On January 26, 2006, in Culture, by peterb

I used to like buying books. Now I like giving them away.

Once upon a time — the story began — I had an empty shelf and very few books. Ah, the innocence of youth: I enjoyed buying books. I enjoyed reading them, and putting them on my shelf for all the world, or at least the part of the world that visited my apartment, to see. How clever, how sophisticated, how worldly! Look! Thomas Pynchon! This man has read Thomas Pynchon, or at least has his books on his shelf, which amounts to the same thing.

But the worm turns, and with age comes wisdom. And now, I am giving many of my books away.

Through hard experience I have, over the years, come to learn a few things:

  • Most of the books you read, you in fact only want to read once.
  • Not every book you buy is one you want to keep on your shelf for the world to see.
  • In fact, now that I’m older, I no longer give a damn what the world thinks of my bookshelf, and that copy of Mason & Dixon takes up a lot of space and is awfully heavy.
  • I always want to read a book more when I am reading about it on than I do when I actually open the package and look at it.
  • It turns out there is this strange building in many cities where they have lots of books that you can borrow, for free. And then when you’re done reading the book, they take it back.
  • If you have a lot of books, and you ever change apartments or houses, you will wish you were illiterate.

So for a long time now, I have basically slowed my acquisition of new books to a trickle. This still leaves the problem of how to get rid of the many, many, many books that I have but didn’t want. You’d think this would be easy, but I have a neurosis that makes this hard. You see, I cannot throw a book away.

I mean, of course, a book that is in good condition. If it’s water damaged, or ripped up, that’s one thing. But if it’s in good condition, and readable, I cannot put it in the garbage, damage it, burn it, harm it, or through inaction allow the book to come to harm. Harlequin romance? Sorry. Can’t throw it away. Crappy endless fantasy series with pathetic wish-fulfillment freudian plot treatment (and yes, Robert Jordan, I am in fact looking at you)? Can’t throw it away. The collected speeches of George W. Bush? Well, OK, maybe I could throw that one away. But that’s the exception that proves the rule.

I blame Ray Bradbury, and that I read Fahrenheit 451 as an impressionable youth, for this neurosis.

I tried bringing my books to the library and donating them, but they didn’t want them. I briefly considered just shoving them through the night-deposit slot and making them suffer, but I decided that would be ethically bankrupt. I tried to sell the books for a penny apiece to the local used bookstore, but they weren’t accepting new books.

So I had given up on getting rid of any of these books for a while. But recently, the perfect storm of a neat application and a neat internet service has allowed me to free myself from bondage to my paper masters.

The application is Delicious Library, which allows you to scan the UPC symbols on books, movies, games, and other media using the webcam or iSight on your Macintosh (or, if you don’t have one, to just type in ISBN numbers). Once scanned, it fetches an image of the work from amazon, along with lots of other metadata, and lets you organize them and keep track of whom you have loaned items to. It’ll remind you when you should ask for them back. It’ll let you organize little virtual shelves, take notes, rate items. It’s very pretty, and very slick, and I liked playing with it.

Now, most people might use Delicious Library to keep track of what they have and want to keep. I use it to keep track of what I want to get rid of. In addition to the aforementioned abilities, each item also has a convenient “Sell on Amazon” button, so if you have an amazon seller account, it’s dead simple to list a lot of items.

At the same time I obtained Delicious Library, I also heard about Paperback Swap on NPR. The idea is one that has been pursued by others before: list books you want to get rid of, order books you want to obtain. Members send each other books directly, the sender paying the postage cost ($1.59 in most cases). The site provides convenient address labels for each “order” as PDFs, and if the book is small enough you can typically mail it without even using a storebought envelope — just wrap it in the printed PDF label.

Most of the other services I’ve seen like this charge a “service fee,” which makes them not terribly interesting. At least for now, there are no fees associated with beyond paying for postage. I’ve so far managed to get about 16 books I didn’t want shipped to other people, and have many more listed. The odd book that I’ve sold on Amazon has covered the postage. As an added bonus, I’ve managed to pick up a small number of books that I actually do want on my shelf (Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, in addition to being a great read, is also wonderfully slim and light, you see). But for me, it’s not really about getting new books. It’s about getting rid of the books I don’t want in a guilt-free manner.

My total workflow, now is: pick the books I want to get rid of. Scan them into a group in Delicious Library. Set a reminder for 60 days from now, so that anything I haven’t managed to sell or trade can (“in theory”) be thrown away guilt-free. List the books on Amazon and Paperbackswap. If it sells or trades on either site, delist it from the other.

Here’s the list of books I currently have listed on the site. If you want any of them, feel free to send me email asking for it. If you decide to sign up for paperbackswap yourself, you can say you were referred by paperbackswap – at – They’ll give me a book “credit” for your trouble.

Book list

I should note that psu makes fun of me for this whole thing on a daily goddamn basis. His latest threat is to create an e-commerce site on which you can obsessively list all the books you own but don’t want, and then every so often the site will send you an email for one of them, telling you “Throw this book away already, you dope.”

To be perfectly honest, I might sign up for that.


9 Responses to “Criss-Cross”

  1. Thomas says:

    The used bookstore wouldn’t take them? I thought that was the point of a used bookstore?

    That’s the only way I can keep my collection under control, is to stay in a constant buy/sell churn cycle with McKay’s Books.

  2. Ever heard of bookcrossing ? Sounds like a perfect way to “dispose” of your books.
    (sorry, no link; the obvious site seems to be down at the moment).

  3. XtinaS says:

    I suppose it’d depend on the kind of book, for me. I like having certain reference books on-hand just in case, even if I don’t use them all the time, so that if I need it, I can just grab it and go. No trucking to the library to hope they have a copy of this one book I need right now.

    On the other hand, I’m remembering some essay I read ages ago, where the writer was like, “Why in the hell do we display these things for everybody, instead of, yknow, putting them in drawers?” And I still want bookdrawers.

  4. Tim F says:

    I need those books. They provide the seed for the Tim Ferro Presidential Library.

  5. Ok, so is there a free PeeCee clone version of Delicious Library? Buy software? Sacrilige.

    My favorite used bookstore is Bookworm in Boulder, CO. I must be lucky, because when ever I do a used book run, they accept 95% of my books. (BW only gives you store credit when you sell books, which works for me.) Things like hardcover versions of released paperbacks are always a nonstarter.

    Was it Half Priced Books, the Dallas based chain, that did not want your books? I never knew they bought stuff until I heard a commercial over the holidays. According to their FAQ, they actually quote you a prices for everything you bring in. You do not have to take anything back. I have only been in the store out in Robinson once. I was not impressed with the SF paperback selection.

  6. Will C says:

    I know Half Price Books pretty well, and the thing is, the selection varies widely from store to store. They get certain shipments of books, remainders, hardcovers of books now in paperback, trades, overstock, some academic titles and stock fed in from other locations.

    But a given Half Price derives a lot of what is on the shelf from what is sold to the store. The one nearest me is close to a great private university and several medical schools. Their particular stock is quite good, in SF and medical texts, for example. But best stuff flies off the shelf, so you have to be lucky. A crappy fantasy series might linger on and on.

    Also remember that these are the books someone decided to sell. I only sell books that I feel vaguely crappy about owning.

    Yes, Half Price”ll pretty much take anything from you. You may not get much (at all) for some things, but they’ll take it away. Closely linked; they sell books by the foot.

    A buddy of mine worked at their flagship store in Dallas, it was some time ago, so that’s my source for this.

  7. benjamincerf says:

    Used book stores will only buy books that they think they can sell. After your 60 days are up, instead of just throwing your books away (which makes me uncomfortable, too), you might try donating them to Good Will or Salvation Army. They take pretty much anything, and you can write it off as a tax deductable donation.

  8. Will C, which location of Half Price Books is that? Not all the locations are listed on their web site.

  9. I’d like to nab The Road to Wellville — Can I just paypal you the shipping?

    A grad student in lit must have books –