To Buy or to Borrow: The Reader’s Dilemma

All Images: Sarah Pinault

Unashamedly I have a house full of books. At an alarming rate I visit the library across the street from my office. My co-workers and I share more books than we do cold viruses. What do I collect? Books. What do I obsess over? Books. What do I always have time for? Reading. Going on vacation, what will you do? Find a local bookstore. This is where I let my book flag fly.

I would say that there is no manner in which I won’t consume books, but that’s not entirely true. I once boycotted Borders for five years, until it closed down, and the boycott was no longer necessary, bygones. I do own and regularly read on a Kindle, so I am not averse to the digital form of this pastime of mine. How then, do you decide whether a book should be bought or borrowed?

For me the decision is usually circumstantial. If I am at a book sale, or a yard sale, or some kind of rummage sale, I will generally always buy the book. If I am in a locally owned bookstore, I will always, always find something to buy. If I am at a national chain bookstore, I will want to buy all the books, but will not always do so.

Like any good lover of words, I always have a notebook and pen handy, along with my Goodreads app these days, and I have been known to jot down titles when seen in Target, when recommended, or when too many titles are seen and wanted all at once. But once that name goes into my little black book, yes I have a little black book for books not phone numbers, I’m a romantic, in what form does it come out of that little black book?

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald has been on my list for so long, that I no longer need to check my list in order to remember the name of the book, I can still recall where I was when it went on my list. But as of yet, it has not graced my library request page, has not been purchased in any of the local bookstores I have been in, has not even once made it to my Amazon shopping cart. I love a book about books, so what keeps this book on my list and not in my hands?

The Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante haunted me in the spring and summer of 2017. Everywhere I went I saw it, the cool blue spines and sharp text calling to me, the allure of the unknown, and ultimately unknowable writer. The covers were smooth and thrilling to the touch, they were everything that makes you want to judge a book by it’s cover. I would often pick them up and wonder if they were worth a four book commitment. In June 2017 I purchased my first in the series, at The Mustard Seed in Bath, Maine. In April 2018, I caught sight of the second book at a library book sale in Woodstock, Vermont for a mere $4, but I still had not read the first one, what if I hated it? In June 2018 I picked up The Days of Abandonment, also by Elena Ferrante, while on a trip to Ikea and some local bookstores. I began reading it on the long drive home and it’s insight astounded me. Reading that book felt like coming home and being understood, and that I wasn’t crazy, and that everything would be okay even if it did always suck just a little. So of course I immediately devoured, and upon conclusion, raced down to my local one room bookstore, The BookWorm to get the other three. I knew they were waiting for me in the used section, they had been staring me down these past two years.

Many moons ago, I was part of a CS Lewis book club. Many of the items on our list were not available at the library, and so they were purchased. Some online, some at a book warehouse that used to exist somewhere in Massachusetts. But I distinctly remember the one I didn’t buy. I borrowed the first book we looked at, Surprised By Joy, and have been haunted by not having owned it for over a decade. I found a used copy at the now closed Bookstop in Scarborough just a few months ago and snagged it instantly.

Recently somebody, somewhere, mentioned A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, and I instantly ordered it from the library. I finished reading it without even needing to renew the book. I have given no thought to purchasing it, in fact, I may or may not read the second or third in the series, which have already been requested and returned several times from the library.

I find that I cannot systematically identify when I will buy, or borrow a book. Just yesterday I walked round a bookstore in North Conway, New Hampshire determined to buy the two books I was carrying, only to write their names down in my book and return them to their shelves. Certainly at different points in my life, money has played a big role in this decision. Though I have never been too badly off to stop buying books altogether, there were lean years. These days purchases once postponed are more often fulfilled.

If the author is an unknown quantity, I might try a library copy. But even as I type this, I know this does not always hold true, because I flew into Penelope Fitzgerald, JoJo Moyes, Liane Moriarty, and dear Elena Ferrante, both feet first, without looking left or right. If the genre is not of my preference I am prodigiously more inclined to borrow, as with the Harkness series. While I have Rowling and Murphy in my collection, I am prepared to leave the ownership of witchcraft and wizardry to the public library, and just dip my toes in every once in a while.

I have an obsession with Europa Editions, a small publishing company, at the moment, and find that were I to purchase every title, so that my shelves look like a masterpiece from spines alone, I might end up in divorce court, or more likely, sleeping atop a mountain of books. That mountain is not necessarily a deal breaker for me. I have retrieved several of their editions from the library, only one of which I am now seriously considering purchasing, knowing full well that it will never grace my adored book sales, and wondering if I can get one of my locals to stock Christelle Dabos, as I once got them to stock Brandon Mull.

New books. Brand new. Still on the list (New York Times) books. These I am far more likely to borrow from the library, unless it is from someone on my list; a DeBernieres, an Ishiguro, a Backman. The last brand new, new book, hardcover even, I purchased, was last year, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Purchased for a book club that was started and disbanded before we met even once, but long enough for me to realize the library waiting list was too long. I have no regrets however, the book was worth every penny, and every moment of the greyhound ride from Vermont to downtown Boston. And while I was running in to pick that book up I came upon something equally as wonderful that caught my eye, A Mad and Wonderful Thing by Mark Mulholland. A book I judged instantly by it’s cover but could not wait to read, it had begun before the trip back from Boston. Now that I am beginning to pay more attention to upcoming titles, I find myself drawn more to these purchases. Certainly my son has me purchasing every new Dav Pilkey and Jeff Kinney book that comes out, brand new on the hold shelf for his eager little hands.

I will say that I have in the past been rather loathe to borrow a book from a friend. We share books at the office quite often of late, and I am enjoying that, though most often I enjoy being the sharer rather than the share-ee. If a friend likes something sufficiently enough to recommend it, I will generally take their word, and either request it at the library or purchase it myself, depending on the nature of the recommendation. I find that when I recommend a book to someone, in my heart of hearts what I really mean is, “I love this, please purchase your own copy so that we can each hold our copies, thumb through them together and discuss.” This thought leaves me rather reluctant to borrow a book from someone I know, for I would hate to part them from such a dear friend.

So what then is the driving force in the decision, when it is not circumstantial as I stand by a $1 paperback table in an old church hall?

Though I am loathe to be so vague with something that looms so large in my home, heart and bank statement, it’s a feeling. Less, “does this make my bum look big in this”, and more, “do I want the blueberry scone or the pain au chocolat today”. It’s smaller than “do I love them?”, but larger than “should I cut my hair?” It’s the difference between “I love this so much I have to have it, even though it’s dry clean only”, and “oh this is hand wash only, be gone from me Satan”. I find in books a kind of structure and safety, and yes spirituality, that some people find in science and others find in the deity of their choosing. It’s the spirit of my reading forebears at work in my fingers as I touch a cover, on my tongue as I say the title aloud, testing the way it reverberates in the room and in my soul. It’s the only problem I have with the world of Jean Luc Picard, the lack of books in his ready room. There is no ten point guide to buy or borrow, no crib note three step plan. It is purely and simply a feeling, deep in the soul.

And you should always pick the scone.

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