I have somewhere between 500- 600 books. I don’t think that’s excessive because those are acquisitions over a 60 year period, if you count the Dr. Seuss I had when I was a kid. I’ve probably lost or tossed an equal number in that same time period, including those same Dr. Seuss which, boy, do I regret now. Five hundred to six hundred is probably the average number of books the average reader has at any given moment. I don‘t have anything to base that on other than my own and friends’ experiences. If you’re up in the 1000 book plus arena then wow, you are a book god and where do you put it all? I have an 1800 square foot house and stack books on top of dresser drawers. Which isn’t good for them. I’d buy more bookshelves but furniture acquisition is exclusively a wife province, and she thinks end tables are far more important. I have enough end tables to complement ten or twenty couches. Maybe I should stack the books there.
I used to buy books on the recommendation of hype/bestseller lists/advertisements, which is all basically hype. After getting burned on a few of those titles (I’m looking at you, Chesapeake), I stopped doing that. I buy/acquire books that (a) have some special interest to me or (b) I know I’ll read again. Or want to read again. Those fall into three general categories:
A. Nostalgia- these are books from my youth or address subjects from my youth and/or lifelong wanderings. A good example is the dreadfully titled The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox, Jr, an egregiously racist book about the Civil War written around 1910 that I read when I was in the hospital for a kidney ailment when I was 12 or 13. In 1910. Kidding, it was 1967 or 1968. At the time, the story of a southern orphan who defies his friends and culture to join the Union Army was quite compelling. Today, meh, not so much. All that egregious racism is a bit of a turnoff. But I still read it from time to time. Books set in LA- lower Alabama- or south Jersey are in the same category. Any place, actually, that I have memories of, fond or otherwise. Like anything by Richard Russo.
B. Non-fiction- usually histories, but I do have a couple of Steven Pinker’s because the brain, man, and some physics books because, the universe, man. Associated with those are historical fiction books about the period of interest, like all these Neal Stephenson’s that I have. Nothing like historical fiction to humanize history, although some non-fiction histories are compelling stories in their own right. I also buy books about books.
C. Anthologies- science fiction and fantasy, mostly, but short stories, too, if they cover a period or place of interest. These are collections of the stories I devoured in the 70s and 80s and if I run across a Gardner Dozois or Robert Silverberg compilation somewhere I snatch it right up, first edition, book club edition, reprint, don’t care, I want the stories they carry. I do have some more recent anthologies like ones that Neil Clarke puts out but those are of secondary interest to the classics. I don’t know what it is but newer scifi stories leave me a little cold. They feel like ‘been there, done that,’ although some are pretty good. But I’d rather read Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain for the hundredth time than anything by Ken Liu.
So where do I buy my books? No, not Amazon, not even Barnes and Noble. That’s because they don’t present a challenge. They’re sure things; if you don’t see what you want on the shelf, then ask for it and, presto, book sent to you. How boring. I treat book buying as a treasure hunt, the joy of stumbling across a remembered book or an intriguing story never hoid of before. That’s fun, that’s the rush of book collecting. I look for those hidden nuggets here:
A. Thrift stores. Yeah, I’m cheap, because spending $30 for a brand new hyped book that the Bryn Mawr graduates living on the west side of New York rave about is like buying a new end table. Besides, you can find out-of-print and first and second editions of some excellent books there. I once found a signed copy of How the Irish Saved Civilization in a Goodwill. A first edition. Man.
B. Used book stores. Specifically, one, Blue Plate Books in Winchester, VA which I am not allowed to enter because I spend all the end table money there and walk out with about 10-15 books that I now have to find a place to stack. The owner, Pat Saine, has exquisite taste and you are going to find gems here, pure gems.
C. Yard sales. Meh. Not so much. I’m not a yard sale guy but occasionally am dragooned into driving the van and providing labor for the transfer of end tables from a yard sale back to my house. And if I’ve got to muscle end tables into the living room then, by God, I’m getting a couple of books at the same yard sale to stack on them.
I once went to a book auction, specifically Larry McMurtry’s Last Book Sale in August 2012. I’ve got a fairly detailed blog post about it, if you’re interested. The Last Book Sale | (dustyskull.com).
These are great places for older books and has-beens, so how do I get briefed on new releases and what’s happening now? Best seller lists? God no.
The library, of course.