We live in strange times. Work hours are increasing, pay is stagnating and in places all over the country (particularly Boston) rents are shooting up. Living space is at a premium, and only getting more premium-y with each passing year. In these terrible times laden with both Fear and Loathing, where a college education has morphed before our eyes from a ticket to the middle class into a modern day feudal contract, where the average life has less and less space in it for artsy distraction, what books are even worth keeping?
If there’s a definitive answer for this, I don’t know it. If anyone who claims they do they’re likely an English undergrad who hasn’t read enough to know what they’re talking about or worse, a stuffy armchair academic whose definition of literature has narrowed with age. Quite frankly, History has produced too many books for anyone to try and make a definitive list of “good books.” There’s simply not enough space in a single life to read them all and find out which ones are “worth keeping.”
The most serious attempt at this I ever encountered came from the Yale Professor (and resident king of stuffy academic types) Harold Bloom in his book The Western Canon. That thing has a list of like 3,000 “essential” Western literary works and even that one ends somewhere in 1991 with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (excellent play, btw). This list doesn’t even take into account things like historical works, scientific scholarship, journalism or whatever other genre of reading you’re into that isn’t literature. Not to mention all the amazing writers that came after the book was written (big ups to David Foster Wallace, Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers and George Saunders).
That’s the beauty of books. There’s so damn many of them that any collection you amass of any size is unique to you. You get to make the choice as to what books are “worth keeping.” What books are worthy of space in your soul, of the irreplaceable minutes of your life that are burnt up in their enjoyment.
I’m not going to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t read. Any second-string writer on a brand-new blog that writes with that kind of moral authority has just the right amount of sociopathic narcissism to go into politics. Read whatever genre you want, read as much as your free time allows, buy as many books as fit in your shelves. Whatever books you end up picking, they’re going to come in one of two forms. Hardcover or softcover.
Option One: Hardcover
Hardcover books look amazing, whether on a shelf or a coffee table. They’re covers don’t bend if dropped, and they withstand the elements slightly better than your typical mass market paperback. That being said, they’re heavy as hell. Heavy and expensive. Even at the cheapest thrift shop, a hardcover is going to run you two to three bucks more than its softcover cousin. That cost and that weight, that space a hardcover book inherently takes up, should not be taken up lightly. A hardcover book you pick up should be a book that’s important to you. A book that changed you. Your favorite book from tenth grade English class. A book with a line that’s stuck with you and no matter how much time has passed, shines through the detritus of memory, with the timeless brilliance of some half-buried jewel. Your hardcover books are with you for the long haul. You carry them with you from old home to new home just as the things they contain stay with out as go from old stages of life to new. If you’re going to carry the damn things around for so long, at least make sure all that weight means something.
Option Two: Softcover
Softcover books, for all they lack in sturdiness and that fancy “my apartment smells like rich mahogany” aesthetic Ron Burgundy taught us to appreciate, are wonderfully cheap. Ranging from like eighteen dollars brand new to as low as less than dollar at certain thrift stores, softcover books are the way to experience the books you’ve always wanted to read, but damned if you were paying the fifteen bucks those highwaymen at Border’s were demanding. That literary classic you always knew you should have read but never got around to? Get in paperback. That book with the fascinating cover but unknown author that catches your eye on the shelf? Get it. That bestseller two years ago that Harper’s and The Atlantic gushed over and then never mentioned again? Get it in paperback! Books are an investment. In money and time. In space and weight. A paperback offers you the chance to maximize your literary enjoyment at minimal cost, and when you’re done with it, donate it and spread the joy a little bit! Or if you like it enough, snag yourself a copy in hardcover. Its author will thank you.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You’ve perused the typings of some random jagoff trying to put his English degree to good use (I’m doing it, Mom!) to the tune of 800 words. All to highlight a simple point: when buying a book, make sure it’s worth it. What makes a book worth it is up to you. You decide if it’s of the right size, form, price and quality. Your books reflect you, your values, the formative ideas and quotations of your life up to this very point. So they should matter. Be it paperback or hardback, light or heavy, a book should take up weight and space in your life, so long as it earns that space. And when you find the right book, no matter how heavy it is, no matter where you take it, you’ll find its weight won’t be a burden at all.
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