que es esto? Es una casa. Es una casita blanca con un techo rojo.) Did I want it, or did my mother choose it for me? Probably the latter. So that was my introduction to Spanish, as well as my initiation into the owning of books.

I didn't add much to my collection until I was in high school, and especially not until I had a job and money of my own. Discovering thrift shops also helped -- there were two in South Bend that around 1970 were selling paperbacks for a dime and most hardcovers for a dollar or less. My first serious boyfriend said semi-affectionately that buying books was like a sickness with me. (He was one to talk -- he had almost as many books as I did when we met.) And another friend, somewhat more affectionately but still chidingly, "Duncan, we have to get you to the library! It is not necessary to buy books!" Of course I knew that; I spend as much time in libraries as I do in bookstores. (Look -- I was born this way, okay? Would someone choose a "lifestyle" that causes them to be mocked and despised? Having my own library is in my genes. Respect my trip, you haterz.)

But it is necessary to buy books. There is something extra about owning them. As Harold Laski reportedly said:
Sir, the fact that a book is in the public library brings no comfort. Books are the one element in which I am personally and nakedly acquisitive. If it weren't for the law I would steal them. If it weren't for my purse I would buy them.
Except that I don't own a purse, my sentiments exactly. But awhile ago, partly as a result of reading this online (and I think, mistargeted) rant, I began musing over the fact that I often buy a book only after I've read a copy from the library. That seems counter-intuitive even to me: after all, I didn't find it necessary to buy the book in the first place, and if I want to reread it, I can always go to the library again. Lately I've come to accept the fact that I'll never have time to reread as many books as I'd like to, so that's not a reason (though I have often used it as a rationalization).

But it occurred to me that it actually makes sense to buy a book after you've read it. Certainly I agree with Nicola Griffith (author of that rant) that writers should be paid for their work. (I should be paid for my work!) But why should I pay for a book upfront? (Though of course I usually do.) Only after I've read it do I know whether the author has earned my money. That's how I now understand the impulse I feel to buy a book I've read: it means, Yes, I'm willing to pay money for this book. It's sort of like paying for a meal in a restaurant (and tipping the server) after you've eaten, rather than before, as in a fast-food place.

A library copy has already been paid for, of course. But it feels right to buy another copy for the sake of the author, as well as the reader's neurotic desire to own. As someone else said, "An ordinary man can ... surround himself with two thousand books ... and thenceforward have at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy."

[Both quotations from The Writer's Quotation Book: a Literary Companion, edited by James Charlton (Penguin, 1981)]