In Praise of Used Books

Image description: Several hardcover books are set upright and huddled together, spines touching, view from above.

I just… love books.

As physical objects, I love how books become a part of your life for a season. My bookcase is a time capsule. I pick up a book and open to a random page. The look of the text and feel of the book in my hands makes memories flash in my mind of where I was at and how I was feeling during the time I read the book. It’s magic.

So, I’m surprising no one by confessing: I buy a lot of books.

A fair number of those books are new. A few are ebooks. Many are used.

Don’t get me wrong, I love new books. They feel good, they smell good. They have that spark of current energy and I hope the author benefits from a royalty or a sales statistic that my having bought the book new might provide. I also love that, as I build my personal library, I’ll have a book in amazing condition to reference later or loan out to someone exploring the same topic. (As your friendly Unlaced Librarian, I have made it a point to purchase many of my sexuality books new for all the above reasons.)

But there’s something enchanting and rugged about used books, with their library markings and highlights and notes written in stranger’s scrawl in the margins. Pages that have been leafed through in a previous life. A book that once sat nested in someone else’s existence in another state or another country now in my hands. (More magic!)

Used books (Or if you’d prefer, secondhand books) have always been a huge part of my life.

I’ve seen a lot of things in used books:

A short story collection with a bunch of star shaped confetti stuffed among the pages and a note in the front from 1996 that read “You are my starburst.”

An anti-pornography book where literally the entire book was highlighted. Every single word. The thing was soaked through with neon yellow. I hope the reader sought out some professional guidance.

An outline of what a person wanted in their divorce folded and stuck inside a cook book.

A stack of books about death with the name of a local mortuary stamped in the front cover. (I later found out that the funeral home had gone out of business earlier that year… their little death library became my little death library.)

I’ve seen lots of used books with notes in the first chapter but none in the rest of the book. And some used books that are so pristine that I doubt they had even been read once.

Used books have offered me so many insights into other people’s day-to-day lives. Things that are often kept secret or private, forgotten between pages of ink and pulp, have been left for me to catch a glimpse.

Even when I didn’t work at a library, I volunteered at library used books sales a lot because I just adore the energy of a good library used book sale. (And the funds raised from these sales support libraries!)

I learned a lot about people in the way used books are donated to such sales.

The reasons people give away books is tremendously dynamic. For some they’re just getting rid of needless clutter. For others, the books are donated after the book’s owner passed away—the books would never have been given away otherwise. For some, parting with books is casual and books are seen as disposable items. For others they are hoping the books will be sent into the world to touch other lives because they’ve been holding onto the books since childhood, or are only giving them away to accommodate a huge life change like a divorce, new baby, or big move—sometimes to a better place, but often, not.

When I was in my 20’s working two minimum wage jobs 6 days a week, library book sales were the only way I could afford books. That and the charity/thrift shop bag sales—there were ones for clothes AND books so, double win.

Of course, when you’re out in the field of library used book sales or thrift shops, battle can get gnarly. You have to hunt for gems and be careful not to get caught in a trap of buying books you don’t really want to read (But…It’s only a dollar!).

I read a lot of non-fiction and soon found out that I couldn’t find most of the books I wanted to read at local library sales or thrift shops. Turns out no one else in my area was reading edgy sexuality books or pop-psychology/pop-sociology books, or even many business or leadership books.

Thus I turned to the internet where some used book stores post their inventory or new arrivals online so I could purchase books I had researched and wanted to buy. Later on in life I achieved Literati status on Thriftbooks and still hold the title. (It helps that my husband is an avid reader as well, and we often out-compete each other in the book purchasing department. Our household budget has a books line item.)

Eventually I became savvy at determining which books to buy used and which to save for to buy new. My financial situation improved and I have been able to enjoy more options for my book-buying. But I have also had to reign in my book-buying habits and work to actually finish reading the books I buy, for both my budget and my mental health. That, however, is a whole other post.

As a book blogger I have felt insecure about reviewing books that are not brand-new releases. As a librarian, I definitely know that you have to update non-fiction books for current information in science and cultural context. But there are plenty of books, fiction and non-fiction, that don’t lose their value with time. There have been many books I’ve bought used that were 5, ten, or even twenty years old, but the information, perspectives, and philosophies found me at the perfect time. I want that for other people, and I can bring that about by reviewing these books that have helped my life. And many authors do appreciate reviews of their books that are not newly released.

Used books definitely spark a wider conversation: I want authors to be paid and I want to support the book publishing industry as it carries into the new decade and beyond. I want current information and I want to be a part of the cutting-edge conversation in sexuality, self-help, and leadership. I do buy new books when I can.

But I also want to support libraries with used book sales and independent used book stores. I want to pass books on to others. I want used books to be used again if they are in the right condition. (And yes, I’m all for recycling unwanted books and some books do not deserve to be donated. Read more about that in this Book Riot article.) I want people who cannot get a library card because of housing instability to still have access to books for low prices or even free-will donation in library used book stores. I want children to grow up with picture books and early readers in their homes even if those books came from the thrift shop. I want books to be read. (Read more in this Salon article.)

For many people (like me for so many years) the only way they can have books and reading in their lives is by buying books used. So I continue to support the outlets that provide used books whenever I can.

Fortunately, there are things we can all do to promote books, authors, and reading whether we are buying books new or used. I’ll leave you with these tips:

  • Leave honest reviews on books you thoroughly read.
  • Share the books you read on social media. Even a picture of a stack of books with titles and authors visible with #currentlyreading is a great way to promote books. You can post a picture of the book’s cover when you buy the book or begin reading it as well, or when you’re finished and can comment what you liked about the book in your post.
  • Recommend the book to a friend, loan (or give) the book to someone else exploring the same topic, or request the book at your local library.
  • Sign up for the author’s newsletter and/or follow them on social media.
  • Tell an author if you enjoy their book. Most authors are on Twitter or have other ways you can let them know how much you enjoyed or were helped by their work.
  • Talk to your friends and family about books and reading. We are social creatures and we can build positive environments for each other. Be a book oasis for the people in your life!

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