Building a home library
May 18, 2007 12:50 PM   Subscribe

Avid readers: In twenty years, am I going to regret the fact that I only checked books out of the library, rather than amassing my own collection? I read about a book or two a week, and my budget could stand buying 3-4 used books a month.
posted by footnote to Media & Arts (56 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Once I realized that I was going to be living in a condo for a while, I understood that I was better to donate the books I love to the library. I can take them out any time I want and I don't have to use up so much of my small space to store books. I do keep the books most dear to me. However, I did an experiment and any book I didn't bother to look at in 2 years was put on a list to go out.
posted by acoutu at 12:56 PM on May 18, 2007

I don't think you're going to regret it, especially if you're the kind of person who doesn't chronically re-read the same books every few years.

If I were you, instead of trying to catch up on lost time by getting a big collection, maybe scout used bookstores and buy really nice hardback editions of a few of your favorites.
posted by infinitywaltz at 12:57 PM on May 18, 2007

I'm of two minds on this. I have a fairly large library, which is convenient if I feel like re-reading something or lending a book out. But, because my wife and I are both avid readers, we are running out of room to store all our litrature.

Having books is nice. Finding shelf space for them? Not so much.
posted by quin at 1:00 PM on May 18, 2007

I look back on the books I have been hanging on to for years which were destined to become classic in their fields, like, say, this one... huh. Not so much.

For some non-fiction, I'd say yes, but unless it's a real classic, you'll never re-read a novel. Never? Well, hardly ever.

Let's give three cheers and one cheer more for the hardy captain of the Pinafore...
posted by GuyZero at 1:04 PM on May 18, 2007

I think there are "avid readers" and "book collectors" and I think you can be one without being the other although many people happen to be both.

Usually, avid readers end up with large collections anyways because they buy books and can't be bothered to get rid of them. This probably describes me best. There are a few books I want to keep because they are hard to find if I ever want to read them again but If someone showed up tomorrow and offered me money to just take away 90% of all books, I'd take them up on the offer.

People might chime in here and talk about nostalgia and memory and beautiful worn things and all that. I dont disagree with any of that but I think it applies equally to all possessions and not just books.
posted by vacapinta at 1:06 PM on May 18, 2007

Do you rent or own? How likely are you to move in the future? If you anticipate moving anytime soon, I'd hold off. (Can you tell I just moved? Damn, those boxes, even the small ones, get heavy.)

Unless your interests are highly esoteric, books are pretty much fungible- you can buy a title now, or ten years ago, or ten years from now, and the content of the book (in most cases) is the same.
posted by ambrosia at 1:07 PM on May 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

I love my books, even though it taxes the space of my Brooklyn apartment. But I'm a re-reader and reference sorta fellah. You never know when you're going to need a book. And there are certainly worse vices in the world.
posted by Bookhouse at 1:09 PM on May 18, 2007

Be glad you don't have a big collection that collects dust and takes up valuable space. Look at the money you've saved. I used to hang on to books, especially favorites and hardcovers, only to give them away a couple years later. I seldom reread or reference them. The books I keep around are nonfiction and fiction I'm reading at the moment.
posted by LoriFLA at 1:10 PM on May 18, 2007

Get books from library. If you like a book so much you want it to be near you at all times, buy it.

It really is nice to be able to go back to the good stuff even if you rarely or never do.
posted by bluenausea at 1:12 PM on May 18, 2007

I usually regret that I spend so much money buying books when I could be checking them out of the library for free.
posted by iguanapolitico at 1:12 PM on May 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

To me, the fact that you even ask this question means you will regret not keeping them. I keep most every book I read and plenty I have not read. I hope to one day have a small personal library mostly for my own enjoyment, however, also to pass on to my kids. I already regret not starting to keep my books much earlier in life.

Books do take up room and are heavy to transport, however, in my opinion well worth it.

I vote to keep your books!
posted by birdlips at 1:15 PM on May 18, 2007

If you're worried, put the money aside. Because it's a such a small amount, you'll never miss it now. Deposit it every month in a high interest savings account, and in a few years, or in 20 years, if you still want the books, you can buy them then. If not, you'll have a nice chunk of change to buy something else. Either way, you'll be making a great financial decision.
posted by decathecting at 1:19 PM on May 18, 2007

I'd suggest that you buy the book the second time you read it. That way your library will be full of books you liked enough to pick up a second time, and you won't have a house full of stuff you don't know why you bought, but can't be bothered to sell.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 1:21 PM on May 18, 2007 [3 favorites]

If you don't keep copies of the books you read, at least keep a journal of them. Sometimes I forget whether I've read a book and it's nice to look back and see that yes, I did, and thought it was ____. Keeps you from accidentally checking out the same book twice, or books by authors you've already tried and disliked, too.
posted by amber_dale at 1:23 PM on May 18, 2007

I would be lost without my book collection, but then I reread a lot and also am constantly rummaging through my books to find passages, quotes, etc. Plus I write in margins of some of my books (notes, cross-references to other books, random musings, etc.).

But if you don't see yourself using a book collection like this, I would say keep on checking them out, unless you happen to run across something you absolutely love or a first edition of something you like. Any book you check out now will most likely still be findable in 20 years. If you're not a raving bibliophile like me, you'll probably get more satisfaction out of a few really nice, well-chosen editions than shelves and shelves of second-hand paperbacks.
posted by frobozz at 1:24 PM on May 18, 2007

From a quick glance at your posting history, I see that you have at least one child. For me, growing up in a house with many, many, many books meant that I never had an excuse to be bored. If I complained that I had nothing to do, the answer was, "Find a book to read." I think that growing up in that environment really substantially contributed to my love of reading today, and I think that's important. That's not to say that I don't have a lot of great memories of going to the library with my dad, but that constant, easy access to such varied reading material at home was so great for me as a kid. So, for that reason alone, I'd say to buy the books.

Now, as an adult, I wonder how the hell I'm going to add my parents' 7000+ books to my own collection someday, but that's a worry for another time.
posted by amro at 1:27 PM on May 18, 2007 [5 favorites]

For some non-fiction, I'd say yes, but unless it's a real classic, you'll never re-read a novel.

I find this to be almost precisely the opposite experience to most people I know who love books and love to read.
posted by OmieWise at 1:29 PM on May 18, 2007

Response by poster: From a quick glance at your posting history, I see that you have at least one child.

No kids yet! But the idea of having a collection for future hypothetical offspring is one of my considerations.
posted by footnote at 1:34 PM on May 18, 2007

I tend to buy nonfiction, because I'm likely to want to look up some fact or interesting passage that I vaguely remember. Novels, on the other hand, I only buy right away if I expect them to be the type that inspire margin notes and underlining. I've found L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg's suggestion quite effective, too - read something at the library, and then you'll know whether you liked it enough to want to spend money on it.
posted by vytae at 1:45 PM on May 18, 2007

Check most books out of the library. Buy the special books you find you sorely miss once you’ve returned them.
posted by Squeak Attack at 1:45 PM on May 18, 2007

I've never regretted getting rid of books (or anything else), and I'm a reader. Get your books from the library, invest the money you save in a retirement fund, retire sooner, and have more time to read in your old age.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:57 PM on May 18, 2007

I love books but and have a coupla thousand but I kinda wish I didn't. Non-fiction books date really really quickly, and for many "Oh, I'll just look that up" bits, the net suffices. As for my fiction ones, I've reread them, (repeatedly) and enjoyed them, but now I'm looking at getting rid of them so that I can traveland work in new countries and the thought hurts. (I really don't like being owned by things).

Lastly, when I had kids, I was told that if I read in front of them and to them etc, they would be readers. Well, I did all the good stuff, and the boy will only read war stuff (mostly non-fiction) and the girl, a book a month at most. Neither of them are interested in the sci-fi collection. WTF?

So, after years of doing it, I'd say, borrow the books, keep a journal (electronic so you can search) and accept that generation Z will read online.
posted by b33j at 2:07 PM on May 18, 2007

I keep books that I think wil be hard to replace or that I want to thumb through in the middle of the night or that I reread over and over or that are specific in my field and look good next to the other books on similar topics. I keep reference books, probably more than I should.

I ditch pretty much everything else, or half-ditch them by giving them to friends and assuming I won't get them back, or listing them on and seeing what happens. I also don't mind moving the books that I do have, however, so I'm not getting rid of my 19 volume OED or my old Encyclopedia Britannia or even the back issues of the New Yorker. At the point at which I mind moving them, I will get rid of them.

My feeling is that there will always be books you can get if you decide you want to be surrounded by them. The only other thing you might want to think about is whether you want to be someone that just has books around generally, at least a bookshelf or two. I may be in a freakish minority, but I get a little flipped out when I go to someone's house and there isnt' anything to read around.
posted by jessamyn at 2:09 PM on May 18, 2007

I buy books, and I keep about 20% percent of them. I almost never reread them, but I like two things about owning them. When I look through the shelves, I'm reminded of them and spend time thinking about one or another book; and I have them to lend or show to friends who might be interested. The second reason is a lot less important to me than the first.

There are sensible suggestions here, like the one about borrowing first and buying later. But if you feel like trying things from a different angle, I suggest you buy a book a week, and then see how you feel in six months or a year. You can afford it, you want to see how it feels, and if it's not for you then you can donate the cast-offs to a library or school. Whatever you do, the journal idea is a good thing to try, if you can stand it. I can't, so I keep the books.
posted by wryly at 2:11 PM on May 18, 2007

Excuse me -- I meant a book a month.
posted by wryly at 2:13 PM on May 18, 2007

I don't think you will regret not having the books that you read at your leisure. I do think you should keep a copy of all academic books assigned to you in the course of a class.

I haven't noticed myself referencing books read at leisure, nor have I loaned them out or put them on display. As for academic material- I often find myself going back to books used in the course of my education on a regular basis.

In all honesty I don't think you will see too many books in paper print in 20 years. Maybe you are on to something... start your collection now so you don't regret it 20 years down the road? Hopefully, Sony or Apple will have probably perfected the ebook or iReader by then and saved a couple of billion trees.
posted by bkeene12 at 2:14 PM on May 18, 2007

Worth it to buy:

Reference books
Any book that you like dipping into every now and again (I have a certain number of 'before-bathtime' books)
Any obscure book that you love deeply-- when the number of copies at the library dwindles so that you can't be sure on being able to obtain a copy (some library systems are more ruthless about discarding their unloved books than others.)
Any book you love so deeply that you want to have a copy to lend to a friend
Any book you really want to read but can't find at the library.

I get about 95% of the books I read at the library. Everything else I've bought in the past year fits into one of the above categories. And you can still amass a pretty good collection by just buying those things!
posted by Jeanne at 2:21 PM on May 18, 2007

I truly don't think you will regret it. How many of the books that you read do you plan to re-read? The books I think are worth buying are those that you would like to read again & again, or those that you think you will refer to now & then (e.g. cookbooks, reference books, etc). It also might be worth buying copies of your very favorite books that mean something to you. I will buy books that really move me, so I can lend them out & also to support the author that wrote it.

But seriously, in the long run, by not buying more books, you're just conserving space, saving money, and cutting down on needless clutter. You might feel more satisfied if you donate the money you'd spend on more books to the library to help support the organization that provides you & your community with so much great reading material.
posted by tastybrains at 2:29 PM on May 18, 2007

I buy a fair number of books each year.

--I have friends who are writers, and I usually end up buying their books.
--I also have a number of books that I had to import from other countries, as well as certain editions of books that are much better owned than rented (the three-volume slipcased Allen Lane hardcover edition of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, e.g.).
--And I have books that are rare (a first-edition hardcover of Infinite Jest with a first-state jacket).
--Then there are books that are time-sensitive, that won't be interesting by the time I secure a library copy (current events books, etc.)
--Then there are books that I buy in order to help ensure that, in the future, I'll be able to buy more books like those.
--Then there are books I'm likely to read multiple times (Ulysses, etc.)

With all those categories, I have little room for new books in my apartment as it is. But I don't regret buying any of them. (Okay--that's not exactly completely true, but still.)
posted by Prospero at 2:38 PM on May 18, 2007

I check out fiction, buy & keep nonfiction if it's for a class (and has good recommendations), and then usually end up buying a paperback of fiction that I still can remember/talk about a year later.

Personally, I regret not having a few (books from my childhood/young adulthood that made a significant impact. But, I read like 1,000, so 2 out of 1,000 isn't bad. & most of them I've ran across in later years.

I regret not keeping most of the textbooks from my core college courses. I'd replace them if they weren't so expensive.

Oh & I buy fiction when I start amassing large library fines, but that's an entirely different problem.
posted by ejaned8 at 2:42 PM on May 18, 2007

I get a little flipped out when I go to someone's house and there isnt' anything to read around

I am immediately dubious of such acquaintances--not in a rational, considered way that I would defend, mind you, but dubious none the less.
posted by everichon at 3:05 PM on May 18, 2007

Whatever you decide as far as buying v. checking out books, I'd suggest you keep a list of the books you read, along with brief notes of our impressions.
posted by lorrer at 3:09 PM on May 18, 2007

I think if you're happy checking stuff out of the library, then you shouldn't buy. You can always buy later if you want. I tend to buy because I can't dependably get new books from the library, and I usually need more than 2 weeks to read them. I keep too many books around that I 'want' to read, or think I might find useful someday. Don't become a book hoarder if you can avoid it.
posted by DarkForest at 3:11 PM on May 18, 2007

How shall we get our impressions to footnote?
posted by everichon at 3:12 PM on May 18, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you for all the suggestions. The most rational solution would be to buy the books I love the most after reading the library copies. But then I'd miss the pleasure of getting to keep the same copy I fell in love with. If only there were some way to tell in advance which ones I'm going to want to own, and which ones I'm going to forget about...

Keeping a reading journal is a good idea too. It would be very cool if my libarary would keep track of the books I ever checked out in my online account, instead of just the current ones. And if I could annotate that list -- even cooler! Mefi librarians, could this ever happen?
posted by footnote at 3:22 PM on May 18, 2007

I have been in the book business since my second job. I compulsively collect books. My wife and I have amassed quite a library. I love them and must have them around. Mostly for sampling but also for their company. Seldom for whole reading though we both juggle 5 or 6 books at a time.

One of the interesting teased statistics noted in Freakonomics was there isn't actually a correlation between a child's academic success and their parent's education level. Instead, the success was actually keyed to the number of books in the house. This was clear in the homes of academics without books, and the homes of the self-taught, with broad and generous libraries.

I think it was Orwell who once said that "the best thing about buying a new book is that you don't have to read it." While most of our library is non-fiction, my wife once noted that our fiction section didn't have many of our favorite books. We figured out that unless it was a rare edition, we usually gave fiction we loved away. Thus explaining a couple of favorite authors not represented at all.

You probably don't need all the books you read, but you do need books in a home. Even though you'll regret it every time you move.
posted by Toekneesan at 3:25 PM on May 18, 2007

If you love a book, set it free.
posted by greytape at 3:25 PM on May 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It would be very cool if my libarary

Hmm, I try not to correct my spelling online, but "libarary" when I'm tryin to seem all litrerary...
posted by footnote at 3:41 PM on May 18, 2007

My name is Robert. I am a recovering book hoarder. I went "into recovery" after moving in 1994, 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2007. And guess what: With every move, there were books still in boxes from the previous move that had never been unpacked. Yes, they had never been read or even taken out of boxes in years!

A couple of years ago I went through the boxes and culled the collection. I donated several boxes of books to the local public library's "book sale" fundraiser. With my latest move a couple months ago, I donated some more to another agency. And just a few weeks ago, I was unpacking some books that I thought had "sentimental value" that somehow still made it to the new house. But I know, honestly, that I'll probably never read them again.

Thinking back on this, the best thing I can do is echo greytape: If you love a book, set it free. Someone else could be reading, and loving, these books I have loved.
posted by Robert Angelo at 3:56 PM on May 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

It would be very cool if my libarary would keep track of the books I ever checked out in my online account, instead of just the current ones. And if I could annotate that list -- even cooler! Mefi librarians, could this ever happen?

I'm not saying it could never happen, but I think libraries are shying away from keeping records like that, partly because of the Patriot act and general privacy concerns-- if the feds want to know everyone who checked out "Terrorism For Fun and Profit," it's better for patrons and librarians alike if we can say, we just don't collect that data.

But see if Library Elf supports your library!
posted by Jeanne at 4:30 PM on May 18, 2007

i like having my books (i usually keep about 200-300, although in rotation--i purge with every move, and i move often). i like having them around for guests, to lend to friends, or for myself, just to look at. i know, it's silly. but they're the only objects i have that i value very much. i'm not a big "stuff" person, so that's my stuff.

if you want to start a collection, why not check your books out to read, and then buy a copy of your favorite one at the end of the month?
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:31 PM on May 18, 2007

Books are stupid expensive and only serve to impress guests. Buy only the ones you love most dearly and save a tree.
posted by loiseau at 4:39 PM on May 18, 2007

I wish I could make myself use the library rather than buying books--I usually end up reselling or donating most of mine. In order to have a non-insane New York apartment, I just can't keep all the books I buy.

But, if you want to keep a record of your reading and you have a Mac, one really neat piece of software is Delicious Library. You can scan the bar code and it automatically imports the cover art and Amazon information. And you can add your rating and keep notes.

It's really just a toy, but kinda fun and worth checking out for the really nice implementation.
posted by lackutrol at 5:05 PM on May 18, 2007

Keeping books is a disappearing sport.
It used to be that that's where your knowledge was stored. And where your memory of this knowledge was stored. Your books were a repository of a part of yourself.

Now, more and more of our knowledge and memory is stored online.
If you are suddenly seized by the urge of touching some book, you can always buy it, used or new, online.
Books are great for interior decorating: I have walls of them.
Books are not an investment anymore: I have sold $10000 worth of books for $1000. And I have twice as much left.

In the digital age, no memory once published will ever be lost again. And if it risks to become lost, post about it in AskMe: somebody will find it. Or ask Google: they are trying to swallow every library in the world.

Books are great as meatspace objects, sensual objects, to be touched and seen and looked at. They make great gifts for the same reasons.
But they are no more our best and only memory machines.
posted by bru at 6:08 PM on May 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm converting from "book collector" to "avid reader" now. I went from "avid reader" to "book collector" after I finished my sociology degree, because suddenly I had a hundred trade paperbacks from classes. Time passed and then I found myself spending money on books I didn't enjoy very much.

Now my approach is to take books out of the library, and when one is so good that I know I'll refer to it regularly -- or if later I want to take it out again -- only then do I buy it. That way, my library will turn into a collection of books I love to revisit, instead of a record of what I have read.
posted by mendel at 6:22 PM on May 18, 2007

For keeping track: you could use Librarything. Or just a document on your computer.

My library (King County, Washington) has a feature where they'll let you keep a list of what you've checked out and returned. You have to choose to have that turned on.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:38 PM on May 18, 2007

I buy a significant amount of hardcovers. I also read 100+ books a year. I probably buy more than that. I'm losing on that equation. But I love having books. My feeling: if a book is worth investing the time to read, it's worth buying. I don't spend much disposable income on much else.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 7:58 PM on May 18, 2007

Mostly* the only books I own are rare or technical books that I may want to refer again to or would be hard to find in a library. It is much easier to see if Author said what I think he/she said and quote Author if the book is easy to access rather than wait the 3 days for an interlibrary loan to confirm or dis confirm something I might not remember correctly.

For reading for entertainment I use the library. Should you really own literature just to display it in book shelves to tell visitors about your tastes?

If you want to keep books just to remind you of what you have read, I run a GreaseMonkey script that records everything I take out from my library (most libraries are proud to not keep a record of your history because of Patriot Act concerns). Then again I hastily check out some books that upon reading a few pages I would be embarrassed if others about them.

(If you want to Greasemonkey your library habits, let me know and I may help)

*I do have a collection of funky Philip K Dick paperbacks. And yes, I sometimes re-read them.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 8:16 PM on May 18, 2007

In 20 years it's likely that you'll be better off financially than you are now, and can afford to buy books.

Contrary to what someone said above, I re-read novels all the time. I'm currently on about my 6th time through John Crowley's "Little, Big," for the first time in hardback (I wore out the used paperback I've had for 15 years or so). I have owned books that I sold or gave away and eventually regretted I have bought them again, and considered it money well-spent.

By all means keep a journal. When it comes time that you have the money to spend on your own copy of a beloved book, you'll know just which one to buy. And don't hesitate to buy used books. I like a book with a few miles on it.
posted by lhauser at 10:32 PM on May 18, 2007

I get a little flipped out when I go to someone's house and there isnt' anything to read around

I am immediately dubious of such acquaintances--not in a rational, considered way that I would defend, mind you, but dubious none the less.

Indeed. Not to say it has to first edition literature. In fact a few library books is better, as it shows the person is keen enough to get books regularly.
Of course, I get equally nervous if they don't drink beer ;-)
posted by bystander at 2:52 AM on May 19, 2007

I love my books. I am an avid collector, and almost always buy used. That was much easier when I lived in DC, home of the used bookstore, but now I try to find everything from The Strand, or the few little used bookstores left in Brooklyn, or online at sites like

Even after my recent move to a three story walk up, cursing the books and myself with every step, I couldn't be happier to have them with me. I would have left everything else behind just to have them.

I say, if you aren't collecting now, start with a few good used hardcovers of books you loved, and see how it feels to have them around. Poetry, reference, history, and non-fiction are still the favorites of my collection.

Whatever you decide, it's just great that you read. Don't let the rest of it worry you too much.
posted by metasav at 9:07 AM on May 19, 2007

For me, growing up in a house with many, many, many books meant that I never had an excuse to be bored.

I get a little flipped out when I go to someone's house and there isnt' anything to read around

Yeah, I don't know if perhaps these two are related for me, but I definitely find a wall full of books to be an important environmental factor. it is an immediate source of intriguing tidbits about someone to browse their bookshelf, and it's lovely in your own home to just look through your own books and remember things you read, too. ACtually, it's kind of like being able to look at old metafilter threads - you don't do it all the time, but they're at your fingertips if something crosses your mind...

I dunno, I do totally understand the other side of the argument, having had to move my books too many times, & being a digital enough person to appreciate how much data storage & information exchange is changing, but I still gotta vote for having a room full of actual volumes you can pick up and thumb through. Especially when you can write notes in the margin, put the date you bought it / read it / reread it on the inside flap, etc...
posted by mdn at 6:40 PM on May 19, 2007

I have to vote for keeping them - I love having a personal library to pull out and mark and reference and lend, and you never know when you're going to have a midnight urge to re-read a passage from a novel or need to settle a bet about a quote or a statistic - having all that at my fingertips far outweighs the hassle of book storage.
posted by piers at 7:24 PM on May 19, 2007

Look, libraries are not practical things, but that isn't a bad thing. Neither is a painting a practical thing. What you need to ask yourself is whether or not you agree with Anthony Powell that Books do Furnish a Room.
posted by OmieWise at 8:33 PM on May 19, 2007

Media Man is the PC approximation of delicious library.

Re-reading is a personal preference. My wife re-reads a lot, I almost never do. It is only appropriate to keep books if you plan to re-read them, and have a lot of extra space. Otherwise you are paying rent/mortgage for garbage.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:19 AM on May 20, 2007

I read about a book or two a week, and my budget could stand buying 3-4 used books a month.

Sounds perfect for starting a small collection. Go for it. Hunting for cool books to own is a lot of fun, and putting together a small personal library is a pleasure an avid reader will probably enjoy. But don't feel like you're somehow missing something important if you don't hold on to everything you read. For most people, that just means a good book sits collecting dust for years instead of circulating out where other folks can enjoy it. I got rid of a ton of books I'd accumulated years ago in a big purge, keeping only those with special resonance, and don't regret it at all.

I cycle through a lot of books (working in a used bookstore helps), and let myself keep only a few that really resonate, along with cool unusual editions I might have trouble finding again. Makes what I do have feel more special that way. I don't think I'll regret not having a huge library in 20 years; most books are easily available and will probably continue to be so. The rest I read, hang on to for a little while, then free them to find other people by trading them in for other used books.
posted by mediareport at 8:30 AM on May 20, 2007

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