Sneaky, Sneaky Book Thieves: A Post about YOU!
Did you know that borrowing books is stealing from the author? So declared a certain writer I'm not going to name, since I occasionally swim in the book blogosphere's more barracuda-infested waters and I don't want her to get attacked. But I do want to give the idea itself more consideration.
If an author told you that borrowing books instead of buying them is theft, what would your first reaction be? I was totally rubbed the wrong way, and I buy a lot of books. Perhaps it rubbed me the wrong way because I buy a lot of books.
Another point the Authors' Club should consider when making me their Reader of the Year is that I tend to be a little averse to libraries. I've had too many experiences of borrowing a library book, loving it enough to want my own copy, and then being torn between buying the copy for its own sake (which would be extravagant) and deciding to be thrifty (which would break my obsessive bibliomaniac heart). Granted, this doesn't matter too much: the author who inspired this post doesn't consider librarians to be enablers of theft, inasmuch as they have to pay (more?) for the books they put into circulation.
In recent years, I've started splitting my shopping between the stores which sell them new and used bookstores or rummage sales. (Inasmuch as the latter two don't give writers a cut of the resale profits, does this mean I've also started stealing?) After I downloaded the free Kindle app, I began filling it up with exactly two titles I paid full price for and a bunch of free ebooks, which were either classics or on special when I stumbled into them. (Is this also thievery?) What I've never done is to download an illegal copy of a book. (Phew! =P)
In short, I give a lot of money to authors, with only some used books and Amazon freebies blotting my perfect record!
Oh, wait . . . That wouldn't be right if it turns out that all the books I just borrowed from family and friends count as stolen reading, would it?
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Now, I do see why borrowing a friend's book so that you don't have to buy your own copy can be as bad as actually reproducing a copy of a friend's album also so that you don't have to buy your own. It doesn't matter that you don't have the physical book around to reread at your leisure, because we don't enjoy recorded music and written literature in the same way. The reasoning is: once you've read a text, you've become the possessor of something only a rightful owner should have.
Yet note that there are two ways to become the rightful owner of something: by exchanging your labour or the fruits of your labour for it . . . or by receiving it as a gift from the one who made the original exchange. But what this means is that, theoretically, a book can go through a dozen owners in a decade. Do we say that they are cheating the system of ownership the way serial marriage cheats the system of monogamy?
And what are we to do about the fact that particular physical copies of books are their owner's private property? Should there be a law that anyone who sells a book at a garage sale give must the author a cut of the profits? What happens when the book is merely bartered for something else of perceived equal value? Or when the book is entangled in another business transaction, such as a physician keeping a small book nook in his waiting room . . . or a family-run B&B letting guests have the run of the library . . . or a book blogger letting a lucky contest winner choose a prize from his personal collection? =P
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Believe it or not, I am sympathetic to this author's view. I heartily agree that a lot of people these days feel entitled to get stuff for free, just because they're interested in it. This goes for books, music, movies, TV series, and anything that can be cheaply pirated. And that really is unfair to everyone who worked hard to produce media of a certain quality.
And yet I'm still rubbed the wrong way, the main reason being that borrowing and lending books is a great part of the literary culture the author was born into and is writing in. Anyone who likes reading has borrowed at least one book (if not dozens) from its rightful owner; and anyone who has loved one particular book has probably lent it to one other (if not more). This cultural phenomenon is practically a tradition now, having been handed down through several book-loving generations. And it's much older than the author who thinks it is theft.
You could argue that "everybody" doing something doesn't make it right--and ironically, the "democracy of the dead" would probably agree with you--but I still wonder why this has been made about morality instead of accepted as a reality of doing business. It does seem to me that the entitlement is going both ways.
This particular author aside, however, certain marketing tactics by publishers seem to indicate that others have accepted that reality and have found creative ways around it. Take the cover redesign. Who knew that repackaging what is essentially the same book would be so effective? As far as I can see, readers tend to have mixed reactions toward this strategy: most interestingly, those who are most miffed are the ones who actually bought the books with the original covers! It has led to some saying, "I'll just borrow them now and buy them when the better covers come out" . . . which, now that we see it in the light of this topic, is not the reaction but the cause. (Maybe the author who inspired this post should have a cover redesign clause in her next publishing contract.)
Finally, I can't help putting a Last Psychiatrist spin on this, so please bear with me . . . What if the great cultural tradition of book borrowing has become, in our times, a symptom of a very real problem? I refer to the normalisation of credit--by which I don't just mean economic credit (which lets us have what we cannot afford), but also psychological credit (which lets us feel self-esteem that we do not deserve). Think of a woman who buys an expensive designer handbag with every intention of returning it to the store, just so she can fit in for one day among women who can afford such handbags. She's trying to be one of them, but since she can't back it up with something real, she's just a poser. Perhaps those of us who can't afford to buy books (and aren't lucky enough to inherit them) should just accept our lower socio-economic standing and stop posing as real book lovers. =P
I could go on and on with more of my thoughts on the issue, but I think it's time to welcome others into the discussion. Please let me know your thoughts in the combox!