A book in the hand is worth…

“Do you get books every day?” my postman asked a few weeks ago, as the trickle of next year’s course-books turned into a steady daily flow. Final confirmation that I had passed the May exams meant that I could surge on and get a head start on my next line-up of courses. The first step? Trawl the dustiest corners of the Internet to find pre-loved textbooks at bargain prices.

If there’s one thing better than the smell of a new book, its the smell of an old book. Up until recently Dublin was graced with dozens of second-hand bookshops, full of unhurried browsers displaying the skill and patience of archaeologists as they unearthed rare tomes beneath the layers of popular titles. The slightly musty smell and layers of dust only added to the experience of a serendipitous discovery of a literary gem that was off-beat, out-of-print or worth a fortune. The piles of books stacked on staircases and under tables seemed chaotic, but were perfectly ordered to those who worked there: mention a title and they could slowly walk to a random box and pluck it from the bottom.

There are still some fine independent bookshops in the city, but, as elsewhere, many Dubliners do their book purchasing online. Love them or hate them, the huge online warehouses like Amazon can source almost anything with the click of a mouse. What they can’t do is recreate the pleasure of browsing and sense of possibility found in a higgledy-piggledy second-hand bookshop.

With second-hand books there’s always the mystery of the previous owner: a note in the margins, a handwritten dedication on the title-page or forgotten newspaper clipping tucked in the back. Last year I ordered a second-hand copy of James Rosenau’s The Scientific Study of Foreign Policy. What popped through the letterbox was an ex-library copy from Kennedy School of Government in Harvard. I can’t help wondering what movers-and-shakers in the political world have also read its pages.

Many ex-library books are available online through companies like Better World Books, who sell the donated copies to fund literacy projects. Whereas there is a certain amount of trust needed in buying through virtual bookshops – descriptions about quality can be a bit vague, like “good” or “acceptable” – the savings over new copies can be considerable. Also, if you are buying textbooks from your further reading lists, then it’s possible to choose an older (and cheaper) edition.

Of course, my weary postman could be spared the constant parcel deliveries if I used e-books. Unfortunately for him, I’m an unreformed pencil and paper reader, as I’ve admitted elsewhere on this blog. I know that an e-book reader would make my collection more portable and searchable, and that many classic texts are available for free, even from booksellers. Nevertheless I like the artifact and the physical sensation of reading pages and scribbling in the margins. I enjoy having books about the house and particularly love those moments when you glance at a bookshelf for inspiration and a title triggers something in your memory. A quick scour of the index later and your idea is developed and enriched.

I can’t imagine a similar experience with a Kindle. If your texts are tucked away in your device, chances are you’ll forget about some of them. Similarly if your products are tucked away behind pages of a website, chances are the customer won’t discover anything they weren’t looking for. That’s probably what draws me back to bookshops. A shopful of books – however disorganised – will reveal connected or complementary texts and ideas far easier than a browse online.

Hopefully the shelf full of books – also disorganised – beside my study desk can do the same thing: trigger connections and guide thoughts into new directions. As long as it does, postbags will continue to get heavier around August as more textbooks find a new home in Dublin.

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