The Ethics of Book Buying


I must confess: Ken Kalfus’ New Yorker article, “A Book Buyer’s Lament,” recently reminded me that when it comes to buying books, my immortal soul may be in peril.  You see, I want as many books as I can get, as fast as I can get them.  These desires aren’t sinful in themselves.  The sin occurs when I act on them.  I am an Amazon shopper.

I love Amazon.  When I lived in rural Washington, I had access to none of the bookish things which I had previously enjoyed.  I had no awesome independent bookstores.  I didn’t even have a fully-stocked chain bookstore.  The local college Barnes and Noble couldn’t even manage to get all the new releases out on Tuesdays.  For my books, and for many other things, I turned to Amazon.  Let me tell you, dear readers, the road to hell is made all the more slippery by the ease of 1-click ordering and the delight of free two-day shipping.

It never felt right.  I believe in, and, more than that, I love independent bookstores.  I crave the browse and the bag that breaks with too many books.

But: books!  Fast!  Cheap!

Amazon is not my only sin.  I own an e-reader that made five-and-a-half years of criss-crossing the country to visit my family so much easier.  (Books are heavy, y’all!).  I buy used books, too, depriving authors of the royalties they might have made had I purchased the book new.

I believe in paper.  I believe in authors.


How about this: as penance I’ll make a real effort to read one of the unread books on my shelves and I’ll read a month’s worth of bedtime stories to my cats.

The Thrill of the Hunt

Much of the career guidance I’ve received over the years has suggested that I do what makes me happiest.  I’ve never found a job that pays me to read, but I’ve worked in a bookstore and I’ve pursued life as an academic.  Neither ended up as my perfect match.  Last week I found my new dream job, thanks to a BBC New Magazine profile on book-collector-for-hire Kinsey Marable.  Marable’s company, according to his website, collects, catalogues, conserves, and deaccessions books, in addition to furnishing private libraries (need a ladder, anyone?).  Marable’s clients include individual collectors like Oprah, for whom he acquired a first edition of every winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, as well as decorators and architects needing to fill empty shelves.  (Oh, to have the problem of empty shelves!)

My prize.

My prize.

The clients may keep the books, but it seems like Marable himself has all the fun, buying books for which someone else pays.  I’ve never hunted a rare book on someone else’s behalf, but I’ve hunted a few for myself, my best find a copy of English poet Wendy Cope‘s Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986).  Having first encountered Cope’s work in my Introduction to Poetry to class, I searched for years to find her work outside of the Norton Anthology, an effort belied by the ease with which it can currently be purchased from Amazon.  Even if the pleasure Marable experiences in his work is halved when the books find their place on someone else’s shelf, it’s hard for me to imagine he doesn’t have the best job in the world.

I am, of course, mildly concerned by the idea of books as decorative items.  I wonder, has Marable had any requests from Pinterest afficianados interested in collecting books by color?  One hopes, too, that collectors at least showcase Marable’s effort and forgo shelving their books spine in as one decorating trend dictates.  I worry, too, about the idea of books as commodities acquired for cachet versus content.

My wish for Kinsey Marable’s clients: may you ever regard your books as investments in your intellect, your spirit, and your soul, not just as an item in your portfolio or fillers for your shelves.

My wish for myself: Kinsey, call me!  I’m ready!

Bookmarks: Friday, 6/26/15

Here are some articles that caught my eye this week:

Happy weekend, readers!