Building a library

Sometime in the last year I realized that there was something fundamentally wrong with my reading habits. I am an enthusiastic user of both my public library and my university library, and whenever I needed something serious, weighty, and old these sources never failed me. I never really had a lot of money to spend on buying books, so I generally bought them at Christmas time when people gave me gift cards—this was my light reading for the year, consisting of the recent SFF bestsellers that always had long wait lists at the library. In other words, I was buying ephemera and borrowing classics. Not a strategy that makes a whole lot of sense, in general.

Recently I’ve been trying to turn this around. Rather than buying every new Jim Butcher book when it comes out in paperback and reading it once, I’m looking for hardcovers that I will get some mileage out of. Now my light reading, when I have time for it, is stuff I’ve picked out from used bookstores, and it’s generally a lot higher quality than the recent commercial SFF I had been reading. I’m beginning to actually assemble my own library, and thinking about it this way changes my priorities slightly.

Here are my recent acquisitions:

  • The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, trans. Florio
  • Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe
  • Complete Plays and Sonnets of Shakespeare, in 2 vols
  • Four Plays, Ibsen
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard
  • Embassytown, China Mieville
  • The Norton Anthology of English Literature, in 2 vols
  • Contact, Carl Sagan
  • Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
  • Modern Canadian Plays, vol. 1, ed. Wasserman

I got the Montaigne from Burton Lysecki Books, a very nice used book shop on south Osborne. What I like about used bookstores is that you get lasting classics, which are generally in high-quality bindings in relatively good condition. You will never find a good hardcover of Montaigne’s essays in a new bookstore in Winnipeg. You could find one in a library, but not in a one-volume edition. This was a very nice find that could last a long time.

Embassytown is the only one of these I bought new—I got it as a bargain book from Chapters for $7. The one I got was labelled as an autographed copy. It is indeed autographed, but whether it’s by China Mieville or not I can’t tell. This does fall in the category of recent commercial SF, but that’s not always a bad thing. China Mieville really is a great writer, and I expect at least some of his work to last.

I read the Tom Stoppard play a few weeks ago and it is a delight. It was small and fit easily in the bag, so even though it wasn’t in the best condition and may not last very long, it was worth it.

Some of the others (Sagan, Wolfe) seem like odd choices, but that’s explained by the fact that I got them from library sales. Library sales have books in surprisingly good condition, but you usually don’t find a lot of good stuff. For $5 you get to fill a bag, and there’s not a bag’s worth of timeless classics on the table. There is, however, a bag’s worth if you include reasonably good books that you expect to get some enjoyment out of and may read again. The Ibsen and Wasserman are both odd choices. Though Ibsen has been on my list for a year now, I’ve never read or seen anything of his, and I’ve never even heard of any of the authors in the Canadian Plays collection. But collections like these are always a good choice. They give you a more or less wide variety of literature that more or less guarantees there’ll be something you’ll like or at least something worth reading.

This also explains the Norton Anthology. It’s a combined 4000 pages of everything from mediaeval English epics to Dylan Thomas and includes theological satires, scientific treatises, and the curious style of howlingly retarded literary criticism that flourished in the mid-20th century. It has essentials from people like Donne, Burton, and Browne but also includes some oddballs I would never have come across on my own, like John Skelton.

As you can see I’ve violated Mark Twain’s first rule of library building, but I’ve also been meaning to read Jane Austen for a while. If nothing else I want to expand the number of women authors I’ve read, but I’ve been told I’d probably like Austen and I’m in a place in my life where I’m more receptive to romance-type literature than I was a few years ago. Definitely the best find, however, is the Shakespeare: a complete collection of some of the most important works ever written in English. The hardcovers have been around a bit, but they’re sturdy.

I’m checking up on the library sales around Winnipeg because the prices are just irresistible. I still need a good dictionary, which is a surprisingly hard thing to find used. Any advice on the library-building adventure?

ETA: Since I first wrote this post, I’ve been back to library sales several times. Here are some more recent acquisitions:

  • Tolstoy, War and Peace. The Great Books edition, surprisingly compact (to the point that I wasn’t convinced it was the full text at first). Never read it, but it is a widely acknowledged as a classic so there must be something to it.
  • Sacks, Seeing Voices. Something I just happened to pick up because it was there. Oliver Sacks is a neurologist who has written about various brain disorders. He also put out a book on music cognition that I’d love to read someday.
  • Canada’s Lost Plays (4 vols). A collection of very obscure but historically significant Canadian drama. Volume four includes the text of Colas et Colinette, the first Canadian opera. I know this because one of my history professors once studied it in depth and prepared a critical edition of it.
  • The Oxford Book of English Verse. Includes everyone you’d expect (with a lot of overlap with the Norton Anthology), but also has some very obscure names indeed. A gigantic book. I may never read it all the way through, but I will never again be at a loss for English poetry.
  • Writings of Leon Trotsky. I haven’t read any communist or Marxist literature, actually (unless you want to count Adorno). I just picked this up because it looks like something that will last a long time. Could be interesting reading.
  • Murder at Belly Butte and other tales from the RCMP. Some Canadian history in a format that should be entertaining.
  • Modern Canadian Poetry (modern=ca. 1930). I really feel I should get in touch with the literary history of my country. If I don’t, who else will?
  • Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Read it, but didn’t own a copy. I actually picked up three of these because they had like seventeen paperbacks of it in like-new condition. You never know.
  • The Good News New Testament and Psalms. There’s something barbaric about leaving off half the Bible in this way. But the book looks nice and it’s fairly small, so I’ll take it.
  • Burger, ed. Sources for Western History (in 2 vols). An amazing anthology that manages to cram important literary works, historical documents, and pictures of artifacts from ancient times to present day into two very manageable volumes. This is a history education in itself.
  • Davis, Man-made Catastrophes. Self-evident. Contains what look to be fairly detailed historical accounts and illustrations. A fairly big book, the kind you leave out for company to flip through.

Image credit: Peter Halasz, CC Sharealike-Attribution 2.5.

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