Family stuff (the good kind) has kept me away from the keys for the last few days, but it also provided me with an opportunity to visit a bookstore, and realize just how much my book-buying habits have changed in the last couple of years. I'm barely buying anything now, but I'm reading more than ever, and the stuff I'm buying is passing a higher threshold of value. But some old habits remain, like the way a wad of paper in the hands feels and what kinds of freedom it gives you.
If I want to read something, my first stop is the Open Library to see if a copy exists there at all. If it does, I can usually read it there as a way to get an idea of what it's all about, and that's enough to satisfy an initial read. Not many books are worth coming back to more than once. The few that do make it plain they are worth a revisit long before the first reading is up (Gödel, Escher, Bach, or a Dostoevsky novel, or what have you).
If no copy exists in the Open Library, I check other sources — my local library system, for instance. If all else fails, there's Amazon, whether by way of Kindle or a used-book dealer like Better World Books. (Used bookstores are more opportunistic than anything else; you go there less to look for something in particular than you do to have a happy discovery or three.) Newly released books that capture my interest are few and far between (save for nonfiction), but when they do I'm forced to buy them.
Finally, art books or other things where print is the medium are always worth the money. The experiences you get from those are irreproducible on a screen, like Heaxachrome or endpapers or fold-out pages. I will make a single exception for comics as a reading experience — that is, when you just want to know the story, and if it's good enough, spring for the printed volumes. (Berserk will never leave my shelves. Ditto Vagabond.)
Almost none of the books I've been tracking down lately make it all the way through these filters. About two-third get stopped at the Open Library stage. About half of what's left is a used Amazon purchase. The remaining few are brand-new buys. End result is that I buy fewer books but spend a lot more on the few I do buy, because they're rarer or more lavish.
You learn to say yes to opportunity, though. One of the other places I popped into this weekend was a record store with a well-curated selection of books on music, cinema, popular culture, etc. Among the highlighted selections was a book I'd been chasing for some time: A Power Stronger Than Itself, a $25 tome about experimental American music that's been sitting in an Amazon wishlist since around the time Sun Ra sqwonked his last. There it was, on a shelf at head height, and I decided I wasn't going to get a better deal than the one right in front of me. One glance through it told me this was a book I would be revisiting time and again.
I also ended up buying, for $2 each, paperback copies of William Gibson's Neuromancer and Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game. The former I'd read decades ago and have since forgotten in every relevant detail, and so has me curious about how well it's held up or what lessons can be learned from it in 2019 vs. 1985; the latter, I've never read before. Both are small enough to fit in the bottom of my bag. That's where I plan to keep them, since I'm finding there's always a need in this world to have an actual wad of paper you can take out and read whenever the moments drag — in an airport, a doctor's office, the back of a car, or what have you. (Signs at the Strand Bookstore for many of the top selections read: NEVER RUNS OUT OF BATTERY! Thanks, I would never have guessed...)
People talk a lot these days about how paper books have outlasted technology and fashion, and I think they are right. A paper book is no more obsolete than, say, oil painting is obsolete because someone invented photography. An art book the size of a tabletop has an impact that an image on a screen, even a big one, does not. Screens turn off and go blank; they're ephemeral. A page is about as close to forever as it gets.
That said, ebooks provide a fluidity and convenience I would be stupid to push away. My mother still loves to read, but her hands are too weak to hold a paper book for more than a couple of minutes at a time; Kindle it is. (Zoomable font sizes also win the day.) They rush in where paper fears to tread. There's room for dead trees and electrons to yin and yang each other for plenty of time to come.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind