Silly-season shenanigans have crept up and we are scrambling to fill stockings for littlies and oldies and Uncle Roy, who’s so hard to shop for because he’s so dull.
We reach for what’s easy, like books. Easy to make decisions, thanks to Top Ten lists. Easy to wrap, or get wrapped thanks to eager Bookshop Elves who do it for us. Books look substantial and meaningful thanks to all those words and ideas and stuff. I mean books are valuable, right?
On the other side of town our city libraries are selling off our book collection, one item at a time, 50c each. It signals the devaluing of books in favour of other reasons for being.
Libraries are becoming Information Hubs, pamphlets beat out books for space, there’s a JP permanently tucked in the corner, a scrabble club and holiday programmes. Computers are front and central, not just to track down Dewey numbers but to check email, surf, look for jobs; there’s one in the children’s section that kids play games on.
Taking the lead from our libraries – and from our civic leaders who set their priorities – perhaps books aren’t as important as they once were. Who needs Whittaker’s Almanac when you have Wikipedia? Who needs the Guinness Book of Records when you have BuzzFeed? Don’t need to have read it, when there’s Reddit, right? If you must read books, Kindles make actual books superfluous. Stitchery and Audible mean we don’t have to read at all, we can let experts read for us, then listen to them doing it instead.
Be honest, of the last ten books you bought how many of them did you actually finish…let alone read again?
Books are piling up, they are jamming back doors, making do as night-stands. I even have a coffee table made from coffee table books! The most important job they have is insulating our thin and draughty houses. Books may be full of the sum total of human knowledge, imagination and consideration, but if you buy them then shelve them, books are the new single-use plastic bags, but not as useful. You can’t easily pick up dog poo with a book.
Getting the books here to NZ and on the shelves is a wicked problem too: 10,000 books printed in China, on trees, with ink made from chemicals tested on animals probably, guillotined to size – imagine the waste all those strips of paper create – palleted, wrapped in plastic, shipped here…
Then those books are driven around the country, unloaded, six months later slickered with SALE stickers, dumped in the remaindered bin. Unless You buy them. Which is what they want you to do, but not out of free will, that would be catastrophic!
Most bookshops are in on this con. A woman in an office in Auckland, who doesn’t know you, decides the books you want. She decides which books need to go to which shops and where in the shops they need to sit, so unsuspecting You will mooch in and pick up the first thing that comes to hand. And buy it…for Uncle Roy or whoever, because underneath it says, ‘Gifts For Uncles’ or ‘Best Book for the man who has EVERYTHING’.
That’s how stockings end up stuffed with Shit Towns of New Zealand, the latest Jamie Oliver and the 5-million Storey Treehouse.
Very few bookshops have staff who read the books past A for Al Brown. So, when you say, “I’m looking for something for my Uncle Roy who has everything and only ever talks about the weather” they stare blankly and suggest Al Brown.
Thankfully here in Hawke’s Bay we have some exceptions. Bookshops where the scene is somewhat different. Ask the staff something tricky, like “I’m looking for a book for my uncle who doesn’t read, maybe something to do with weather?” and they’ll suggest A Cloud A Day by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. And that’ll be perfect.
If it’s not, give the giftee the freedom to gift it on – see sidebar.
And when you buy a book for yourself, luxuriate over the choosing. Chew over reviews, take your time, because like puppies after Christmas that book is going to be with you for some time. Then when you’ve picked one, read it! Carve out the time, skip sleep, take it to the beach, ditch the digital. Don’t let it gather dust with other half-read tomes on the bookshelf.
Every other year when you prune your bookshelves, pick out the faves and pack up the detritus in banana boxes, haul them down to the second-hand bookshop in town, Siobhan’s only going to take the best ones. Her shop’s not a dumping ground for your bad life choices. She’ll choose the best, those books whose true value you didn’t see, rare gems, or volumes of cultural significance.
Take the remainder on then to an op shop. Most will say no. Shelf space there is at a premium and no one’s buying books. Where next? Landfill I’m afraid.
There are a few options beyond op shops. Every year the Lions Book Sale gets together 90,000 books and 5,000 biblio-bargain hunters. Some communities have their own ‘book cupboards’, upcycled wardrobes, sometimes fridges, where books are left to be shared with others. If your neighbourhood doesn’t have one, make one! Every kindy, rest home, bar and community centre could have its own micro-library.
A ‘library’ takes its name from the Latin root: Liber, book. But it shares that root with libre and libere, which give us liberty and libido, and the German ‘liebe’: love, freedom, desire. That’s a book.
So be thoughtful when you buy books. Don’t panic buy. Apply the rules of all consumption to books too: Do I need this? Is it useful? Is it beautiful? Once it has served me will it have three or four more purposeful jobs still to do? What does its end-of-life journey look like?
Books deserve our love, because in them lie the ideas and imaginings of our species. In books lies our freedom. But all that’s locked up in another ream of useless paper unless you take it into your own hands to release it.
Inscription for gifted books:
This book is for you to lighten your day
Read it, enjoy it, then give it away.
Or if you’ve had a soul connection
Treasure it and keep it in your collection.