Second-hand isn’t necessarily second-rate

22Jun08

When I was a teenager, continously in search of new reading matter, I worked my way through most of Robert Goddard’s books. I liked the plot twists, and the fact that I could read them in a few bus rides.

One day, I had read almost the whole way through one of his novels (I forget which one, now) only to find a dozen pages missing. It wasn’t a new copy, but one I had found on my parents’ bookshelves, so I couldn’t take it into the bookshop as I had done with misbound books in the past. But it wasn’t old like some of the books I read, which were held together by yellowed crackling sellotape, so the odds of finding the missing pages tucked away on the shelf were slim. It looked like they’d just fallen out, probably before the book was even purchased. Looking ahead to the pages after the break, it was clear that something of importance had happened in those missing pages. It was deeply frustrating.

So I have a little sympathy with Chas Newkey-Burden’s dislike of second-hand books. He bemoans the fact that they can be stained, or creased, or that they may be missing pages. But I don’t have that much sympathy. With my novel, I wandered into the local library and found a copy on the shelves. And I read the missing pages, in five minutes or so. And then I finished the novel – my copy – on the bus on the way home. Yes, it was a little annoying, but worth it to finish the story. And I didn’t have to spend my limited funds on another copy. When I was a teenager, £7.99 was a lot of money.

In fact, even now that I have a job, £7.99 still seems like a lot of money – and these days that’s cheap for a book. Even taking advantage of 3-for-2 offers in the big bookshops, books are expensive. And sometimes I want to read books that aren’t on offer.

I like new books. I like the way they smell. I like that the spines aren’t creased. It might be mild OCD, but I’ve never liked to crease the spines of books anyway. I like that the covers are shiny, and that the dust-jackets on hardback books aren’t torn. But I don’t like the prices. I still feel paperback prices are high, and I’ve almost never been able to justify buying a new hardback book for myself.

So I love second-hand books, and factory seconds, and books borrowed from my friends. Why spend eight pounds on a paperback from Waterstones when you can spend eight pounds on four paperbacks from Oxfam? Or eight paperbacks from the basement of the seconds shop. The covers are torn or faded, but the text is intact. And that’s what you’re buying, really.

And unlike Newkey-Burden, I’ve found that second-hand books rarely have unpleasant surprises. I don’t think I’ve ever found worse than a coffee stain in one. It might surprise him to learn that most people treat books well. In my experience, if someone is willing to read all the way through a book, they like it enough to take decent care of it. And if they don’t like it enough to finish reading it, then it arrives at the charity shop in almost pristine condition. I always found school bring-and-buy sales produced the best bargains – “as new” copies of recent bestsellers donated by parents who hadn’t even read them, for 50p each. It’s a win-win situation.

He is even more scathing about libraries. Yes, it’s probably true that a book that has been read more times will be more dog-eared and tattered. But I’ve never borrowed one that is worse than that. People who like reading enough to go to the library, again, like books. I’ve never found mucus in one, ever, and in my time I’ve read a lot of books. In academic libraries, occasional underlining ranges from the mildly annoying to the genuinely helpful. In the maths textbooks I used in my faculty library, almost all had little annotations by previous readers, marking crucial points, useful references or occasionally correcting the algebra. I couldn’t complain.

Perhaps I’ve been lucky. Perhaps my taste in books doesn’t coincide with the tastes of people who like to smear chocolate – or worse – on the pages of their favourite books. But I’m more inclined to think that Newkey-Burden has been unlucky. I don’t think I’m alone in believing that most people who read books, even if they do so with a cup of coffee or a biscuit, do so with a little care. Everyone knows books are expensive, after all. And after finishing reading, when someone wants to exchange the book, pass it on to a friend, or donate it to the Oxfam bookshop, why wouldn’t someone want the next reader to get as much enjoyment out of it? Even for a book I disliked, I would still want it to go to a good home.

A friend of mine has never liked the phrase ‘second-hand’ – she thinks it’s a little pejorative. She prefers to say ‘pre-loved’. I think for books, it’s particularly appropriate. If Chas Newkey-Burden doesn’t want to spend his time browsing through second-hand bookshops, then he’s welcome not to. There will be more pre-loved books for those of us who don’t mind a dog-ear here or there.

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One Response to “Second-hand isn’t necessarily second-rate”


  1. 1   Uncategorized | books — Recycle Email

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