The other day I took five boxes of books to my local Half Price Used Books. They weren’t the most valuable books in the world, but they weren’t crappy, either—they were literary and academic books I’d bought new or gently used. I’d guess I originally paid at least $300, maybe as much as $500 for the whole batch of them. The bookseller looked them over and made an offer: eighteen dollars. If that sounds low, get this: that was only for a couple dozen of the books. She gestured at a giant pile on the floor and said I was welcome to take those back; otherwise the store would donate or recycle them.
I could certainly have made more money if I’d taken the time to put the books up for sale individually on Amazon or eBay, but the Half Price dumpster is sobering evidence of how many books have become essentially worthless: it’s consistently full of books that are in perfectly good condition but have become so valueless that no one will even pick up and walk away with when they’re publicly discarded. Minneapolis and St. Paul are also now full of “Little Free Libraries”: curbside boxes stocked with books that people are just giving away. People do eventually take the books—the selection in most of the boxes rotates fairly frequently—but there’s also no shortage of supply.
There are a lot of people out there who, like me, used to buy a lot of books. If you were a reader before the e-book era, you’d buy a book if you knew you’d read it or even if you thought you might some day read it. You never knew what might be available at the library, and if it was a book you loved—or thought you might love—it was a relatively affordable luxury to own your own copy.
I owned hundreds of books before I even started college, and my rate of acquisition exploded during my years of higher education. I finished my Ph.D. in 2007, which put me in the last generation of academics to feel we needed to have extensive personal libraries in hard copy. I long ago ditched my archives of American Sociological Review and the American Journal of Sociology, but I’m just now figuring out what to do with all the books I bought during grad school. Literature was digitizing even then, of course—I was a teaching fellow in one of Harvard’s first courses to experiment with electronic reading packets—but all the faculty members had offices full of books, and all the grad students in my cohort considered the compilation of such collections to be an essential requirement for academic life.
Presumably if I’d stayed in academia I’d be ensconced in such an office right now, but even my classmates who took academic jobs must be wondering, or starting to wonder, the same thing I am: what do you do with all these books?
I’m already prepared to part with the vast majority of my books, not only because I’m unlikely ever again to need to check the finer points of Weber’s views on dialectical materialism but because I know that if I really want to read something, I can probably download it; it’s not worth hanging on to umpteen boxes of books that I might conceivably read before I die. A new app called Oyster is ushering us into the Spotify era of reading, when a single monthly fee will—eventually—secure instant access to all but the most obscure titles.
That means we’re rapidly approaching the rock bottom of the used-book market. Right now, the world is full of books that were produced to meet hard-copy demand that no longer exists; supply is already adjusting to meet demand, and eventually most of the 250 million John Grisham books and 350 million Stephen King books will have been pulped away, leaving a more select population of rare editions and special copies designed to add value to the books’ textual contents. It’s hard to find data on book disposal, but it seems apparent that while rare books are more valuable than ever—thanks to an online marketplace that pairs books with their most avid buyers—books that have no value beyond simply being receptacles for words are becoming middle-class hot potatoes.
So what should I do? Should I hold on to my books for another 30 years, until they can find appreciative homes with hard-copy devotees who no longer have the luxury of finding dozens of copies selling for one cent each on Amazon? Or, should I dump the books now and enjoy what profits I can squeeze out of the literary meat-grinder?
It’s interesting to realize how unsentimental I’ve become about my books. They used to mean so much to me. As librarians like to point out, every book is a window into a world; when I was younger, I wanted to line my walls with as many of those windows as possible. Now that I’m outside the walls, though, I don’t need all these windows. Anyone want ’em?