Saturday, 14 June 2014

In Praise of the Old and the Forgotten: Why Old Books are Better

We are a society of consumers. Every day we are bombarded by targeted advertisements designed to keep us in a perpetual cycle of purchasing, using and discarding goods. When I look at an online bookstore, I can expect to see the books I just looked at advertised on the social media platforms I use. It’ll happen in a matter of minutes. Corporations want me to buy that book I was perusing just a moment ago. They want me to buy it now. Every day it’s getting easier and easier to purchase new merchandise with minimum effort. I find this worrisome because the less thought and effort we put into deciding what to buy and what to experience takes away from that very experience.

There is a strong message from advertisers that things that are new are good or better than things that are old. New isn’t indicative of quality, not in the least. In reaction to targeted marketing and the Cult of New, I’ve written an article to demonstrate why I think older things, particularly old books, are often better than new ones. It’s also a rallying cry for people who like to make decisions for themselves and for people who enjoy the act of discovery! There are many reasons why older books are better than newer books. Read on to find out why.

Old books: Coming to a Future Near You:

Since I started by complaining about how today’s technology can be used to influence us in our buying habits, thus affecting our entertainment choices and our growth as readers, I’d like to point out that old books are readily available to modern readers. When I received my now-discontinued Kobo Wi-Fi (don’t worry, I won’t be writing an article in praise of old eReaders anytime soon) for Christmas many years ago, it came with 100 classic novels already on it at no extra cost. That’s incredible! More incredible is that there are a lot of classic, well-known and often read and analyzed books amongst those 100 novels. Philosophy by Friedrich Nietzsche, politic thought by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, several classic fiction titles by Charles Dickens, Jules Vernes, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Oscar Wilde, Agatha Christie and so many more. For free!

For people who are and will forever be caught in the hypnotic appeal of something shiny and new, you can also revisit old works by popular, or critically lauded authors, with new editions of old works. Many famous or influential series are republished on a regular basis. Some authors have their entire published works published under various different formats; some of them can be quite affordable. I myself own a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare which I purchased for $12.99. The large softcover volume doesn’t only include all of his plays but also all of his poems. It’s hard to say no to that because it’s such a good bargain. Of course, buying books in this format can be a little difficult to read and travel around with, but if you have a favourite play or two or six, buy those individual volumes as they’ll readily be available either new or second hand. Why you ask? Because Shakespeare!

Your Wallet Will Thank You:

Unlike new books, old books are often available at an affordable price. I’m talking specifically about used books. They’re far less expensive and the product you’re buying is often the same. You do not have to exchange quality for price. The physical objects themselves can vary in quality just like the story within can vary in quality. In addition to a lower sales price, shopping for used books can be very exciting. It’s a good way to expand your horizons and make interesting discoveries. It’s also easier to give an author you’ve never read before a try when the cover price is under five dollars or less.

It’s also important to point out that when you choose to shop at a used bookstore, you’re also choosing to buy into a very different shopping experience than if you went to a corporately owned national bookseller. For starters, many used bookstores operate on a buy, sell and trade business model. If you tried a book and didn’t like it you can bring it back to the same store for a trade or a store credit. Even when you’re trying something completely unknown or something new to you, you can always bring it back and try something else. There is a certain sense of freedom to shopping at that kind of store. It’s also important to point out that when you’re shopping at a used bookstore you’re supporting a local business. In turn, you’re also supporting your community. Used bookstores often contribute to local charities, community events or literacy programs. The cashier might not ask you to donate $1 on your purchase to contribute to reading programs in schools. Nope, they’ll just go ahead and do it because they’re a responsible local business.

Practically new, 1/3 of the price.
You easily spend a long time in a bookstore but you can spend even more time (hours, easily) in a used bookstore. The difference is that you’ll likely leave the bookstore when you blow your budget out of the water or when you get a message on the debit machine telling you your account has insufficient funds. At the used bookstore, you’ll leave with an armful of books for the same price you would pay for a recently released hardcover novel. Most of the books at the store I go to sell for 2 to 5 dollars a book for mass market paperbacks. The price is mostly based on the size and quality of the book. Hardcovers, of course, are more expensive but you can still find some good deals. I purchased a hardcover copy of Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson for $9.95. The original retail price is $35.95! The only discernable damage was on the dust jacket. Otherwise, the book was in great condition and it was a very good read.

Not Just a Way to Past the Time:

Shopping and reading aren’t just a way for you to past the time. It’s also not a bingo card of bestsellers of [insert year]. Shopping and reading used books really helps you focus on the fact that it can be a hobby. Reading can actually be something you enjoy again! By getting out of the rat race of bestsellers and new releases or using idiotic lists with titles like “The 14 Books About Music You Should Read in 2013”, as a reference point for finding what to read next. You can, and should, take action. You can easily go and search for books you’d like to read. Make your own list! I find that my reading experience has been more meaningful and enjoyable since I’ve decided to read what I want to read and not what publishers, marketers and book sellers want me to read (well, buy really, I doubt they care if you even read or enjoyed the damn things). It’s a decision I’ve made long ago, while I was a teen, but it’s something I’ve pushed to a whole new level since I’ve started to regularly visit used bookstores.

It’s not just reading that becomes more enjoyable. It can be much more fun to shop at a used bookstore than it is to go to a larger chain store. I know that I’ve got a list of books I specifically want to look for the next time I go book shopping. Well, it’s more of a hunt really. I’m looking for something specific and I intend to find it amongst the overcrowded shelves and stacks of books. Finding a book you’ve been searching for is a nice feeling. It’s an ever better feeling when moments later you find the same book in better condition for the same price! Fuck yeeeeessssssss! Let’s just hope it’s good, right? Books can also have more value when you’ve had to work for them. You might find the book you’re looking for but it could be in poor condition. It happens. Often times it’s a book that hasn’t had many publications and it’s likely out of print. Sure, you could go online and look for a used copy that way but when you factor in the cost of shipping, it might not be worth it. So you do what I do. You buy it, bring it home and you fix it up. My fiancée’s seen me glue and tape together quite a few books since I’ve discovered the wonder that is a used bookstore. 

This is a somewhat accurate example of what shopping at a used bookstore can be.
I love what they've done with the place.

Being the Most Popular Book in School Doesn’t Mean Anything:

There is nothing to gain by trying to read as many new books as you possibly can. Nothing at all. I think it actually lessens the impact of what you’re reading because it’s just one more book amongst a pile of them. I’ve heard of people who only read books on Best of the Year lists or on the Bestsellers wall at bookstores. This makes me incredibly sad because those are popular books, not necessarily good ones. Sure, some of them will be good but they’ll be as good as that movie you saw with your girlfriend last week. You know what I’m talking about, the movie with the generic plot, decent acting, the see-it-from-a-mile-away ending and the title you can’t remember? Hey, I’ll admit it, there is a time and a place for those kinds of book (and movies), but I try to limit it to one or two a year, tops. Life is too short to read books that are just “decent”.

Many people have a tendency to read what’s popular, as opposed to seeking out great books. I’ve learned long ago that I like to stick to things I have a feeling I’ll like, but once I’m done reading everything by that author, it’s time to spread my wings and try something new. The goal isn’t just to try new things (though that’s not a bad goal at all) but to discover that next favourite author. I’m not saying I won’t get excited for new books. That’s not true at all. I’ll get really excited for books by authors who I enjoy and admire, but I won’t be excited for the new book by Dan Brown because one Dan Brown book was plenty for my lifetime (for the curious, it was Deception Point pre his ultra-fame a few years later). Few things upset me more than recommendations that aren’t more thought out than “Read this book. It just came out!” So what?

Why it’s Good for You to Read Old Books:

I’ve been circling around the issue since the very first paragraph, but I’m going to say it now: old books are often better for you than new books. There are plenty of different reasons for this, but one of them is that books, like everything else, are a product of their time and reading and old book can help you better understand the context in which it was written. The opposite is also true, better understanding the historical context in which a work was written can help you better understand the book. Another reason for reading old books is that time is a good critic. Old books that are still mentioned today are likely remembered for good reasons. Admittedly, the book itself might be challenging and unappealing for certain reasons (they don’t all age well) but changes are it’ll be worth your time. We can learn more from old books than we can from new book.

The biggest reason for reading old books is that it will broaden your horizon. Choosing to read old books is choosing to immediately increase the variety of books you read. Do you like science fiction? Well if you’ve only read science fiction that has been released in the last ten years you’ve barely read any sci-fi at all. Books of today in any genre are different than they were in that same genre ten years ago. The same can be said for those books from twenty, thirty, fifty or more years ago. Most writers who have been active for more than a couple decades have evolved as writers. Variety is important because it’ll help you grow and develop as a reader and that will only mean that you can better identify and appreciate great books.

I forgot to mention that a lot of old books, or reprints of old books, have awesome covers.
They're not all winners but they're far more interesting than the "designed" covers of today.
Also, The Emperor's Soul is a new book. It came out in 2013 but I was able to find a copy at
half the original cover price (which is a whopping $14.95 - sticker shock!).

I often consider older books a palette cleanser to new books and vice versa. They’re different. So very, very different. Reading a fantasy novel form the sixties is different than reading the latest novel by Brandon Sanderson. I find it actually helps me appreciate both works more than I would have if I read exclusively fantasy novels from the sixties or recently published fantasy novels. Since the differences in old and new novels can be more easily recognized when you read them one after the other, it can be easier for you to identify why they’re different and why they’re both good. In the case where one of the books is bad or both are bad, it helps you figure out why. Understanding what you like and why is a big deal. Reading a variety of books, even if you stay within a specific genre, will help you discover what kind of reader you are.

You’ll discover things about yourself because you’ll be challenging yourself. Your tastes will change based on what you’ve read and on what you’ve experienced. Reality is subjective and how an individual reacts to a book might change over time.  It’s only when you start reading older works that you realize just how similar everything published today is. That’s not to say nothing published today is good, absolutely not. There are some great writers at work in this day and age, but by reading old books and new books you can better appreciate older and newer books. Variety is kept in check by a balanced reading list.

How to find old books that are good?

This is used bookstore gold. If you leave
with a book that has a cover like this,
you just won used book shopping.
Amazing. Click to Enlarge, it's worth it.
I like to think that good writers are influential writers. They’re not just people who have entertained with their writing, they’ve also inspired and influences others in their own creative endeavours. There is usually something more meaningful in the works of people who have inspired others. Well over a decade ago, I discovered the works of Neil Gaiman, and once I was done reading his stuff I didn’t know where else to go. So I read the works of some of the people who have influenced him such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe and Samuel R. Delany. I also read a lot of Alan Moore and one of his influences is Michael Moorcock. Incidentally, Moorcock has also influenced Gaiman. Two of my favourite writers share an influence? I knew I had to check out Moorcock. It’s kind of hard to believe that two very different writers such as Gaiman and Moore could share an influence, but after reading Moorcock, I get it. Who else could Moorcock have influenced? I’d likely enjoy their work too and if not, at least I tried something new. For people who might not be familiar with Science Fiction and Fantasy writers, Moorcock has essentially influenced everyone who’s written in the field from the 70s onwards. He’s that important in the field and because of it, my reading list is essentially infinite now.  

Following your influences is probably the best to find books you’re likely to enjoy. Do you like the works of J. K. Rowling, particularly her fantasy work like Harry Potter? J. K. Rowling has publically stated that one of her favourite fantasy books is The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. After a quick search on the homepage of my public library, I found four copies of the audiobook (in two different editions) and one physical copy of the book. Better yet, if I do an author search for Elizabeth Goudge, I’ve found that there are other books by her also available at the library. There might not be 24 hour shipping available but I can go to the library in person and pick it up immediately. You won’t be stuck on the waiting list for this book. The book might be old, but it continues to be easily accessible to me and if J. K. Rowling likes it, I might too.

Sometimes it’s important to remind ourselves that we live in a digital word. I say this because we often have a limited focus on the types of websites and online vendors we visit on a regular basis. You can just as easily access your public library or used bookstore online. My local store, Bay Used Books, has staff recommendations; customer surveys, a photo gallery (the store has been in business for a long time) and you can even request a book! I myself called in, asking if they had books by Brandon Sanderson and that’s how I ended up with Warbreaker. The staff also happens to be kind and helpful, and I’m certain the atmosphere of where they work contributes to that friendliness. If you’ve ever visited a corporately owned bookstore and a used bookstore, you’ll know what I mean.

Old Books Will Help with your OCD:

If you’re like me, you worry about the condition of your books. You spend a lot of money to acquire them and you’re careful not to bend the pages, crease the cover or break the spine. If you’re exactly like me, you’ve lent out books that have come back to you with a broken spine, creased cover and bent pages. That’s a fucking bummer. There goes $10+taxes! Sometimes it’s nice not to have to worry about the condition of a book. I can gladly lend out a used book to a friend. Hey, you can read it in the tub or by the pool! It’s cool, I only spent $3 on it! It’s also nice for when I’m reading it. Sometimes things get damaged on my way to and from work or in my suitcase when I travel. My beat up old copy of The Tombs of Atuan doesn’t mind.

It’s a strange feeling but it’s nice to know you won't feel AS awful for bending the spine of a used book. You likely bought it that way. Or losing the dust jacket, or staining it with your morning coffee. Weathered books are great for beach reading, subway reading, bungee jump reading and all sorts of other high-intensity situations that you wouldn't dare subject a new, pristine book to (I’m starting to make reading sound like an extreme sport).

There are a few other perks of shopping for and buying new books. You’re more likely to give away a used book because you paid so much less for it. Sharing something that feels important to you is the best kind of sharing there is. I’ve bought a friend a couple used (and out of print) Star Trek books for Christmas one year. The only Christmas gifts I buy regularly are gifts for my family but if something is inexpensive and you know it’ll please, it’s easy to buy a friend an old book. Some people like how books smell. Well, I think new books all smell the same but an old bookstore is a treasure trove of different book smells. Thousands of books, none of which have been stored the same. The combination of humidity level, light exposure and age can lead to some interesting results. While I generally read my books and not sniff them, I think it’s important to mention because the smell can round out the reading experience for some people by making it comfortable, familiar and relaxing.

Some of the arguments I’ve mentioned also apply to other forms of entertainment, such as television, movies, videos games, music, etc. Public libraries often have music and film collections available and you can find used music or movie stores without much effort. Often times you’ll even be able to trade your unwanted DVDs, CDs and records at these stores, effectively discovering something new (well, old) all the while uncluttering your home (kind of). In a world where there are no longer any undiscovered lands to be found, I find solace in the fact that there are more things to rediscover than there are new discoveries to be made. I like to think of myself as a modern day explorer, spending my time amongst stacks of books digging up strange and wondrous lost worlds from yesteryear. It’s also pretty cheap to do and well worth the effort. Who knows, you might just learn something.

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