Job Security 2: The Legend Lives On

Posted: July 21, 2008 in Uncategorized
  The Wall Street Journal  

July 17, 2008





If It’s Not by Tolstoy,
Hold On to Your Rubles
July 17, 2008; Page D5

When exactly did Barnes & Noble replace the public library?

I was shocked a couple of years ago when I learned a fellow worker with small children didn’t know where the neighborhood branch of the local public library was. Turns out any time his kids wanted a book, he went out and bought it for them. Same for his own reading.

Talk about extravagance.

Don’t get me wrong. Barnes & Noble runs fine stores. The people who work in them are pleasant and helpful. Barnes & Noble doesn’t mind if I read books in the store without buying them; it even provides chairs so I can do exactly that.

But at the end of the day, if I want to take that book home and cuddle up with it, I have to pull out my wallet. More times than not, that’s too deep a commitment for me.

My reluctance to buy books was pounded into me by my father. Ever since I was a little boy, we made regular visits to the library, where I would sate my reading passion of the moment. Robert Louis Stevenson’s works, the now largely forgotten Henry Ware novels of Joseph A. Altsheler, the Bruce Catton histories of the Civil War — I read them all.

Occasionally, my father would buy out-of-print books at a used-book store for a pittance. Howard Pease wrote a series of novels about life on a tramp steamer that were perfect for young readers. My father, who had spent a summer in the merchant marine as a messman himself, had read them, and he wanted us to read them. So he picked up used copies, one of which I still have.

But the vast majority of books we borrowed from the public library. We read them. And we returned them. Then other people read them. How’s that for efficiency.

Owning a book is a serious relationship. Once I’ve bought it, as a cheapskate, I feel obligated to read it — even if it turns out to be a dud. By contrast, many books I get from the library go unread. I get a few pages into them and realize I can’t stand the way the author writes. Or the topic simply doesn’t hold me. Back to the library it goes.

There are a couple of big exceptions to my reluctance to buy books. One is books — like the novels of Tolstoy and Willa Cather — that I have read over and over again. The other big exception is paperbacks. I read anywhere I can, and lugging hardbound library books on planes and trains is a drag. But even here, I often follow a penny-pinching approach.

In Dallas, where I’ve spent the past four years, I frequent a local used-book store that sells everything at half the list price. Then, when you’re done with the book, you sell it back to the bookstore at a quarter of the list price. Bottom line: Your total transaction cost per book is only a dollar or two, well worth the convenience.

Of course, if you’re a real hard-core cheapskate, you can go a step further and check out many paperbacks at the library and pay nothing at all. But that eliminates one of my favorite extravagances on long trips: leaving the book on the plane when I’m done.

Write to Neal Templin at neal.templin@wsj.com6


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