Not All Book Collections Are Made Equal

(If you think this entry might be boring, you can instead check out my review of the new Ike’s Place on Stanford campus at TUSB)

You might find many reasons to be in Portland, Oregon, but all friends, family, websites, travel books, and random strangers will recommend you go to Powell’s Books. Add blogs to that list because I’m telling you to go to Powell’s Books. Powell’s is like most independent bookstores you’ll go to: friendly, passionate employees, great deals on used books, local-specific sections, and an odd array of hard-to-find and esoteric books. Maybe about all that does make it special is that it’s big. City-block big.

I knew the recommendations were right when I saw the markings for multiple floors. Instead of a nook for general science, a whole range was dedicated to cognitive psychology. Although most sections couldn’t be investigated in the hour or two I had allocated, I did pay attention to the “food writing” and “history of food” section. My recent obsession with food and food writing drew me to “Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China.” It’s been so long since I have read regular literature, and I gobbled through it before I had even left town.

As regular readers know, I have been trying to pare down my worldly possessions, and acquiring books doesn’t fit well with that, especially of the throw-away variety as I treat most regular literature. I agonized quite a bit about this particular book but was suckered by the glitz of the country’s largest bookstore to buy something. In fact, I knew I probably wanted to get rid of the book as soon as I had finished reading it, probably by dumping it off on an unsuspecting friend who wouldn’t know the deadweight they would soon be responsible for. Wouldn’t that be amazing: a place to peruse interesting books, find exciting reads, get a book for long enough to read, then get rid of it for someone else to read? Please join me in lamenting how rare these places are.

You might be thinking I’m an idiot right now, but I can’t even begin to explain how different my attitude toward bookstores is from my attitude toward libraries. I love bookstores. When I’m walking around touristy commercial areas, I’m always on the look-out for one of 3 things: candy shops, toy stores, and bookstores. Every trip to a bookstore is a chance to discover all the knowledge and fun I don’t bother to make time for. I can see what’s new and exciting laid out as I step through the front door. And I know I want to make my way back to the general science or psychology and check out things there. I can easily find the bestsellers and sexiest reads without needing to troll through too much trash. Victory.

I haven’t been excited about libraries in a long time. Frankly, they’re hard to use. For me. And I think I understand the call number system and general library organization better than most people. Being on a college campus, I have been less than 5 minutes away from a bike at almost all times, and never have I been excited to find a book to read at Green Library. It’s scary. I don’t want to have to walk through stacks to find the books. I don’t know what DR books are in the Library of Congress call number system. It’s hard. I think there might be collections of good reads in one of reading rooms, but the complete silence in those is just as terrifying.

To feign a balanced judgment of the library, there are services I use. Chances are that I’m headed down to the Blockbuster-equivalent in the basement on any visit. It’s not the worst, though. If I’m in need of a break, I might drop in and pick up a copy of “Wired” or “Sports Illustrated” off of the wall of periodicals. That’s fairly inviting.

And to generalize this phenomenon, I went to the main library at Rice University the other day during a dead hour, hoping to find an interesting book or magazine to read. That was almost impossible. I entered on the main level and went over to the section with new books and periodicals. New books were a mess. There were a few shelves along one wall, organized by call number and without too much work to draw my attention to any particular books. Although I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed several of them, I scanned all of the shelves, and none of them screamed “must-read” to me. The periodicals were worse as your weekly magazines like “Time” and “US News & World Report” were also sorted into piles on ranges along with scientific and technical journals. I did not have the patience at all to look for anything good, especially trying to read the poorly printed labels on the side of the shelves. Only by finding the call number of a sports book I found in the new books section and going to the corresponding number in the periodicals did I find a copy of “Sports Illustrated” to sit down with.

I wanted to read something fun right then, and I couldn’t. In the Chapters I had visited 3 days before, I found 3 or 4 interesting books in less than a minute. At Rice, I wandered for at least 5 minutes hoping to find where I could find the presentable section and likely even longer before I got to the “Sports Illustrated.” Libraries: I want to borrow interesting books. Please make it easy for me. Sell me on your books like a bookstore will.

2 replies on “Not All Book Collections Are Made Equal”

You should be grateful that library books are free to borrow, for the general public and/or students. I hope libraries don’t turn into bookstores anytime soon, because I want to have access to free books, free CDs, free knowledge.

As you’ve probably noticed, libraries are not there to sell you their stuff; on the other hand, bookstores try hard to grab your attention and manipulate you into buying their books. That probably explains why you were so captivated by the layouts of the bookstore. Bookstores naturally put the bestsellers and “sexy stuff” on display so that they can lure you into buying them.

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