If you think about anything long enough, you realize that everything can be analyzed through a political prism. This is obvious when the topic is something like police in schools or the careful manipulation of data and language in cable ‘news’ programs, but it is far less apparent when the subject is, say, the moral and ethical ramifications of book buying. On the surface, this would seem to be a simple transactional question: is the book available for a desirable price and in an acceptable condition? The only confounding variable might be whether to purchase through a large seller (e.g. Amazon or Barnes & Noble) or an independent seller. The “Big Box vs Main Street” dichotomy can certainly be a point of contention in some consumers’ minds, but that’s as far as most people will take it.
However, could buying a book have deeper social, political and even environmental implications far beyond the simple economic question of what business entity should get our money? I had not given the notion any such thought until a friend of mine made the observation. The question I posed to her was:
Do you think there is a preferable method to acquiring books? Like getting a used book from a large seller or the same book new from an independent bookseller? Is there a moral/ethical choice to be made or do you think it matters in the end?
The reason I asked at all was because I was considering buying some new books (from a local independent bookseller) that I’m sure could be purchased used through AbeBooks at a lower price. I began wondering if selfishness (i.e. getting a lower price from through an Amazon company) should outweigh paying more but supporting a small business. Her response took me by surprise and forced me to reconsider the question from an entirely different angle. She pointed out that buying new books, whether from independent or large sellers, reinforces that knowledge, insight or even diversion are commodities and that access to those commodities can be restricted by one’s ability or inability to pay for it. This is easily demonstrated by the very appearance of bookstores: they are typically in more affluent areas and can remain in business at a time when print media is supposedly on the brink of extinction. The price of books also acts as a kind of gatekeeper: a newly released hardcover book will almost certainly sell for $20 to $30. Even trade paperback reprints of classic novels can easily retail for $15 and lower quality mass market paperbacks rarely sell for less that $7 or $8 even though the text itself might be available on Project Gutenberg for free.
Compare that to used books. Even though it is an Amazon company, AbeBooks does offer used booksellers of all sizes a platform to sell across the globe and allows buyers to access a vast selection of material, often for only a few dollars. Of course, those without access to internet, banking or disposable income remain excluded, but that number of people is far fewer than the number priced out by conventional booksellers. Some of those barriers fall away if one is fortunate enough to live near a used bookstore, but they can be difficult to find and their selection can also be limited. Additionally, she pointed out that buying used books can prolong the ‘service life’ of of a volume by keeping them from rotting in landfills and, potentially, reducing the demand for new printings of old works. Again, this was not something I had taken into account.
I did, however, add that there is also an aesthetic/historical value to populating one’s shelves with used books. So many books have gone through so many editions and printings that it can be fascinating to view the design of older books versus new versions. We agreed that too many modern-day reprints have terrible (or at least uninspiring) cover art and that it is interesting to see the covers of books published decades ago. This doesn’t even include books that were perhaps printed only a few times and the only editions on the market are ones from a single year. I have such a volume, a collection of poetry called Magic Casements originally published in 1930 and, as far as I can tell, never reprinted. The cover art is not particularly interesting, but the cover itself is a leather-like material quite unlike anything made nowadays. Even though the book is not unique, it does represent a curious snapshot in the history of the published word and is, at least to me, a treasure.
In the end, like most decisions faced by consumers in this complex marketplace of products and ideas, the choice to make a purchase from one source or another often boils down to one’s personal level of comfort and ability to buy with a clear conscience. If we analyze and interrogate every purchase, we make we will either never buy anything or live in a state of perpetual guilt. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for the average member of society to completely distance him or herself from the clutches of the global industrial machine: your phone, your electricity, your food and your home — at least one product or commodity you own or consume can be traced back to a corporate entity and, as such, a philosophical dilemma without a solution. The best we can do, in most cases, is pick our fights and not trouble ourselves too much about how we a acquire a book — let us save that energy for when we purchase our next car or piece of jewlery.