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The [Heretofore-Unexamined] Privilege of Buying Books

A case for bargain book hunting.

The [Heretofore-Unexamined] Privilege of Buying Books

 

I think the first time I truly knew I was a certifiable book hunter was when I was in my elementary/primary years, when I would skip lunch, buy a meager Chiz Curls from my allowance, so that I can “splurge” on books from the money I saved by the end of the week. At the time, I didn’t even know that award-winning novels for teens/ young people existed. I consumed Sweet Valley High because they were cheap paperbacks that I can easily afford after starving myself for an entire week, and they served as my nourishment throughout that weekend, as I binge-read on two to three titles per day.

That is me poring over bargain books in Singapore’s Bras Basah Complex.

I did not grow up with nearby, well-stocked public libraries that provided me access to a diverse range of reading materials, from the classics to the more contemporary ones. I relied on cousins who would either have a collection of trashy paperback romance novels (which I also devoured, regardless of how inappropriate they were for a fifth-grader, yes I read Mills and Boone and Silhouette then) – or cousins who (thankfully) owned an extensive private collection of classics from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. My parents did purchase a set of encyclopedia at the time – but even that

At the Singapore Library Warehouse Sale in 2012.

was a considerable investment, as they needed to pay for those volumes in cash instalments. They figured it was a necessity as these were informational texts that can be used for school. However, I was left to my own devices and resourcefulness to figure out how to feed my hunger for recreational reading (aka fiction, fantasy, otherworldly, delicious novels). Picturebooks? BAH. I didn’t even know there are veritable art forms enclosed in gorgeous picturebooks until I had my own daughter.

When I was a college undergraduate, I spent a great deal of time in my university’s library. Never mind that the books were ancient, with yellowed pages, and are quite mouldy. That university library managed to introduce me to Jane Austen, D. H. Lawrence, Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Fyodor Dostoevsky. There was also a second hand, hole-in-the-wall book shop in my university’s shopping center at the time that would rent out

One of the many book sales here in Singapore.

books to students like me who can not afford to purchase their own reading materials. There I discovered Jude Devereaux and devoured a whole lot of Stephen King along with Umberto Eco and Boris Pasternak. 

When I finally got a job, buying books was still not a priority. It was really all about getting by, living from one paycheck to the next. I worked as a university lecturer at the time in one of our premiere universities in the Philippines, while simultaneously working as a research assistant in two research projects – and taking my PhD! Then I discovered this independent book store in Katipunan, Quezon City – I will never forget that place. It was called Pages and it was filled with books that were not ordinarily found in retail bookstores that specialized in bestselling novels and stationery more than anything else. This was where I attended my first poetry reading (and read aloud from one of my unbelievably-meandering and pretentious poem whose allusions are lost to everybody else impatiently waiting

Mandatory photo shoot outside Green Apple San Francisco in 2012.

for their turn). It was also where I discovered Paulo Coelho (back when he was not considered a snake-oil book charmer by high-brow literary friends – or perhaps he was always regarded as such? But I digress) and Salman Rushdie, Pablo Neruda, and Luis Cernuda. I had a reading journal where I would furiously copy down the poems that spoke to me, hoping to own them through that act of writing. I still could not afford these books despite the fact that I, technically, had three full time jobs. I had other, more pressing concerns to think about. So what I would do is spend hours and hours of free time I do not have in that book shop (there was no limit to how long you can stay), recline in one of their comfy couches, buy a cookie (which I can thankfully afford), and have that last for as long as I can read an entire book in one sitting. No, the booksellers did not chase me away. I think I had too much stars in my eyes, they didn’t have the heart to ask me to leave. It was my sanctuary.

What is clear from this experience is that purchasing books, especially brand new titles, is a privilege that very few people can truly afford. Yet I remembered making a decision as to whether to cut down on food money while I was pregnant to purchase that brand-new, hard-cover, glistening seventh book in the Harry Potter series: the book won, hands down. I know my priorities as an adult.

Fast forward to my time now here in Singapore over the past ten years. I went crazy over all the public libraries that are so unbelievably well-stocked, it was like I died and went straight to geek heaven. Then the bargain book shops! Oh me, oh my! So many book sales! Granted, I now have some resources to also purchase brand new titles, which I did, especially during the early years when I first haven’t discovered Bras Basah or other secret places to get books here in Singapore. The point is, it was still a matter of choosing between buying this book or that book instead of paying for something else that may be more fundamental, like, say, a pair of really sturdy shoes so that I wouldn’t go barefoot in an international conference as the straps of my sandals unmercifully gave up on me (true story: happened in Birmingham in 2015).

My personal library from my many book hunting expeditions.

We do have extended family members to support, bills to pay for trips that we don’t regret taking, among a billion other things. Thankfully, my husband is of a similar opinion that books are the only things you buy that make you richer and that the books we purchase are ultimately our investment (the only investment, at this point, actually). Life is simply too short to not be filled with the joy that books bring. I am no trust fund baby, far from it, but this, right here, is our trust fund for our own baby – the knowledge of the world about human nature and life, beauty and truth.

Hence, I am an unabashed bargain book hunter. The cheaper the books, the better for this book collector. When I scour for books in these bargain book bins – the distinction between the haves and have-nots is narrowed considerably as now the question becomes: who will be able to find the better books? But even that notion is loaded, because the definition of what is a good book ultimately varies not just on a person’s supposed literary taste (however unpalatable), but on a person’s need at a given point in time, in terms of what would resonate with them at a particular phase in their lives. So, I suppose my argument has more to do with access to books where previously there was none.

I totally understand the valid concerns raised as to how these ridiculously-bargain-priced brand new titles may, in the long run, be damaging to the entire ecosystem of book publishing. This was all explained to me by a writer-bookseller friend who very patiently pointed out that authors get only a fraction of the royalties (if at all) from such remaindered books as part of most publishing contracts. Hence, what usually happens is that readers get disadvantaged in the long run, as we see less diversity in publishing as publishers would then invariably invest on guaranteed huge names that are bound to become local or international bestsellers. Book selling is a business, after all, not some philanthropic initiative.

Add to that the dubious nature of some of these new players in the book market who may ultimately provide a disservice to authors (and everyone else in the book industry affected by this) who are also struggling to earn an honest living. These are all perfectly legitimate concerns, and I get that. I see the big picture too.

However, the book hunter in me also believes that these are questions that should be raised elsewhere in an official platform before these new players in the book market should even be ‘allowed’ to operate in the first place. The ‘legality’ of all this – is beyond my purview (above my pay grade, unfortunately), and should be answered by those whose job it is to investigate these kinds of things.

As for publishers banking only on big-

Book Hunting in Book Off, New York in 2014.

named authors and not supporting emerging, talented writers representing diverse voices – I am of the opinion, however naive (or misguided) it may be, that real talent will surface eventually. There are now multiple platforms to have these amazing voices heard – with multiple gatekeepers, as the market has expanded and diversified in a myriad of ways, for those who are strategic and bold enough to get their voices out there.

I also feel that those who hate on bargain book hunters are of the same ilk as those who hate on people who choose to patronize their libraries rather than buy books (assuming, of course, that you have well-stocked libraries where you live). It leaves a similar bad taste in the mouth, very much like what someone gets staying too long up on that impossibly high horse. Again, there is the implicit assumption that everyone can afford to buy and have access to these books. It is, once again, quite insidiously, a question of class, privilege, and possibly unexamined assumptions.

So, the question now is, what would have happened to me if I stopped myself from buying those bargain books

Book hunting in Bratislava.

because I am essentially contributing to the demise of the book industry, etcetera? What would I have said to that young, wide-eyed, emaciated version of myself in my early 20s, hungry for life-changing novels that would make me look up gasping, from the pages, wondering what is that beautiful thing that just happened ala Mary Oliver? Would I have ended up being the same person? I shudder at the very notion.

The point is buy brand-new books if your budget permits you, but never allow anyone to make you feel bad for being a bargain book hunter.

Allow me to end this unexpectedly-long reflective piece by citing from Neil Gaiman himself. Perhaps what I am unable to say, he does with equanimity, grace, and equal fervor.

Go forth and multiply, fellow book hunters. Allow them books to find their way into your hands.

 

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