Buying books, stealing books

I have stolen from Stephen King.

A series on the Guardian website has been working through all of King’s novels, from Carrie onwards, and the second article was about Salem’s Lot. It’s been years since I read it, and if I remember I borrowed the book from a friend in the first place, so I’d never actually owned it.

But after reading the article, I really wanted to read the book. But I didn’t want to pay for it. I’d already read it, I was reading it only to re-experience the book in the light of the article. I had enough excuses, so I downloaded it. I stole from Stephen King.

Not to mention the publishers, the retailers, the print-setters, the paper makers. Everyone who was involved with the book, but especially Stephen King, because after all the book could have been something without any one of those other people, but without King it would have been nothing.

It wasn’t much, of course, just a few pounds. And yet I’ve just spent four or five or six times as much money on this wireless keyboard I’m using, something I really didn’t need but absolutely wanted. I didn’t need Salem’s Lot, but I absolutely wanted it. Only what I wanted more was not to pay for it.

Are books dying? How can they be, with so many people reading them. But is literature dying? The coverage of the Booker Prize suggests not, as does the celebrity status that writers attain. Books aren’t dying, but my desire to buy a book is far from healthy.

Have I ever bought a book? More than a few, some that still sit unread on the shelves. A lot of the books I’ve bought recently, though, have been non-fiction. I can’t remember the last fiction book, the last novel, that I bought for real money – not in an offer, a reduction, but at full price.

Full price is a problem of course, when the RRP for JK Rowling’s next novel is £20 and most paperbacks cost more than a fiver. Apparently it costs £1 to make a hardback book, which leaves a lot to share around if you’re in bestseller territory. A big IF, of course.

Is a book, a novel, a piece of entertainment, worth £20? I don’t buy music unless an album has already worked its way into my bones, but I do buy DVDs. If, that is, they are heavily reduced. There is no way I’m going to buy a £17.99 DVD when LoveFilm is around.

I may be a charlatan for the fact that I aspire to write books, to create and make a living out of creating, and yet I can’t bring myself to spend money on the creations of others unless they meet my low, low discount price bracket.

It’s a bad sign of my respect for anyone’s creativity, not least my own. But at the same time, now that I find myself similarly inspired to read another King novel (The Dead Zone) covered by the series, weighing up a spend of £4.99 for a book isn’t straightforward.

Do I want it cheaper than that because I’ve just got used to having things cheaper than the price they were originally? Is it because I know that other books are cheaper – so what’s so special about this one? Is it because I don’t respect the effort that’s gone into it?

To add further confusion I’ve just won £25 of Amazon vouchers. Now I’m umming and ahhing over £4.99 when it literally will not cost me anything. Or at least, anything I began the day with. So in fact it’s no longer about respecting creativity, it’s about wanting as much as possible from what I have.

How I count up ‘as much as possible’ and what that actually means is troubling because I don’t know whether I’m devaluing my own pleasure (in reading something I want to) or the effort of King in writing the book or the fact that it’s a book and not, again, a piece of trendy technology.

In wanting to be a writer I’m keenly aware of how prickly the road to being published can be. Though, with epublishing, that doesn’t have to be the way. But is publishing an enovel any different (apart from being able to charge for it) than publishing a blog? And do ebooks have the same value as actual books?

What’s curious is that I know what I’m spending that £25 on – as many books as possible for my son. The value I see in those books far outweighs the value I place on my own idle interest in a book I’ve been prompted to read by a website article. The value which I believe they offer my son.

If I’ve stopped seeing full price books, DVDs, magazines, newspapers as valuable or worthwhile purchases is that because I’ve stopped respecting those pieces of culture or that I’ve stopped respecting my own desire for that culture?

Or is it that there’s just so much culture I can have, for free, that something has to be really important for me to pay for it – most likely after I’ve already experienced it without paying for it, like favourite DVDs.

I haven’t bought a newspaper in years, but then I never bought newspapers regularly or with commitment. Magazines I bought as a teenager to support my interests, but now my interests are so individual to me that no magazine could offer any interesting or valuable addition to them.

I hope that I’ve started valuing people more as I’ve begun to value things less, but that doesn’t hold true because it’s not just things it’s creative things. I still spend silly money on food, on gadgets (again, the keyboard), on things I need and things I really don’t.

If I started buying books again, what wouldn’t I be able to buy? And would buying books make me value them more? Or would I want to then sell them on – as I’ve been with the less creative things I’ve bought and then not needed.

Spending £25 of free money on books for my son proves nothing other than I love him and want to put him before me. And yet, why buy a keyboard with actual money and never once think about buying him (or my wife!) something instead? There are no good answers here.

About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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2 Responses to Buying books, stealing books

  1. Don’t want to spend money on books? Join the library! They need your help and you don’t have to pay a thing. My sister takes out cookery books out and kids books out too for her little girl. I never really thought about going beyond fiction myself, but it’s a great idea.
    I am in love with Oxfordshire libraries at the moment. The central library has an amazing, easy self service system and the book scanner can identify your book within a second – it is mind blowing!
    I love books and became a bit obsessed with buying through Amazon second hand. The cost was peanuts, but books do take up a lot of room. I also invested in a Kindle, which has the benefits of cheaper books and space saving, even if it is a little behind on collections.
    It’s a shame really because I love the idea of going into a book shop and picking up a bunch of new books, but the cost lets them down. It is more convenient than the internet, but so much more expensive.
    So there you have it, the library is your answer ; )

    I wrote an article on books vs ebooks, both of which I have embraced. I am a huge supporter of the physical book though and hate the idea of a totally technological world:

    Not to mention I would never advise anyone to put what is on the internet over what is in a book.

    My love for book buying and reading doesn’t phase me in the slightest, whereas buying clothes really does. Do I really need that new top/bag/pair of shoes? Books is like the luxury I feel completely guilt free about buying. Although yes, I do draw the line at spending more on a book I can get so much cheaper.

    • I can’t remember the last time I went to a library to actually take a book out to read for pleasure. With the birth of my son I’ve started to think about libraries again, but I also think that this is due to me finally being settled in a place that I can see myself staying in for – hopefully – life.

      Registering him for the local library feels like a right of passage, and I can’t wait to take him and help him to discover books. Perhaps I should follow this instinct for my own benefit!

      Temporary living (ie, life as a young professional) is so transient in my experience that the idea of joining a library never presented itself. Which is ludicrous, really. It does make me think that a wonderful library innovation might be a LoveFilm-style convenient borrowing system, though books are obviously more expensive to post. But, then, this makes ebooks a really opportunity – digi-loans could be a great feature of a modern library. It may even be already.

      I’d have to disagree with your advice about the internet, though. There’s plenty of misinformation in books out there, and the internet is a source which illustrates more about the flaws of the researcher than the flaws of the content found. The crucial thing, perhaps, is never ever to put one thing over another, but to combine all things and learn from them and how they contradict and conflict.

      I can’t see myself starting to purchase £5 books again, but at the same time I can see myself paying a library £5 a month for access to an ebook catalogue. The issue would be reach – I want to be able to read the unabridged The Golden Bough, not just Romance in Rome or the Tom Clancy back list.

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