Giving Away 'The Story of Civilization'

What book downsizing stories do you have to share?

January 19, 2015

This weekend I gave away The Story of Civilization.

These books have followed me over 3 states, 4 moves, and the raising of 2 children. Every year I mean to crack into the 11 volume set. Each year I failed. I had purchased the full series at a used bookstore (for maybe $100 bucks) back in 1997, and it has sat on my bookshelf ever since.  

The Story of Civilization went to our local used bookstore, Encore Books. I had hoped to get some money (or consignment) for the books, but the Encore people told me that they already have a complete set that they have never been able to sell. I'm hoping that by giving the books to Encore that they will price them low enough so that they find a good home. Or maybe they will do the work to sell the books on Amazon, where prices range from $81 to $370.

Have you been through a book downsizing project? In the past month I've given boxes and boxes of wonderful, precious, and life changing books to the Encore bookshop. These were books collected through graduate school and my first years of teaching. Books on sociology, demography, economic history, social psychology, and much else. These are books that had great value to me as helping define my intellectual makeup, but apparently very little value in the commercial market.

Our book downsizing project has been brought about by a planned move. We have 1 kid going to college next year, the 2nd in 2015. We are ready to downsize.  

I have the intuition that large numbers of book buying people are in same boat as my household. Many academic type people that I know are in the process of downsizing, and with that process comes the need to shed books. (And here I'm talking about physical books).

We love our books. They are tangible signifiers of what we know and what we value. Our paper books remind us and others the traditions to which we belong, the conversations in which we participate. We have lots of hardcover and softcover books in our house.

The challenge that we will all face, what I am facing now, is that nobody wants our used paper books. All of our life the ability to own books has been a luxury. Books represented a scarcity.  

Today's book economy has shifted. Digital books are desirable for both their non-physical properties (they don't take up space and are easy to move) and their prices.

We seldom pay more for an e-book than we pay once paid for a softcover book. Many of us prefer to read books by listening to books. The best is when we can switch back and forth between the audio and the e-book.

The other shift is the abundance of used books available on Amazon. If we really want a physical book, and a used book is okay, the best selection is always available online. Almost any rare used book can be found on Amazon (often for a higher price than one would see in a local used bookstore), but for more popular books the biggest expense is often the shipping.

I predict that large numbers of academic type people are in for a serious existential crisis when they attempt to downsize their book collections. The supply of used books is greater than the demand for used books. This used book economic disequilibrium will only get worse as physical books lose their romantic attachments with younger readers. We will have boxes of wonderful and important and cherished books that nobody wants at any price.

Used books represent a particular sort of market good. Unlike other objects, we are incredibly hesitant (violently opposed) to trashing our books. Can you imagine putting a book in the recycling bin or a the trash? I can't. Sacrilege . We are all too aware of the history of book destruction to ever be part of such a monstrous crime.  

So what will we do with all of our boxes of precious books. Many will do what I have been doing. Dropping them off at the local used bookstore, hoping that they will accept the books and somehow create some value for someone out of the gift. Will used book stores keep accepting our boxes?

If you are not yet at the point of book downsizing, I know where you can probably get a pretty good deal on Will and Ariel Durant's 11 volume masterpiece.

What book downsizing stories do you have to share?



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