Tonight* a bunch of us writerly types were sitting around with some adult beverages, talking about writing, reading, and books in general, when the topic of used books came up.

I’ve never lived anywhere where I haven’t visited every used book store in a hundred mile radius. These days almost all of my books are bought new, but I still like to hit the used book stores (and thrift stores) for out-of-print books, for hardcovers of books I loved in paperback, and for books to stock my classroom library with.

But in the midst of our discussion of the economic viability of used book stores, we the conversation glanced upon the notion of collecting books–as in, what for?

Once upon a time I used to reread my favorite books with some frequency. I’ve read most of Heinlein’s books a couple of times, and Door Into Summer, in particular, maybe four times. (Yes, there’s all sorts of creepy vibes in that book that I see now, but as a kid myself, they were invisible to me.) I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve read Ender’s Game. Another one of the most re-read books from my teen years is Piers Anthony’s On A Pale Horse.

Even as I gradually fell out of the habit of rereading favorite books, I still reread the early books in any series I loved when later books came out. I think I have to credit Big Fat Fantasies That Go On For A Dozen Books for breaking me of that.

As it stands now, it’s probably been over five years since I’ve reread a book, and I have no particular inclination to reread anything else–mostly because my to-be-read pile is taller than I am. By a lot.

So why keep all those books?

Even if I felt like going back and rereading some books, would I reread all of them, or just a few favorites? Is there any doubt in my mind which books I would likely never bother with again?

I do occasionally pull out a book as a sort of reference. I scan my shelves and note which publishers release the largest number of my favorite titles. Or I look at a book that accomplished something I’m struggling at and look at how the author did it.

I also like to get books autographed, but again, certainly not all of them, right?

Ooh, I’ve got another one! It’s nice to be able to lend somebody a book at the drop of a hat. “Why I’ve got just the thing for you–here!” Cause yeah, that happens a lot.

All those reasons have some tiny nugget of validity, but I have to admit the single biggest reason is that they’re “bookvenirs.” I’ve traveled down this or that road, lived the life of this or that character, and, while I don’t have the T-shirt to prove it, I’ve got the book. Most of those books serve little more purpose than a tchotchke I might buy in Mexico to remember my trip. And at the end of the day, that actually seems kind of shallow, doesn’t it? Who am I reading for? Who am I trying to impress?

Maybe some day I’ll jump on the e-reader bandwagon and stop being such a packrat. So far, my e-reading tendencies skew precisely the opposite of most people: Report after report shows that e-book sales are up for fiction but not for non-fiction, but for me it’s the other way around. When I have a reference type book–especially that ambrosia of aspiring writers, the book on writing, with the latest magic bullet to make your writing awesome and your career take off–I figure I want it near the computer for when I’m working. What could be nearer the computer than in it? When it comes to fiction, though, so far I haven’t gotten past my love affair with actual paper and ink books. Maybe I’ll join the digital age when a Nook (or whatever) gets cheap enough for me to feel it’s worth buying.

In the meantime, look upon my library, ye mighty, and despair!

Much like what The Intern is doing with The Hunger Games. Go read this post, if you’re a writer. It’s fantastic!

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8 Responses to Bookvenirs

  1. Kira says:

    You could also pass the books along to future generations, when the time arrives!

  2. Joe says:

    Don’t hoarders have rationales much like that? 😉

  3. Goody says:

    My books serve an additional purpose. Not only are they old friends that I often revisit, but they also hide my growing food storage. Seriously! A #10 can fits just perfectly behind a row of paperback books on Ikea’s Billy shelving. And living in a small apartment, I needed to get creative in maximizing my storage capability.

  4. Joe says:


    That’s . . . one I’ve never heard!

  5. David Flor says:

    I use old books to level furniture.

    You can’t imagine how many old programming books I have. You want to program BASIC on a Atari 400? Why, I have a book for that! Need to know what all the registers in VAX assembly language are? No problem! Need to know what the memory locations and values for Apple Basic’s PEEK/POKE calls are? That’s around here somewhere!

  6. MG Tinley says:

    My wife and I have our many bookshelves arranged by color, so it looks like a big spectroscope. It’s terribly impractical, but it sure does impress visitors. And by impress, I mean bemuse them with our hopeless nerdiness.

  7. MKHutchins says:

    I’m similar — I used to reread books all the time, but as I’ve grown up, less so. Maybe because I’m not changing as much (reading Narnia at eight, ten, twelve, etc. was always a different experience). I do like loaning books out to people, but more than that, when my kids are old enough to read, I want to have a happy, easily-accessible library of awesomeness. Re-reading a book to someone else makes it all new again — they don’t know what’s going to happen and gasp at all the spots I’ve long forgotten were originally heart-stopping. In a few years, that row of Llyod Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles and Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons is going to be very handy.

  8. Rina Heisel says:

    Very interesting, Joe! I also used to reread books way more as a kid than I do now. Maybe we liked the familiarity? I think I read JULIE OF THE WOLVES a few times a year growing up.

    It’s so hard getting rid of books! Looking at the bookshelf for me is like walking down memory lane. And now, trying to write a book myself, I do reread and analyze my old favorites differently. My new favorites too- like Enders Game, which you suggested!

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