Tuesday 1 September 2015

On buying books

1 Ashbery, for example. I think he’s a terrific poet. There are times when only Ashbery will do. But I’m not going to buy every new book he publishes because I think I’ve ‘got’ him, and don’t need more of him. Sometimes, browsing in a shop, I’ll pick up a more recent Ashbery than the ones I already have and open the book at random and read a poem that immediately I need, then look at the price and think there's enough Ashbery on my shelves, isn't there, for when I need him. (It’s not as if I need him every day.)

2 Not a few times, of course, while browsing, I’ve opened a poetry book at random to a poem I have to have, and bought the book, and then found that nothing else in the book lives up to that first poem.

3 Lydia Davis a bit similar to 1, above. Do I really need more Lydia Davis? A whole lot of authors who I started reading decades ago are in this category. (I mean, I think, the ones who tend to do more of the same, however brilliantly. Maybe all authors should be allowed to publish only six books, along the lines of the Chinese one-child policy.)

4 Other times, of course, I’ll just buy the damn book. It’s what credit cards are for. The decision whether to buy or not buy can depend on something as not strictly relevant as the weather, how friendly the bookseller is, how many glasses of wine I’ve had, if I’m already doing damage by taking one to the till so another won’t hurt, etc.

5 Even though I may want them now I rarely buy books when they first come out, in their plush first editions. (Besides, there’s something poncy about reading hardbacks: a statement is being made, about money and class etc, and I’m not comfortable with going there.) I’ll wait nine months, gestation period, for the mass-market paperback. If the book turns out to be a disappointment – the last James Salter novel, for example, or the Miranda July novel – then at least I haven’t overspent. Thrift.

6 Most books cost around the same as a pack of 20 cigarettes. They are index linked. This feels about right.

7 Personal recommendations from people I’ve known long enough to know that many of their likings correspond with mine. Most recent example: Shani Boianjio, The People of Forever are Not Afraid – how did this pass me by? I’ve been reading other books in the course of reading this one, so I don’t have to finish it too quickly.

8 The above (personal say-sos) influence me much more than reviews. I suspect that Nicholas Lezard is the only UK reviewer whose enthusiasm for a book actually makes any difference at all to sales.

9 While on reviews, Robert McCrum’s talk at the last Inpress conference opened my dull eyes a little: when he was lit ed at the Observer, which is a newspaper, his choice of which books to have reviewed was to a large extent determined by whether or not they were were news. A new Ishiguro is news, in a sort of socio-cultural way; a new book of short stories by someone no one has heard of is not news. I know the latter may become news, but a newspaper functions to report news, not make it.

10 While on Time (I know I’m not, but I want to get this in somewhere), the argument that no one these days has the time to read, and certainly not to read Big Long Books – an argument often trotted out by champions-lite of the short story – is just daft. Life expectancy in the UK in 1900 for women was about 50 years (less for men, as usual; and skewed by child mortality figures, but still); life expectancy in the UK in 2012 was around 81.5 years. We have more time to read, not less. If that is what we choose to do.

11 Second-hand bookshops, yes, and especially the ones with the old orange and green Penguins: the Alberto Moravias, the Penelope Mortimers, the Muriel Sparks, the Simenons. If you come across a Penguin James Kennaway or Alfred Hayes, and there are not many of these still around, buy. (A thing about second-hand shops – which also applies to charity clothing shops – is this: if there’s only one of a thing available, that in itself makes it more desirable than if there are many.)

12 If you go to a reading or a launch party (I once worked, for two days, for a magazine in which only ships were allowed to be 'launched') and get a free glass of wine, and maybe another and another, are you under some kind of obligation to buy the book that’s being read from? Tricky one.

13 Amazon own AbeBooks and Book Depository and probably your local pizza takeaway too, so it can take a lot of effort not to buy from them, but I do generally make that effort. If a book is in print, you buy from your local independent bookshop, because if you think these shops are a desirable part of any world worth living in you can’t just rely on others. (And the saving on money from buying from Amazon would buy you what, a cappuccino?) If a book is not in print, then any source is allowable.

14 A new and covetable edition of a book I already have and love (or maybe just another copy of same in a second-hand shop): yes, if the book is important to me. It means I don’t have to be so precious about lending out (and not getting back) the copy I already have.

15 A friend, when he comes across a book whose existence is not celebrated but which he wants very much to share with others, buys 10 copies (say; sometimes more) and sends them around. Exemplary.

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