The main struggle I have is keeping my buying in pace with my reading. When I was younger I was simply trying to acquire books to build a personal library. So I just bought books. Way more than I could read. Simply having the books made me happy. That's the materialistic aspect I struggled with. The craving to own and acquire the books as physical objects.
I'm more disciplined now. I typically have a large "to read" stack, around 5-15 books on a specific shelf in the bedroom. And when the shelf gets full I work hard to stop buying until I get some of those books read and moved off the shelf.
A part of the struggle in limiting my buying is simply how much I love bookstores and shopping for books. Especially used bookstores. I've joked with my sons that if I have a natural posture it's tilting my head to the right so I can read the spines of rows and rows of books in used bookstores. I adore huge, sprawling used bookstores. Whenever I visit a town or city "bookstore" is the first thing I type into Google maps. If you have a used bookstore in your town I'll be in it, head tilted to the right, scanning the stacks.
A huge part of the fun of shopping in a used bookstore is the thrill of discovery. It's the same thrill Jana gets shopping for clothing at thrift and consignment stores. The lure of the hunt and finding something totally unexpected and awesome for an amazingly low price.
So what do I hunt for in used bookstores?
The main thing is titles I've never seen before. If you go to chain bookstores the titles get pretty predictable. I can pretty much tell you what is on the shelf right now of your local Barnes and Noble. To keep a Barnes and Noble interesting you can't go into one but one or two times a year. If you visited a Barnes and Noble every month you'd quickly become bored as the selection doesn't change that quickly.
Which is why you prefer the used bookstore. The stock is totally unpredictable. And most importantly it will have older and out of print titles that aren't on the shelf of the chain bookstore. Those titles are waiting there for you to discover them.
The other thing I look for in a used bookstore is something that might be collectible. I'm not a huge collector and my tastes are quirky which keeps the prices down. For example, if I found, say, a first edition copy of a William Stringfellow book at a used bookstore I'd be excited about that. But no one else cares all that much so that book might be $10, which is easy on the pocketbook.
So I have a few first edition copies in my collection. Here are some of my prized possessions. A first edition of George MacDonald's The Hope of the Gospel (a gift from my friend Chris). Autographed and first editions from William Stringfellow and Will Campbell. I have a first (American) edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison (published first in the US under the title Prisoner for God). I also have many first editions of Thomas Merton.
Most of these books were inexpensive. Most of them found scanning shelves in used bookstores. I have, however, gotten into buying autographed copies which is best done online. I like to collect autographed copies from authors who have greatly impacted me. That's why I have the autographed copies of Stringfellow and Campbell.
Along these lines the most expensive thing I've purchased is a first edition copy of Loaves and Fishes signed by Dorothy Day. That book was $120 and I got it as a birthday present.
Now, if you start looking for rare and collectible books, first editions and such, every used bookstore becomes the possibility for the Great Discovery. We've all seen and heard stories about such discoveries. Someone finding something really rare and valuable sitting in a junk heap at a garage sale. That's the dream of a collector scanning the stacks in a used bookstore. The possibility of finding something really rare and special sitting on some dusty shelf.
And that happened to me just the other day. I made my great discovery.
I've always wanted a book signed by Thomas Merton to sit next to my signed copies of Dorothy Day, Will Campbell and William Stringfellow. They all knew and corresponded with each other. Day, Campbell, Stringfellow and Merton. These are the radical Christian theologians who, outside of George MacDonald, have most greatly impacted me. And they were all friends.
And so a signed book by Merton was the book missing from my collection of these radical friends. But sadly, given his fame and the rarity of his autograph (Trappist monks don't do book signing tours), Merton's is the most coveted signature of the lot. Over the years as I've searched Abe Books I've found that books signed by Merton are just way out of my price range. Right now, as I did another search, prices for signed books by Merton go from $750 for a signed eighth printing of Seeds of Contemplation to $8,550 for a signed first edition of Seven Storey Mountain. Prices for other signed first editions range from $1,000 to $2,700.
So I knew I was never going to get a signed copy of a Thomas Merton title.
But all that changed yesterday.
I was in a used bookstore yesterday, head tilted to the right, scanning the stacks in the Christian section. And as I was scanning the M authors I found the collection of Merton titles. I knew all the titles and had many of the books already.
But then I saw an older copy, still in its dust jacket, of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. This is one of the last books published by Merton before his death in 1968, a collection of essays and reflections on a variety of topics.
The book looked old enough to be a first edition, so I pulled it down and opened it to find out.
And on the inside page I saw this:
My heart jumped. It was a first edition copy and the book had been signed by Thomas Merton.
I looked up at the price penciled in at the top.
The bookseller knew it had been signed, pointing this out to me as I checked out. The book, the seller said, had come from the collection of the late Bishop Murphy (1915-2007) who had been the bishop in my hometown of Erie. As you can see, Merton signed the book for then Monsignor Murphy.
The bookseller commented that it was neat that Merton had signed the book. I don't think the seller knew a lot about Merton. I have no idea how much a signed, first edition copy of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander costs. But I wholeheartedly agreed.
It was, I said, very, very neat.