Friday, April 15, 2011

Essay: Book Hunting

When online bookstores debuted more than fifteen years ago, some people speculated that bibliophiles who enjoyed scavenging books from large, unsorted piles would become extinct. After all, search engines were faster and accurate. But these type of consumers didn't really disappear, at least where I'm from. Secondhand bookstores and book sales are alive and well, and they draw a crowd of customers who are willing to put time and effort in searching for bargain books and specific titles. Now the truth is, I'm not one of those people. I'm allergic to dust (and old books) and I prefer spending my time actually reading rather than rummaging. I am easily distracted and navigating through a huge selection requires concentration and mental fortitude. Yet every so often, I find myself in the situation of visiting various bookshops all over the city, all in the hopes of locating a specific book or two. There is, admittedly, the thrill of the hunt, the acceptance of the possibility of failure, and the satisfaction of success. This isn't endemic to bibliophiles but other hobbies that involve collecting.

If book hunting is such a chore, why do I still bother with it? Because I need a specific book given my limited resources. Unfortunately, services like Amazon is a first-world privilege. The main culplrit is shipping as it takes weeks for a book to arrive (the same is the case with the much-lauded Book Depository). That's the value of mega-bookstore chains for me: they have a wide selection and I can get the book immediately instead of waiting for weeks. Of course it also depends on the book. If it's rare or out of print, locating a reliable copy on the Internet is a scavenger hunt in itself and requires the same tools and mental resources.

The other reason is that the book isn't for myself. Many of my scavenger hunts are borne from a desire to procure a book for someone else: a relative, a friend, a crush. IIf you're just looking for a book for yourself, it's easy enough to set expectations: you exert all your effort and you either find the book or you don't. When you're searching a book for someone else, it's an entirely different matter altogether. It's establishing a relationship with them, even if it can be pretty one-sided. The other party for example will never know the adversity you encountered and the sacrifices you made in order to acquire a specific book--unless you tell them (and we don't). But it creates a memorable experience, in addition to finding satisfaction in giving the book to them. I want to give books because, hey, I love books and it's something I can relate to. It's simple enough to reduce everything to financial terms in which case you can just give someone else cash but it's usually a cold and hollow experience that's devoid of personality (unless you're giving me one million in which case I'll be your best friend forever).

Book hunting is an adventure. It's not life-or-death, or the fate-of-the-world-is-in-your-hands, but it follows the pattern of a quest, with its own set of obstacles to overcome. It can be a tedious process if every book you purchase requires that level of effort, but in small doses, it breaks the monotony of convenience shopping and gives the book an additional story. Of course whether the recipient of the book appreciates all the effort that went into it is another matter...


Sean Wright said...

I still book hunt. Its the thrill of finding a hidden gem, and the price ofcourse :). A Recent find was the second volume of Le Guin short stories.

Speaking to my nearest second hand book dealer, she's had two bumper years.

Katya said...

I love my local library. They sell used paperbacks for 10cents each. I've have bought over a dozen SFF titles over time. I love finding old editions with such wonderful covers. Of course, I love the stories better, but the charm of old covers is captivating.

Sean Wright said...

I like getting old hardbacks of classics. I know that I can get them off Gutenberg, but I really like the experience that shows on an old book. And marginalia can be fascinating too.