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?