Ten enemies of books, #10: Selfishness

It’s hard to define selfish behaviour, when it comes to books.

If you go into a library and steal a copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Thing, you deny your fellow citizens access to that book. Also, the library then has to go and buy another copy and libraries as a general rule don’t have a lot of spare money. Then they can’t buy some other book that would have enriched their collection, like Inspector Biffen Views the Body.(1) I’d say that’s pretty clear-cut selfishness.

Likewise, people who vandalise books in public collections, or rip out valuable illustration plates to sell for personal profit (or just to keep, for personal pleasure) — selfish.

If you go into a bookshop and steal a book, it means the bookseller, publisher and author are done out of sales. (Or if you download a digital copy for free somehow). We’ve all heard about the current struggles of the publishing and bookselling industries, and the knock-on effects for authors. If none of them can make a living by writing and selling books, it could mean (at some point) no more books, or at least a lot less — then we all lose.

But then fingers are pointed at outmoded business models, price fixing, draconian digital rights management agreements and so on. There are grey areas, and accusations of selfishness on both sides. (Sometimes authors & publishers are accused of selfishness for not providing everything they produce for free! I don’t know about you, but I don’t work for free. Well, except for all that volunteer work I did for my professional organisation, but I had another job for food at the time, at least.)

I’m very happy to buy my books. I buy quite a lot of books. However, I’m also not averse to borrowing (and lending) books, buying books on sale or buying books in second-hand book shops. In the first instance, no money is changing hands, though I could argue that I’m promoting the author by lending my copy around to friends, which could translate to future sales. But sometimes I don’t lend my books because I don’t trust you not to put your sticky fingers all over it or lose it or something. Generally my nicer hardbacks. Selfish!

Though some money is changing hands in the second and third instances, much less is making its way to publisher and author. Also, if I’m buying online (hellooo Book Depository and Abebooks dot com!) it has been argued that I’m making it much harder for local publishers and booksellers to survive. Perhaps I’m being “somewhat selfish”, by balancing my own financial situation against that of everyone else involved.

Then there’s the backlash against academic publishers, who get their content for free (from all those professionals who have to publish in order to retain their jobs) but who charge exorbitant fees for average citizens (and libraries and universities) to access that content — which seems doubly unfair, given that a lot of the research they publish is government-funded.(2)

The net result of all this brazen selfishness, moderate selfishness and not-quite-selfishness is damaged books, fewer books and/or reduced access to books and all that they contain. To be honest, except in the case of vandalism, the actual physical book itself is probably quite happy to be neglected. That is, unless you ascribe anthropomorphic tendencies to them in the way we do with soft toys — if it’s not being loved or used, then it’s being denied its true purpose and is deeply unhappy! Actually, I’m not sure if you can be anthropomorphic about books, seeing as they aren’t actually animals. Anyway, if no one can get at it, all its pages remain clean and unmarked and free from hamburger stains, which is a good thing from a conservator’s perspective. But even I have to admit that there’s not much point in having a book if you can’t read it. (Like cake — there’s no point in having cake if you can’t eat it, what a stupid phrase that is). Though I would prefer them to be handled in a manner that ensures others can later enjoy the same pleasures as you.

Now, we’re all a bit selfish; as “they” say, “you gotta look out for number one” because “no one else will”. (Except for libraries, they are awesome and selfless no arguments thank you very much). But perhaps we could all try a little harder to support the word, to spread the word and to ensure the word survives in good condition.

A bunch of books I bought. Well, except for Bloom County Babylon, I stole that from my Dad. Note: Placement of empty cereal bowl is not professionally recommended.


1. This is a fictional book by fictional author Rex West, which appears in a P G Wodehouse novel, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit. See also Murder in MauveThe Case of the Poisoned Doughnut and The Mystery of the Pink Crayfish.

2. Harvard University is making a bit of stand and asking scientists to publish their work in open-access journals, as it can no longer afford the subscriptions to large journal publishers.