Why Books Aren't Widgets

March 3rd, 2015 in category The Future of Books

(I wrote this about a book that was in a collection I bought in 2009. At the time the collapse in price of most general stock that the rise of the internet and Amazon had engendered was leading me away from being a general bookseller towards dealing in more books as collectable objects. Thinking about it now I think that what makes my job interesting is the value that books have, while what makes bookselling viable is the price and that the two are not always connected in a linear manner.)


Sometimes as a book-dealer I think that I romanticise books. I want to believe they have some special sort of value; that books are in some way different to other products; that there's something special about books. And sometimes, as a book-dealer, I think books are just commodities, products like any other mass produced items. In fact the thought just occurred to me that books were the worlds first mass produced items. But maybe both these things are true and it's not the producing and selling of books that ultimately give them their value; it's the owners of books who say what a book is worth.

I recently came across a book that demonstrates my point: it was an old library book, it had been printed in 1946, it wasn't a 1st edition and at some point the library had had it rebound. It was a common book on a subject no-one had much interest in. It was the sort of book that I, as a book seller, routinely throw away. For me its a book with not even monetary value. But written on the front free endpaper was the following inscription.


"I bought this book from the dusty shelves of an old second hand bookshop in Westgate St, Gloucester... after dropping my mother and sister at the hospital. They were going to visit my dying father. I walked into the old roman town with my fiance and purchased this book, along with a copy if Ruskin's 'The Stones of Venice V.1' and returned to the hospital with the books. My father had died shortly after they had arrived, exactly the time I was in the bookshop. I therefor bought this book at exactly the time my father took his last desperate breath and discarded his life."


The inscription was signed and dated and I wonder what value this book, this volume, had for the writer of that inscription.


If there is something that makes books different, changes them from being just another mass produced consumer good, for me it is that books can carry meaning for us. In this case its an inscription but I think there might be more to it than that. For many people its the texts themselves that carry those meanings and so books become significant; become things that people want to own; to have to hand. I know I have many books on my shelves that I've not revisited in years, yet each of those books is there because at some point it affected who I was and what I thought and how I thought it. It remains to be seen if the same significance will ever be attached to Ebooks.