Traditionally, the library is supposed to be a good way to reduce the number of books you buy. Tradition, however, has not reckoned with that most seductive phenomenon known as the library used booksale.
It's a beneficial thing for all parties involved - the library gets to simultaneously get rid of weeded books and donations they can't use and make some money, and book lovers get the thrill of picking through acres of Harlequin romances and John Grisham novels for rare gems. Growing up, my local library had quarterly book sales, which rarely netted me much useful because I tended to go on the last day, the dollar-a-bag day, the library's shameless attempt to lure people into carrying away as much chaff as possible left over once the wheat had been thoroughly picked out the two days preceding. It was quite a deal, assuming your heart's desire including all the bodice rippers, Agatha Christie novels and Time-Life books from the 70s that your arms could hold. I have occasionally found some rare gems this way, such as my hardcover of Peter Beagle's Folk of the Air (which Bunter later peed on, the wretched creature), and a gorgeous edition of Canterbury Tales in Middle English with lovely color illustrations. Trying to read it is a bit like trying to read mock-Swedish, but goodness, it's pretty to look at. But mostly, I've come away with armfuls of dreck, falling apart paperback mysteries and cookbooks from the 60s that I thought I might conceivably be interested in that I wound up eventually handing right back to the library as a donation.
In recent years, libraries have begun to realize they can get make money more consistently if they have a constantly running booksale going, which can range from a lone bereft table in the lobby to bookstores that boast an entire room or two to themselves and some semblance of organization. But they're all similar in that you rarely pay more than a dollar for a hardcover. This encourages more discernment in choosing your books, but is still a low enough price point to seduce you into some real stinkers. The large print version of Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time for instance, which is certainly a good book, but as it turned out, one I already owned. In normal print.
Currently, we have access to all of the books B's library has for sale before they're available to the general public, which is so, so bad for us. We've cut down on the crap quite a bit. But in terms of sheer volume of books coming into the house, we've gotten much worse. I keep coming across children's classics that I want for the kids when they're older. Or I find book three from a series I've always wanted to try, or books that I want to give as gifts, or copies of books we own but in better condition, except we keep forgetting to get rid of our older copies. Recently B came home with ten classic science fiction paperbacks, most of which are probalby going to go right back, as they're magnificent examples of 50s misogyny and Red fear. K seems to be under the impression that she can buy anything she wants at the library because we'll generally buy her anything she finds that she wants off of the booksale racks because after all, it's only a quarter. We've found some really good stuff. We've replaced the flimsy Science Fiction Book Club editions of the first four Harry Potter books with full size copies in lovely condition. Somebody keeps buying science fiction and fantasy novels in hardcover, reading them once and then donating them to B's library, which has resulted in our acquiring things like the latest Sookie Stackhouse novel for a dollar.
In any case, this weekend the friends group at B's library held their quarterly booksale, which meant there were lots more books available, and I came away with what seems like a classic sampling:
-a romance novel by an author I don't want to like but somehow can never put down, in poor condition, which will probably go to my library's booksale once I read it and then get over the resulting feelings of vague shame and self-loathing
-two mystery novels from a long running series from which I've read three or four books, which I may well get around to reading, or quite likely they will go on the bookshelf for a few years until we move again and I need to make some space
-Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, a book I loved, which has me wrestling with my conscience because my first instinct is to put it in my library, but I want to keep it clutched in my grubby hands. There's no reason that I should feel obligated to give books I want to my library, but I enjoy the idea of children finding a book I love. I think a lot of the instinct of a librarian is wanting to share books you like. This is why I own multiple copies of some of my favorite books - my copy, and the lending copy. In this case, however, I'm keeping it.
-Search the Seven Hills by Barbara Hambly. This was the real jewel, since it's a wonderful mystery by an author I love that's virtually impossible to find.
I don't see our cheap bookbuying habit ending any time in the near future, even as we find ourselves hip-deep in mediocre paperbacks. Because out for every ten books we sorta wanted to read sometime, there's the irresistable prospect of find Homer Price in hardcover.