Friday, February 5, 2010

Respecting books

When Louise first visited my old apartment in Fargo, she was dismayed to see the number of books I haphazardly tossed into corners or stacked on the floor. Not even the mountain of clothes piled in the closet disgusted her that much. The month-old milk carton loitering in the fridge didn't affect her, but those books did.

Dozens of books littered the two-bedroom apartment, paperbacks sharing space with hardcovers sporting tattered cover pages. The inside pages had line after line polluted by underlined passages. She wondered why I wasn't treating the books with the respect they deserved, which confused me because I thought I'd done just that by buying them and reading every word.

"The written word's a precious thing," she said. "Books have to be handled with care." She sounded like she was talking about a 6-week-old child or a 2-month-old puppy.

I agreed with her first sentence and couldn't find much fault with the second one, though our ideas about proper care for a book differed. Burning them? No. But if a book is worn and appears well-read, with dog-eared pages, that to me indicated it was a great book, one that I enjoyed more than once. And these weren't rare used books I mishandled. It could be a standard John Grisham thriller about a plucky lawyer bucking the odds or a Stephen Ambrose book about World War II. Anything with binding, numbered pages and a cover.

She yelped when she'd see me toss a book on a couch or throw it to the floor from the bed. Eventually she revealed the reason for her obsessive behavior. Books were extremely expensive growing up in Cape Town. Rarely could she afford to buy one. When she did purchase a book, she treated it like the rare piece of art it was to her. It took her several years in America to realize that we can buy a mystery thriller for seven bucks, and a nonfiction tome for 15 or 20 dollars. Still, even today, she maintains this reverence for the actual physical product. It must be loved and cared for, a treasure that should never be taken for granted. Use a bookmark, don't just spread it out when marking the spot at the end of the day.

I thought she was crazy then for this vigilance. That opinion hadn't changed much over the years. It might be changing a bit, now that I've taken a tour of some South African bookstores.

The exchange rate right now is about 7:1. So a book that costs $20 would be about 140 rand. In America we can buy one of James Patterson's 156 paperbacks for maybe 9 bucks. Or a Greg Iles one for $7.99. But in Cape Town, those books were going for R175, sometimes R190. For a paperback mystery or a romance novel. Would anyone pay the equivalent of $25 for a book with a half-naked Fabio on the cover, aside from Fabio himself?

Nonfiction was an even more depressing story. Vincent Bugliosi's book Four Days in November, which dissects Kennedy assassination conspiracies, would cost about $20 in the States. In Cape Town, at Exclusive Books? R420. I've read Bugliosi's book. Enjoyed it. Fully endorse his arguments about the death of JFK. But I wouldn't pay the equivalent of $60 for it, even if it revealed the Cubans conspired with the CIA and the mob to knock Kennedy off, all under the evil direction of Lyndon Johnson.

The bargain book bin offered no help. Each book carrying a discounted marker seemed like the type of book you'd give as a present to a hated cousin or a blind grandmother. An intimate biography of Robbie Williams, which has nearly as many pictures as words? For R70?

Wandering through the bookstore gave me all the evidence I needed to know why Louise rarely bought a book as a kid and helped me understand her maniacal need to care and protect them. If I spent $25 for something adorned with Fabio's laughable locks and masculine looks, I would never even crack open the book. I'd stuff it in an airtight container, protecting it from elements and human hands.

And these prices are in a country where the average income is dwarfed by what the average worker in America earns. So the people make less and are expected to pay much more for the same products. In Cape Town, the median annual income is about 25,000 rand, or less than $7,000 a year. How much money do people have to spend on books?

All of this is why we pack as many books as possible for trips to South Africa. Most of them are paperbacks we read back in America. We give them to Louise's mom and stepfather, who are avid readers. They devour each offering. It seems ludicrous for them to have to spend money on books we can purchase for half the price. We're a human bookmobile, bringing Stephen King and Jonathan Kellerman to the South African masses, or at least Louise's family.

I've always thought of books as treasures. But it wasn't until I visited a South African bookstore that I realized just how valuable they can be. So respect that trashy Harlequin novel or poorly sourced sports biography. Or mail it to someone in South Africa who will really appreciate it.

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