Buying Books: Books and Identity

When I was a child, the primary place I found my books was the library. My parents didn’t instil in me a habit of buying books; instead, it was a treat. I think this is why I can vividly recall many of the occasions as a child when I would buy books, and I look back on them fondly. I remember the book fair coming to school and seeing bookcases being wheeled through the playground into the school hall where we’d usually have assemblies and lunch, but, for that afternoon, would be a makeshift bookshop. I remember my Mum getting The Book People brochure in the post and me looking through it for possible birthday or Christmas present ideas. I remember being taken to Waterstones, the shelves and tables stacked high with books and the opportunity to choose one for myself. All that choice, an overwhelmingly large amount of choice! And then to learn that there was a Buy One Get One Half Price offer which meant I should really buy two books…It would have been rude not to.

Once I chose to study English and Creative Writing at university, buying books was a necessity. And I loved that I had a reason to buy books. Because, as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to have my own library in my future house – a room full of books, bookshelves lining the walls. So those university books, in my mind, started that collection. In the summer before I started university, I loved receiving those brown parcels and unpacking these new books and loving the fact that I’d be reading and studying them soon.

When I left university I was fortunate enough to get a job and have an income. And I bought books. I find bookshops incredibly calming and I’d often pop into Waterstones or the Oxfam bookshop in my lunch break and buy a book (or two). But I didn’t buy a huge amount.

However much I love books, I still have that feeling from childhood that buying books is a treat, it’s special. I think about buying a book if I feel like I’ve worked particularly hard at work that month, or if there’s a special occasion (my birthday, for example). I mainly borrow from the library. I love the library service – it’s invaluable for the community, offering anyone the chance to read, to use the computers, and often join clubs. But when I read a book I borrow from the library that I absolutely love, I feel I want to own it. And the book goes on my ‘To Buy’ list.

I’ve been wondering why this is.

Part of the reason is that I feel that I’m supporting the industry by buying the book. When borrowing, I might appreciate the book, I might love it, I might talk about it to friends and write about it on this blog, but by borrowing it I’m not giving my hard-earned money to support those that worked to get the book into my hands. Another reason is that I’ve come to appreciate a book as a physical object. I love beautiful covers and the feel of the paper, discovering little details like the pattern on the end papers or the covers underneath a book jacket.

But the other reason, and more significant, has something to do with identity.

I have a distinct memory of me some years ago realising that, if someone who didn’t know me at all was to go into my room at home, they would have no idea that I loved reading as much as I did, that I read as many books as I did, because I had very few books. And so I resolved to buy more to show that I was a reader.

This ‘To Buy’ list I now have is almost an attempt to solidify the experience of reading that book, of enjoying that book. It’s a symbol that I love this book. Prior to starting this blog, my response to a book was an interior, unconscious one. My thoughts stayed with me – I didn’t talk to that many people about reading and the books I read – and, in some ways, my opinions didn’t fully form. Then I started this blog and my thoughts are out there. They are recorded, solidified; they have an audience or someone responding to them. Owning a book that I love also goes some way to solidify and record that experience in a similar way.

By owning a bookcase of books, I’m presenting part of my identity as a reader. I’m sure a time will come when I’ll have a big cull of books (I’ve already had small thoughts of finding new homes for those books I still have from uni that I didn’t like, but I’d like to reread them at some point to see if my opinions have changed) and my bookcase will be full of only my favourites or books that are special to me. For now, my bookcase is almost a symbol of the kind of reader I am, a representation of the books I love and the books I hope to read someday.

I think you can tell quite a bit about someone from their bookcase – which books have their spines cracked multiple times because it’s been read so much, do they have a lot of translated fiction or books on a particular subject, do they own a lot of classics, do many of the books have beautiful covers? A bookcase is almost a personal expression of identity.

What do you think? Why do you buy books? Is your bookcase a way of expressing yourself?

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15 thoughts on “Buying Books: Books and Identity

  1. I rarely buy physical books now, because I’ve run out of space and the books already on my shelves are ones I want to keep. Like you, as a child getting to buy a book was a big treat, and I still feel that way when I go into a bookshop. And I love to get nice hardback books at Christmas – much though I love my Kindle there’s still something special about ‘real’ books…

    • I completely agree, there’s something special about a physical book isn’t there? Which is one of the reasons I find I rarely reach for my Kindle. Although an ereader certainly does solve the problem of having hardly any shelf space left for books!

  2. Hi Gemma, important topic. Really enjoyed reading this post. Totally agree with you. When I visit someone’s house for the first time, I am always drawn automatically to their bookshelf because I want to have an idea what kind of books they like, if we share the same ideas, or beliefs and in search of new discoveries. I’m always in search of new recommendations.
    Books have become like loyal companions or friends to me. I became very attached to them during my teenage years since I didn’t have many friends. Being able to read and purchase a book is considered a gift for me. I didn’t read much as a child but once I discovered the pleasure of reading, I always had the need to buy, own books. Having my bookshelves were and are, till this day, more important than clothes, for example.
    When I went to college, I left behind all my French classics collection. The past 3 years, I’ve picked up my reading hobby and have invested in acquiring books I used to own before and put books aside for my future home library. I don’t loose hope that I will one day.
    Buying books appeases me, brings me comfort and motivation when I feel down. My books are my treasures. My family knows that. I like to records my thoughts & personalize my experience by writing on them.
    Unfortunately, I also like pens, paper and stationary. Both hobbies can become expensive…
    Books are like vehicles of transportation, help you become a better person, helps you to become open minded in other people situations & inform you of important issues/events. They shape who you are.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😊. Have a great weekend 🎉

    • Thank you 🙂 And thank you for your comment. I completely agree with what you say about books shaping who you are. Not only can books inform our ideas, but they can make us think about topics we might not have otherwise thought about – which is important for our development, I think! And, like you say, help us become better people and more open minded.

      I’m exactly the same – buying a new notebook is almost as lovely as buying a new book!

      Hope you have a great weekend too 🙂

  3. Lovely post, Gemma. I’ve spent so long in the book trade that book buying is almost an automatic reflex when I see something that I haven’t been sent but want. You’ve made me remember that it should be more about pleasure than habit. My main objection to ereaders is that they do away with the enjoyment of looking at other people’s bookshelves, particualrly in the early stages of friendship. That, and there’s nothing like the colourful spines of books sitting on shelves to make a room look inviting.

    • Thank you, Susan 🙂 I completely agree, and I find I rarely buy books on my Kindle. Like you say, there’s something comforting about seeing a bookcase full of books and colourful spines!

  4. I completely agree with you about a book collection telling someone who you are. When I go to someone’s house and they don’t have any books I worry that they are deliberately hiding their identity and might possibly be a spy.

  5. Oh, this is me exactly! I virtually never buy an “unread” book (at least, not new) – I check those books out of the library, and the ones I end up LOVING go on the wishlist! I do tend to pick up book secondhand a lot, though, at yard sales and library discard sales and whatnot, which is probably why there are around a thousand books floating about this house (and that’s no joke when you’ve moved six times in five years!).

    There is something intensely personal, though, about owning a book. Physical books, I think, become imbued with the essence of the places they’ve been read – I also love buying books on holiday, and writing where I purchased it on the flyleaf.

    Anyway, complete agreement with your post… and don’t list to FictionFan… there’s ALWAYS room for more books! 😀

    • I love what you say about phyical books being imbued with the places they’ve been read! Because I buy books so rarely, or because it’s a treat, I can often remember where and when I got it. And, you’re right, the place it’s been read or bought is tied up with the book itself, and adds to the experience of reading it I think. Thank you for commenting 🙂

  6. Ah what a lovely post. I almost feel as though I could have written it as it almost entirely expresses my experiences; particular your early memories of book shop trips as a ‘treat’ which I think has helped fuel my passions into adulthood. I too am lucky enough to work straight across the road from a branch of Waterstones and frequently, on particularly stressful days, browse there on my lunchbreak almost as a form of meditation.
    We have so many books in our house and I think (hope) that it makes the friends and family who stay all the more welcome and cosy. Never in want for anything to read! I do buy a lot of books, to ‘contribute’, but I feel it’s important to spread the love and frequently use the library as well. (God forbid they shut entirely!) Check it but I’m almost entirely sure that authors/estates receive money each and every time you take out a book so you ARE contributing properly – under Public Lending Right legislation………

    • Thank you 🙂 Ah I hadn’t realised that about libraries, although it does make sense and is nice to know 🙂 I agree, I think books do make a room/home more welcoming and cosy 🙂

  7. Great post Gemma. It has a lot of resonance.

    I have culled in the past, and I read a lot on kindle, so my bookcase (more accurately, our as it’s my wife’s as much as mine) is in part a reflection of past tastes more than present. Space is the great issue. After a while you just plain run out of it.

    Still, recently I’ve been more tempted again by physical copies. I still love my kindle, but perhaps more for fiction I don’t see myself going back to or which lacks personal resonance. I don’t know.

    Have you read Linda Grant’s I Murdered My Library? I think you’d like it. There’s a review at mine if you’ve not seen it – the book’s about her relationship with books and her experience of having had to have a major cull. It’s very good.

    • Thank you 🙂 I know what you mean about the kindle – I think there’s something much more personal about owning a physical book that resonated with you, rather than owning it electronically. I’m not sure why this is though necessarily. Perhaps it has a lot to do with the fact I’ve read physical books for a lot longer than electronic ones and there’s a lot of memories, habit and comfort tied up with them. I don’t know.

      I haven’t read I Murdered My Library but it certainly sounds up my street. Thank you for the recommendation 🙂

  8. I think part of bying books is the rush of happiness it gives me, which I find hard to describe, but I think you are right, it’s an expression of myself. I went shopping recently and bumped into my aunt, she asked what I had bought and I said books and she said, ‘oh how boring’. I always think that anyone buying books seem rather interesting to me.

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