Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Ethics of Bookbuying

I had an unusual quandary to extricate myself from this afternoon, one that I would hazard a guess falls neatly into the "kind of problems you want to have" column. Laurie and I went to the major chain bookstore in town in solidarity with my middle niece. My middle niece's ballet troupe was performing a small sampler show in the children's section of same bookseller as a fund raiser. They had their show and then, if you bought a book and told the people at the counter you wished to support the troupe, the store would give a portion of the sale to the dance troupe (and neatly write-off the charitable donation this near to the fiscal year's end.)
Of course, it takes little to compel me to buy a book, especially when my parents are in town and went even the further step to pay for the books that we wanted. In essence, I was told "Go and pick out a book."

This happens to me more often than you'd think. I think it's partly because we're poor and partly because we are surrounded by people who love us. So often I am given a sum of money as a gift with the stipulation that it is to be spent on books (because otherwise I will use it to pay bills.)

So, I've been on an Evelyn Waugh kick lately; and the other day I almost picked up a copy of Brideshead Revisited, but stopped, mainly because the cover was from a recent film adaptation and I found myself not terribly interested in carrying around a book with such a horrible cover. I mean, I've done it before, I've lashed myself to great books with embarrassing covers, but I was sure with such a classic I could do better vis a vis cover design. Today, finding myself in that position, I did indeed find one I could stomach a little more. But then I wandered the shelves and walked past I book I'd been meaning to read for a long time and I ended up purchasing that instead.

The book I bought was Liquor, by Poppy Z. Brite. She is a fantastic author. She, like many other modern authors, has an online presence and often lets readers see into the life of the author to some extent. Many of you know that I am a fan of author Caitlin R. Kiernan . In fact I would, apologetically to the wounded party, probably say I am an even bigger fan of Ms. Kiernan's work than I am of Ms. Brite's work (although this is purely personal taste and by no means meant as any form of denigration of the brilliant work of Ms. Brite. I would heartily state that both are of the finest writers working today. It's simply a matter of if I were given a choice between a Kiernan novel and a Brite novel, I would personally probably gravitate toward Kiernan first. Recommendation wise I would endorse either with equal gusto to anyone. And anyway at least with Brite's more recent foodie fiction, we're talking apples and oranges here with the standard intentional pun). Kiernan similarly has a very strong web presence and often writes on the subject of the life of a professional writer. What so often strikes me about them is that they both have written works known the world over. They are some of the greatest living professional authors, and yet they are unable to seek medical attention when they need it. They are selling autographed copies of their books on e-Bay to make rent. I recently bought a t-shirt of Kiernan's new (and fantastic) book, The Red Tree, which my step-daughter often notes I seem to be wearing almost every time she sees me nowadays.

These authors are still struggling to keep the electricity on; and these are even people with moderate names in the business who get interviewed in major magazines. Also out there are some people I actually know personally, like Robert H. Morris or Brendan Constantine (or me!) who do not have works published by major publishers and whom you actually have to seek out to buy their books. People who not only have to have day jobs, but really have little to no hope of ever being "discovered." One begins to realize that there are not only lost masterpieces out there in the dunes of time, they are as many as the grains of sand on said dunes. Which is part of why I highly encourage everyone to sift through smaller presses like Soft Skull or Black Sparrow or even smaller, underground ones which print books as good if not better than you will find elsewhere.

On the other side of that coin is the used book seller, of which I am one. I personally do not sell the works of Kiernan or Brite, partially because I want people to buy their work new, but also because I tend to keep anything I find by them for myself. Most of what I read are found in the category of "Classics" in bookstores which means they were largely written by people who are now dead. I have no moral qualms whatsoever about buying those books used or borrowing them from the library. In fact, let me get the library out of the way here. I have no problem borrowing anything by anybody from the library as 1) I am too poor to buy every new book that is out there, 2) a book in the library is a book that was bought, and 3) a book in the library is a book that could be picked up by anyone, enjoyed, and other books by that author are then sought out.

But one thing that you should know is if a text is from WWI or before, the text is most likely public domain. Which means that the publisher is making nearly pure profit off of the text. Although in the fantasy universe where I am filthy rich I would buy the entire catalog from Modern Library and Everyman's Library because, my goodness, but they print gorgeous books, I don't tend to buy them new in this reality. Although I would be more than pleased to receive anything from either of those publishers as gifts.

I will say that again. I would be more than pleased to receive anything from either of those publishers as gifts

Now, the book world is not a huge world in this time and place. As I've said, I tend to read classics mainly because time's refining fire seems to have largely made the gold easier to find as the dross has burnt off. In any modern age there will be a surfeit of crappy books as publishers throw things against the wall to see what sticks. It's more difficult to find the greatness, although I would hasten to add that this is not an excuse for laziness in the reader. The reader ought to dig for the gold. Especially since someone out there might be starving for your book dollar, your economic vote toward their continued existence as an author.

I'm also not talking about New York Times bestsellers. David Sedaris, as much as I love his work, can probably demand around 10 grand or more for a speaking engagement. Morality is not a movable feast, but I would point out that there is a subtle shift here that one might note. I can tell you that the used book seller is not a wealthy man. I can also tell you that having your book on the New York Times bestseller list generates a lot of money around your work. Unfortunately I cannot tell you this from experience.

And here we hit a little choppy waters ethically speaking. One ought not seek a career as an author for fame and fortune, but sometimes (rarely) they find them just the same. If someone is on the New York Times bestseller list, I really don't have much of a personal problem with buying their books used as the used bookseller probably is a bit more needy than the author at that point. But there are also exceptions to that personal rule of mine, especially if I can cast my economic vote. Recently I bought a copy of Neil Gaiman's, The Graveyard Book, in hopes of casting one vote toward him staying on that list another week (and, hopefully, casting my one vote against the Sarah Palin "book" which also came out that week.)

This doesn't even touch on the ethics of publishers and literary agents. Or of eBooks although the ethics of those really ought to be exactly the same as the ethics of hard copies. Plus I am of the semi-Luddite group who believes that eBooks will never really take off or, at the very least, shall never surpass tangible books, which are one of the most wonderful things human beings have ever come up with. I would not turn down the gift of an e-Book reader, but I think I will probably one day die as I've lived, with my living space full of books.

Heck, I would like to see a society where art and literature are created out of the abundance of the hearts of the artist with no need for concern over their own welfare, because the society recognizes what they are doing as valuable. Which brings me around to my larger point. You've probably noticed that I don't have a lot of clear-cut answers. But I do have one. Everyone should read. Everyone should kill their televisions. They are not helping at all. Everyone should spend less time on the internet. Everyone should bring a book, carry it with them everywhere, read passionately and insatiably. Reading should become one of the hippest things one can do; and I'm even willing to say that people who do not read and remain willfully ignorant should probably be social outcasts. As it stands, rather the opposite is true. We live in an anti-intellectual and willfully ignorant time. I really do think that if most of the people read more the world would be a much better place. So, in the end, the real ethic of book buying that I want to proclaim and proselytize is simply this: Buy and read books. Lots of them. Give them as gifts. Talk about them constantly. Discover and grow. It's one of the better things you can do for yourself and for the world.
Good books, that is. There is such a small percentage of people reading and a small percentage of those are reading good books. Read good books. In fact, only read great books. That is my advice to you. Read great books and be noisy about it.


  1. I have to admit, I hadn't even considered any ethical questions behind book buying until a few years back. I get them any [legal] way I can. And I'll also admit that I will often find a copy I can download BUT... And this is important, I will download electronic copies of novels or short stories a) of which I already own a hard copy or b) which are out of print and difficult or impossible to find. The reason I want the electronic copy has to do with how I take notes. I'm at a point where I almost deal with no paper whatsoever. Anyone who has seen my handwriting will give a thanks for my ability to type. And I'm afraid it will only get worse with time as my hands stiffen and get arthritic like the rest of my family.

    I think the publishing companies are up for a huge enema. All media companies are going to have to adapt to modern methods of distribution. If you aren't familiar with him, seek out whatever you can from Cory Doctorow regarding licensing, freedom, distribution, etc. As an experiment, Doctorow releases electronic copies of his books along with the hard copy. Electronic copies are easier to pass out to friends and get someone interested. It's also easier when you've heard about some author you're interested in to go download the latest book and read a couple chapters. Unless you own an eReader, I just about guarantee that if you like what you're reading you're going to go buy a hard copy rather than read the whole thing on your computer.

    That will change, though. There's lots of important questions surrounding electronic distribution and most major media companies want to push it in the wrong direction. I'd take a Kindle or whatever if someone gave it to me, but I won't buy it so long as it's saddled with DRM. You can't share copies of kindle books. You can't sell them when you're done with them. You're merely buying the right to read the text in what amounts to a still inferior format. Personally I think sharing is *important*. Word of mouth is far more important to me than advertising. I intentionally and habitually ignore advertising and hype. I first read Harry Potter after maybe the first 5 or 6 books had been published and seriously wonder what all the fuss is about -- both on the part of the religious that are freaked out by it, and on the part of those who claim it's the second coming of the savior of literacy. They're merely okay.

    But in the long run I think eReaders will begin to replace books. They're searchable, linkable, inter-contextual. They have the potential for the social-link, too. Think of the ability to make notes and comments in your own copy and with the press of a button you could upload your notes to a wiki and drawn down others' notes and begin a conversation. The potential is there. The greater facility for doing more kinds of things... that said, the printed book is an aesthetic masterpiece and I do hope they never go away. Part of me hopes I'm wrong about the whole electronic business. I like books being books. I want it both ways. I want to read on paper, but I want to be able to work electronically. I don't want to have to choose. And I don't want to have the answer dictated to me, where printed books become like fountain pens and real solid wooden furniture, luxuries that only the wealthy can afford.

  2. Back to the authors. I'm only recently beginning to read people that are still breathing. Neil Gaiman and Umberto Eco were two of the first living writers that I found I liked. I recently enjoyed The Red Tree thanks largely to your review of it. Gene Wolfe is another god among men and someone I'm paying increasing attention to. I find his stories stay with me like few others.

    It's troubling to see people who are as solidly "professional" as Caitlín Kiernan posting about the struggle to survive as a writer. She may not have the household name recognition of Gaiman let alone the standard fiction celebs of the supermarket check out lanes, but she's got 7 novels and is a well known. Troubling too that she's criticized for not being accessible. I found The Red Tree to be quite accessible. Gene Wolfe and Umberto Eco come with far greater difficulties to even understand the basic events, let alone to explore the depths of meaning. Kiernan's writing style is relatively simple, and by that I do not mean simplistic, just lacking syntactic complexity. So where's the problem? Where is the inaccessibility? I don't get it.

    Someone posted a depressing comment about all media turning into "content". Depressing, depressing, depressing. And I'm babbling. Time to go read... it's my free day with no kids and my only responsibility is making dinner and I've already spent an hour of it.

  3. You may be correct about eBook readers. My experience with them is very limited. As the technology advances, I'm sure my main objection of being a bit cumbersome will fall by the wayside.
    One of the main things that strikes me as a potential problem about them is that no one steals books. I've left books behind and come back a day later and found them still sitting there. This is an over-generalization, however, people do steal expensive electronic devices. I could see an eBook reader being stolen by someone who can't even read. If some steals my used mass market paperback I'm out about 2 bucks whereas if they steal my Kindle I'm out about 200.

  4. Also, I shall have to look into Gene Wolfe.

  5. There's two ways to start with Wolfe—his short stories, or his novels. If short stories, my suggestion would be this years anthology, The Best of Gene Wolfe. Alternatively, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories should be pretty easy to find and will be cheaper.

    For his novels, it's hard to say where to start. I've only read his Book of the New Sun series, which is really and truly a single novel published in 4 volumes and not a tetralogy. You can pick it up in two volumes: Shadow and Claw and Sword and Citadel. It is long, it is beautifully written, it is utterly engaging, and according to most accounts it cannot really be understood on the first read through.

    Wolfe is famous (notorious, infamous?) for his unreliable narrators. He likes giving puzzles for his readers and respects them too much to spell out the answers. People still debate meanings and mysteries in this book today on the Urth mailing list. It's not like Joyce's Finnegans Wake, though. It's enjoyable reading and while there will be questions it isn't frustratingly impenetrable.

    If you want a shorter introduction, I hear good things about Peace, of which Gaiman has said on first reading it was a quiet midwestern novel and only on the 3rd reading was it a horror novel. And from what I hear the easiest reading is found in his 2 volume The Wizard Knight series.

    Right now I'm focusing on short stories. But I want badly to return to Book of the New Sun and also try some of his other novels. He's an amazing writer.

    Also -- are you familiar with R.A. Lafferty? He's out of print, but available through ebay or inter-library loan. His short stories are wonderful, his novels I understand are hit or miss. If you are unfamiliar with Lafferty email me and I can get you a copy of a story or two.

    Email me at if you're interested.

    The cost issue with ereaders is the big thing for me, alongside the drm issue. But I have a friend with a Kindle -- he has the entire Discworld series on it, along with newspapers and whatever else. He travels a lot, so it makes sense for him. He loves it.