How do I amass a book collection in this day and age?
July 17, 2014 4:35 PM   Subscribe

I've always wanted to wind up with a large collection of books like my parents have. However, when I can find constantly updated information on the internet and I check out fiction from the library, I can rarely convince myself there's a good reason to actually BUY a book. What books should I be buying? Some snowflakes inside.

I love going into used and new bookstores and browsing, and sometimes I'll find some book that seems interesting. But immediately what goes through my mind are things like, "should I check this out from the library to make sure I'll like it first? Is this the most updated and factually correct book on this topic? Could I get it cheaper on Amazon?", etc. I used to buy YA books without thinking about it, but with 'adult' books being double the price, it tends to give me pause.

Right now my book collection consists of my favorite YA books I brought with me from my parents' house, book series that I enjoyed and collected through Paperback Swap, assorted fiction I picked up here and there, and non-fiction books I had to get for college (mostly environmental law and policy books). A lot of the fiction I could probably part with and would forget about immediately because I rarely re-read one-off novels.

While I aspire to have a collection comparable to my parents', I assume most of the information in the non-fiction books could be found easily on the internet and a lot of the fiction is probably not necessarily even worth keeping. So basically my question is - how do I decide what books are really worth buying and keeping?
posted by majesty_snowbird to Shopping (30 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I used to hold on to every book I bought, and read voraciously. I had visions of a well stocked library, and then...

I realized two things:
  1. I was never going to re-read 90% of my books.
  2. I wasn't circulating those books to friends nearly as well as I had dreams of.
Two moves and huge book purges later, I have wholeheartedly adopted ebooks on my tablet. Bits are cheap, I tell friends "this is an author you really should be reading, go buy his books", we only have 64 square feet or so of bookshelves, and those are populated by the books we actively use: References, or re-readable novels.

So, yeah: Books are made to be read. Will you read it? Will you read it again? Will you really find someone to share it with? Otherwise, book collecting quickly turns into a slightly more socially acceptable version of hoarding.
posted by straw at 4:50 PM on July 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

I don't know - it's pretty subjective and very personal. I would like to point you to the Dover Thrift Editions, though. They're budget buys and usually have very striking covers, and one could do worse than read everything they publish.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:51 PM on July 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

You need to decide on your goal. If you just like having full bookshelves, buy everything that looks vaguely interesting and is affordable. I personally don't have that need, so I only buy books that are either important to me (I'll usually have read them first at the library and loved them enough to be able to imagine rereading them) or are reference books that are either hard to find at the library or are good to have on-hand in a hard copy (repair manuals, first aid, etc.).

I think you'll be able to answer this question yourself if you think hard about why you want this... you may even decide you DON'T actually want it.
posted by metasarah at 5:02 PM on July 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding straw, above - I used to take pride in my big collection of books (mostly acquired from library book sales and second-hand shops). My recent realizations:

1. I hadn't touched many of them in over 10 years, even though I moved apartments with them.
2. I was treating them more like a trophy display of books I had read once.
3. I didn't have enough room for books I genuinely enjoyed and reread.
4. The visual stimulation of all those books was actually overwhelming and anxiety-creating.
5. It felt better to me to release them to the world to be enjoyed rather than hoard them without rereading them.

Now I'm actively working to trim down my book collection, and it feels SO freeing. I'm curating a meaningful collection that I can enjoy and admire on uncluttered shelves rather than being stared down by huge stacks of things I picked up on impulse one time like five years ago.
posted by cadge at 5:04 PM on July 17, 2014 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Having a large personal library is a status marker that's going out of fashion for good reason. Book collections are unwieldy, decay faster than you might think, and are something that people can easily attach way too many issues to - they can become anxiety traps and triggers, as you're alluding to in your question.

Given the ease of digital books these days, there's little motivation to library up in a physical sense. It's possible that you might get the same satisfaction from carefully cultivating, backing up, and adding all sort of metadata to a virtual collection and treat all the physical books in your life as the transient objects they now are. But if not, you're left with either treating your library like a burden, or approaching it from the only angle left: emotion.

A good personal library is a kind of history of the self. It's in a constant state of change. You're going to find books that stick with you, and books that get lost, and books you set free or send to others that need them more than you. Sometimes books you don't expect will show up and stay. Libraries are also a gas in the sense that they will absolutely fill up the space allotted them. So one tactic is to declare a space for your books and then for every book that ends up with you, you have to get rid of another one. And as your living arrangements change and your priorities shift, your library will, too.

I'm an inveterate bibliophile. At one point I had well over a thousand books and it was ridiculous. In one of my big moves I culled it down by 50%, and then over the years I've managed to lighten my load further until now I've got a core selection that absolutely stuffs my big shelf. It's time again to cull it and I'm not sure what I can winnow off. Every book that I have has survived multiple periods of review and consideration. What helps me free my books is that I have some wonderful used bookstores that I love to have credit at. (Honestly it's because they have cats, and if I have credit at these stores I have an excuse to come in and pet the cats! Whatever works, right?) If you aren't drawn to individual books the way I am, that's totally okay! It's probably a really good thing! But if you are, and you're just conflicted about their value, realize that a book's value is almost never its information (any longer, thanks internet) but the emotional content it provides to you. So if you haven't got that emotional attachment, get rid of them and let someone else get attached instead.

I've found that the books worth keeping are the beautiful ones. Since digital books trump in function, you're left with treating books like art objects. So most of the fiction in my collection is gone, apart from the books that I can't part with because I reread them at least once a year. But I still have loads of instructional texts (cookbooks, craft skills, anything that would do poorly in digital form), graphic novels, illustrated fairy tales, and beautiful color plate art books. Use your own taste and lifestyle to determine what you consider beautiful! Then your library will grow with you.

It's possible that your attachment to the idea of a book collection like your parents' has nothing at all to do with books and everything to do with how your parents modeled the idea of adulthood to you. If you can unpack that a little further in your mind, you might find you're not a library-having person at all.
posted by Mizu at 5:06 PM on July 17, 2014 [13 favorites]

The books we most often refer to:

- Guide books (birds, trees, plants) with nice illustrations - much quicker and handier than an e-book, and lovely as well;

- Poetry books - poetry (most poetry, anyway) is made for the printed page, and poetry can be a comfort;

- Texts from various religions;

- Art and natural history books - the pictures are much better printed; the colors are carefully calibrated, etc.

- Cookbooks (that may change, however);

- Older editions with lovely design and typography.
posted by amtho at 5:15 PM on July 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

People here seem to be suggesting not to amass books, but assuming you still want to, here's my method for doing it:

Find a publisher you like. Many small presses and non-profits have subscription services where they will mail you a new book that they publish every month or so. This puts the pressure off of you to make every decision, and you will usually get a beautiful matching set of books that looks appealing on a shelf. Here, for instance, is a shelf of all NYRB Classics. Persephone Books also publishes books that are delightful to read and beautiful on the shelves. Archipelago Books might be a nice change as they will include poetry books in their subscription service as well. Another good one is Open Letter which publishes literature in translation, mostly modern prose.
posted by tofu_crouton at 5:43 PM on July 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Here's what I keep:

1) Anything hard to replace, like first editions, exhibition catalogs, self-published or out of print books, or very unique items like a specific edition with pictures you like.
2) Anything with sentimental value like a personal inscription
3) Anything that hasn't made it to digital or which you're concerned won't make it to digital.
4) Books you use very frequently-- any references, travel guides, etc.
5) Anything you know you're going to read again, as in, you can remember the last time you read it.

My favorite example is Spike Milligan's memoirs, which until recently were out of print, not available in a digital format, were never available in local used bookstores, my library didn't have them, and were something I reread about twice a year. Now they've gone digital so I'm no longer worried.

Another tactic is to limit yourself to one bookshelf. When I lived at home and had basically unlimited space, I had a lot of chaff in my collection because I didn't have to think about it. Since moving out I have managed to physically limit my purchases pretty well.

You could also put back the ones you read backwards...and at the end of the year, donate or sell everything that's still facing out correctly. Works with clothes in a closet, too.
posted by blnkfrnk at 5:48 PM on July 17, 2014

I used to have a reasonable sized book collect (for someone in their mid twenties) but then made an international move and had to sell most of them. Now the few books I have either don't work as an ebook like The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, isn't available as an ebook or is a Lonely Planet guide book. If I were to build another collection it would be of really nice, possibly second hand editions of my favourite books.
posted by poxandplague at 5:56 PM on July 17, 2014

I am a knitter, and it occurs to me that you are asking not so much about reading as building a stash of books that you plan to read. Since I have a yarn stash which I enjoy because it's pleasing and beautiful in its own right, I can appreciate this project.

The naysayers pointing you to ebooks are making me sad. I encourage you to make your first stop your local used bookstore rather than the library. When I lived in a town with both good used bookstores and good libraries close by, it was easy to stop in the bookstore and pick up a few things every month or so - $5 or $10 a month will allow you to steadily build a library without swallowing one whole or busting your budget. Look at it as a long-term project that could take 10 years or more, and each book acquisition becomes more low-risk. Trade away the ones you don't like or haven't gotten around to reading in 5 years, and keep things fresh for yourself. Have fun with it!
posted by deliriouscool at 6:06 PM on July 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

I get books that I think will go out of print and not get reprinted -- so a lot of ephemera feminist SF/F and a lot of black and bisexual fiction.

I also collect a lot of advice books because they are FASCINATING to read even 5 years later.

Ummm. Graphic novels, too. Basically anything I've been like hmmmm what was X book called? and posted online about, I get.
posted by spunweb at 6:06 PM on July 17, 2014

I hate e-readers and have hundreds of books, many of which I haven't yet read (reasons for buying these have included: read excerpts of them in a magazine, liked something else by the author, author or book recommended by a friend, etc.). I bought 95% of them at thrift stores and yard sales, which means that they cost an absolutely maximum of $3 per book, but most were $1 or less. There are also a ton of free books to be had when people leave their yard sale leftovers out (usually posted on Craigslist).

I'll take virtually any book that I'm remotely interested in if it's free, standards are low if it's less than 50 cents, anything more than that should be something that I have strong reason to believe that I'll like.
posted by cheerwine at 6:08 PM on July 17, 2014

Buy mine. I will sign them and personally thank you.
posted by headspace at 6:13 PM on July 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

How are you conceptualizing your collection--as something for use value, for sentimental value, for some variety of collector's value...?

For example, I'm an academic, so I have a working library. I buy in hardcopy: 1) nineteenth-century religious fiction that hasn't been digitized (religious fiction is my primary line of work); 2) scholarly editions of 18th- and 19th-c. fiction and poetry; 3) contemporary historical fiction (my other line of work); 4) and scholarly monographs/reference works. I do have an iPad that I primarily use as an e-reader, and I use Kindle to buy recreational reading and other books I would have previously tossed on our department's free books table.

I think tofu-crouton has a great idea: NYRB has been putting out an absolutely fascinating run of works, for example. Europa is another imprint I watch out for.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:30 PM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

What is your goal? To have a portion of the Western canon at your fingertips? To catalog the great thinkers in an area that interests you? To curate a very personal selection of fiction you find excellent? To interest your children in reading? To have nice-looking shelves?

The purpose of your personal library will dictate what you choose to collect. You can't ever compete with public libraries or (these days) the internet in terms of reference and research material, but you can build an excellent personal collection in areas that interest you. Parts of my theology library are better than the local colleges' collections (theology of liturgy, mostly); I have an large, idiosyncratic, and diverse collection of poetry that I just happen to like; and I have a collection of reference texts, weirdnesses, photo books, and children's classics selected to serve as child bait to interest my kids in books on rainy days.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:38 PM on July 17, 2014

I'm a collector. I've read a large number of the books I own but not all of them. I have been buying books that I can pretty well guess that I like immediately upon publication since....maybe 85? 90? And then in about 95 I realized that this meant I was inadvertently collecting first editions. I got into the collecting scene for about 10 years, but now I only rarely buy from dealers and am mainly content to buy forward, although from time to time I'll realize I should have a first of some book I love.

Here's how I buy. I like what's thought of as literary fiction. There are a number of writers whose work I already know I love. I pretty much automatically buy their new books. I got great guidance in the 90s from the Granta best young american writers edition, which turned me on to writers like Faye Ng, Jeffrey Eugenides, Tom Drury, and even though he wasn't listed, Richard Powers. I keep an eye on the New York Times Notable Books, and I listen to Bookworm on KCRW (as a podcast) because Michael Silverblatt has excellent taste and will convince you to read books you might not have considered otherwise.

I love my books. At the moment I have too many piles of them and I need to read and get rid of some paperbacks and clean up the rooms but I still love my books.
posted by janey47 at 6:41 PM on July 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Are you thinking in terms of a collection, or just a lot of books? I have lots of books related to my hobby (sailing), and I really can't see using them solely as ebooks, if they were available which many are not.

Many people with a lot of books accumulated them just by not disposing of those that came into their possession starting with college texts. That can be more of an albatross than pleasure.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:01 PM on July 17, 2014

It really depends on what works for you. Even after several international moves, I still have thousands of books. I tend to keep poetry, art books, cookbooks, foreign language books, and fiction that isn't available in an ebook. I never have more than one or two unread books - I only buy books I know I'm going to start reading within a week.
posted by betweenthebars at 7:04 PM on July 17, 2014

This statement:

I love going into used and new bookstores and browsing

is at odds with this one:

Could I get it cheaper on Amazon?

Of course you could get it cheaper on Amazon. But if you don't buy the book in the bookstore, at least sometimes, the bookstore probably won't be there in a few years. There are a couple of bookstores that I really like (Moe's, on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, I'm looking at you!) and I make a point to buy books there when I can, because it's a great place to go and browse and I want to support it.
posted by number9dream at 7:14 PM on July 17, 2014 [11 favorites]

Since digital books trump in function,

Disagree. Flipping back to that section at the bottom right page, about a quarter of an inch or so, is much easier with paper than with electrons. Don't get me started on footnotes. Digital books are good for straight ahead linear reading. Hence their wide appeal for genre fiction.

As to collecting - dangerous habit. My advice is to avoid it. My current excuse for keeping far too many is that I pretend I am a custodian. I've seen too many library sale leftovers go straight to the dump, and known for a fact that modestly valuable. But to whom? Aye, there's the rub.

But if you don't buy the book in the bookstore, at least sometimes, the bookstore probably won't be there in a few years.

I salute you, sir.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:24 PM on July 17, 2014

If you want to open some book collection floodgates, reconsidering your standards for non-fiction titles might help. Some of my favorite non-fiction books are highly outdated, and that's exactly WHY I love to read them.
posted by gnomeloaf at 8:32 PM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some things to consider:
  • Buy books without being certain you'll keep them. As others have noted, if you want that interesting bookstore to stick around, you do need to give it money occasionally. If you don't like a book, you can give it to a friend whom it suits better, or swap it online, or sell it back to one of those cool used-book stores. You will keep a few, and your library will grow. For now you may want to limit this strategy to paperbacks or second-hand books, but it should be part of your system.
  • Buy older books. Not really old books, but books from the '80s or '90s that aren't officially classics and yet may not be available as ebooks.
  • Read weirder non-fiction. Better yet, reference weirder non-fiction: give yourself permission to dip in and out, without reading something cover-to-cover. I can assure you, the translation of the fifteenth-century census of Istanbul on my shelves has not been duplicated on the Internet.
  • Ask for books as presents. This works especially well if there are categories of books where you're mildly curious about anything in the category.
  • Wait. Your rate of book acquisition may seem slow now, but give it five or ten years, and you may be surprised at what you've accumulated.

posted by yarntheory at 9:19 PM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Dude. Just don't. Having shelves crammed with books is something that happens to you, often to your lasting regret. Don't force it. Books are a bitch to move, the take up a whole lot of room just sitting there waiting to maybe be read someday, and when you croak somebody will have to sort through the stacks and it'll be a huge pain in the butt.

Think of books like cats: awesome as individuals, simply delightful in small, well-managed groups... but things get ugly fast if you fill your whole house up with the little bastards.

If you just really like the look of a crowded library, consider filling your shelves with storage boxes that have faux book spines attached. There are DIY projects online, or you could buy some. You can even use them to store the handful of books you'll actually want to read!

Ursula "I have too many damn books" Hitler
posted by Ursula Hitler at 9:54 PM on July 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm an academic. I have a ton of books, inc lots of old out-of-print stuff. Yeah, it's a pain to move them. But I love them and am glad to have them.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:55 AM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have lots of books and most of them were bought at used book stores over the years. A $5 used book isn't going to be cheaper at Amazon; you're going to pay that much just for shipping.

But you gotta have low standards. Not "do I need this" but "might I want this?" The pleasure of having books around, at least for me, is the presence of lots of interesting things that I might read. But might not. You have to be OK with this.
posted by escabeche at 4:48 AM on July 18, 2014

It really depends on the kind of book collection you want to have. Do you want a library à la Gatsby, with beautiful spines and impressive authors, but you haven't cracked a single one? Do you want a collector's dream with old and rare tomes? Do you want a library of books that matter to you, even though they might be beat-up crappy paperbacks? Or something else again?

Almost everyone's library is idiosyncratic. I have a friend who almost never rereads books, but still has fiction because many of them were important to her. I do reread books, so one of my criteria for whether to keep or weed is whether I am likely to read it again. Some of my books are treasures, beautiful works of art that I admire. Others are old friends that I return to over and over, finding that they say something new to me as I am older and have different experiences. Others are things that I dip into from time to time, making new discoveries or remembering something I'd forgotten (mostly reference books and poetry). Some reference books date, others not so much. And even when they do, they are satisfyingly browsable. Other books are best beloved books from my childhood, things that I often had to hunt down secondhand.

I also have an ereader, which I love for different reasons. I love how portable it is and how I can take many books with me at once. But I find that the books I have on the ereader, while I may enjoy them and want to read them, tend to be books I don't care about as much. So unless there are out-of-print issues (ie book not available in print but is available as an ebook), the things I get on the ereader are things I wouldn't be unhappy if I didn't have them, if that makes sense.

But these are my reasons and what works for me. It's completely up to you. If you think you might like to have more books around, what is it that motivates you? Do you like the way they look (books do furnish a room)? Do they make you feel comforted, as though you have bits of your childhood/security/parents? There doesn't have to be just one.

Just a note though: I used to rely on libraries to have books that I loved. When I became a librarian and learned about weeding and the mercilessness librarians must exhibit towards their collections, I realised that I could not rely on the library to always have that book I adored. Libraries are great to use to explore things you're not sure of, to try something different, to inhale trashy books you love at the time but don't need to have forever. But if you find a book at a library that you completely love, that worms its way into your heart, my advice is to buy your own copy.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:16 AM on July 18, 2014

I am not a book collector. However, things I will collect or know folks who collect:

  • cook books (new, old, out of print, incredibly niche . . . even food writing & memoirs)
  • comics (not floppies, bound trade paperbacks and the like), graphic novels & nonfiction
  • LGBTQ books, fiction & non
  • kink & poly nonfiction
  • poetry
  • field guides (birds, wildflowers, trees, mushrooms etc.)
  • books printed in other countries (I have a friend who collects old British fiction, much of which was never reprinted in the US)

    These are collected for their usefulness, delight they bring in rereading, and the fact that they are difficult to find in a public library.

  • posted by carrioncomfort at 12:01 PM on July 18, 2014

    I live in a country where English is widely spoken but books are expensive.... So for the first year I was here I would travel to the uk and buy everything remotely interesting from charity shops and carry them home in my suitcase. Now I have a large collection, but have stopped buying until I have read a book and sent it on its merry way.... I also never keep something when I'm done with it, unless it was a total favorite I will re read
    posted by misspony at 12:40 PM on July 18, 2014

    I think it's perfectly reasonable to want to amass books at home, especially if you're not planning on moving really soon (they are a pain to move, no way around that). As someone with a huge book collection both at my house and in my old room at my father's house--from which I still borrow, library-style, when I visit--I see the collection as a way to never be at a loss for reading material.

    One of my favorite things ever ever ever ever is finishing a book, and then the next day I can go "shopping" on my own bookshelves. Usually when I buy a (used) book, I buy a few more with it, so that I always have about 50/50% read and unread books on my shelf.

    The last--and important--step of the process is to think carefully whether you'd want to reread OR give away a book after you've finished it. I've bought some books out of curiosity, read them, and decided "ugh this is garbage" and put it in a cardboard box marked FOR SALE.

    Once you have enough in the box, take 'em to a used bookstore or list them on (or someplace similar). It's fun to have an ever-revolving collection of books at home, and you can anchor it with particular favorites so that it can always be a source of comfort, knowledge, entertainment--all the wonderful things books can do.

    posted by magdalemon at 1:20 PM on July 18, 2014

    I agree with Mizu: beautiful books. In addition to illustrations, this might include books that are well-made or fun to hold, or with nice typesetting.

    Other reasons I've found to get paper:
    •If you might find yourself flipping pages back and forth.
    •If you want to study the book in addition to just reading it.
    •If you like writing notes in the margins. (I never got into making notes in my eBooks, but I guess it's possible.)
    posted by kidbritish at 10:27 AM on July 19, 2014

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