Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Value of a Book: Or, Why I'm Not an Economist

While coming up with the list of good reads for avid and early readers in the post below, I was surprised and depressed to see that a book I paid a dollar for is actually worth about $50.

Why depressed? First, since I don't wish to sell the book, its "actual value" is irrelevant to me. Maybe even negatively relevant, since knowing the 5-year-old is using a sneaker as a bookmark in a book worth $50 instead of $1 is likely to tempt me to scold her unduly or even forbid her to read the book except under controlled conditions.

Second, the point of a book is to be read. Scarcity and high cost--linked issues of course--cause a book to fail to achieve its proper end. I want my friends and I to read good books and to give them to our children, and this is better done if the book is cheap and available.

A week ago, at our local Goodwill store, I spotted a book with a familiar spine tossed into the bins of books-to-be-shelved. (These bins, by the way, cause the destruction of about one in five books thrown--literally--into them by the store employees, and are an abomination upon the earth.) It turned out to be the rarest of all the old Landmark history series, The Exploits of Xenophon, in pristine condition (it was at the top of the bin). I knew, from past attempts to find a copy, that its value was between one and two hundred dollars. Even so I haggled with the cashier who tried to charge me $3 for it--sure it was in the Hardcover bin, but children's books are only supposed to be $1--being the petty miserable creature that I am.

So what is the "actual value" of that book? Or any book? Other than books of genuine (yes, I'm question-begging here) historical value as objects in themselves, I hold that a book's value is in the worthiness of the story it tells, augmented by the physical beauty of the book in its illustrations and (to a lesser degree) its outward attractiveness, with a bonus for physical durability, in the case of children's books (thus the happy circumstance that library bindings, which destroy the value of books for collectors, mean that cheapness and durability go hand in hand.) When I bought Flossie and Bossie, I thought it underpriced at $0.99: though not in the best condition, it's a book of high story quality, suitable for the children of even quite puritanical parents, and illustrated by a talented artist. A bargain, I thought: why, I would have paid $2.99 or even $3.99 for it.

Obviously I would like others to have access to a good book, in the interest of increasing the reading of worthy and valuable books. This requires availability and affordability (linked issues of course). A $50 book is not those, and will not be read by those who ought to read it, leaving the world worse off. A sane person who has acquired a rare and excellent book (I know Xenophon's quality from having checked it out from the Big State U. library for Offspring #1, who raved about it--and checking it out wasn't easily done, either, as the BSU library people knew how much it was worth) for $1 should surely wish it reprinted and available, even at a theoretical "cost" to herself of $199. A sane person should happily put it in the hands of a child old enough to enjoy the exciting true-life adventure story of Xenophon's Persian Expedition, without fretting that it will be put back on the bookshelf a week later less $50 of "value."

To the Darwins: Should I find another copy of Flossie and Bossie at a price worthy of a sane world, I will happily show my contempt for the Market by giving it, free, to your beautiful and precociously reading daughter.

On the condition you let her write her name in it. In pen.


Blogger mrsdarwin said...


I love the story of bargaining down the price of Xenophon. Maybe I'm just living vicariously since we missed the library book sale (it conflicted with the baptism, dontcha know, and we couldn't miss that).

6:49 AM  

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