The Book Collecting Dilemma

Dust unto dust, the saying goes — and books, hat boxes and ceramic figurines unto dust. Especially books. Unlike speech, text survives when the writer is long gone. The voice fades but a well-bound book could last forever — as long as someone bothers to keep it on a shelf somewhere, clean, dry and free from the onslaught of hungry cockroaches. (They feast on the glue used in bindings.) Books dominate our house, thousands of them, mostly about art and design.

We love our library which entombs a lifetime of fleeting interests and enduring obsessions, but we're also oppressed by its physical and emotional weight. Like many others we worry about what will happen to all these volumes when we're gone. Do books have souls? Is there an out-of-print afterlife? Do midlist titles die and go to hell on a flaming kindle?

—Ellen Lupton
How to Lose a Legacy, NYT

I have a modest photography book collection at home and I often struggle with the decision whether to add to it or not. The quote above triggered it. The author’s point of view appealed to my practical side. However, I have a deeper relationship with photography books that conflicts with the logical side of my brain.

I finished the only three photography courses that were offered at the university I attended in Manila. Still, I had this insatiable need to learn more about the medium. Not having the internet as a resource then, I was thrilled to discover a collection of photography books at the Thomas Jefferson Library which was affiliated with the US Embassy in Manila.

Books helped keep my passion for photography alive for several years before I enrolled in photography school in Santa Barbara. When I worked in Boston prior to that, I used to habitually plop myself in the corner of the bookstore near my workplace and peruse the latest monographs. I worked at the library when I was a photography student and I learned about many photographers while putting books and magazines back on the shelves.

Today the internet provides more information than a physical library could ever hold, and I love it for its accessibility. But clicking a mouse or swiping the screen is a completely different experience from holding a book in my hands. Sure, the latter can be cumbersome. But it is precisely for this reason that I am better at absorbing and retaining its content.  It is a slow process that allows me to focus. It holds my attention longer. The weight of the book, the act of turning the pages and the feel of the paper — these enhance the viewing experience for me. I must admit  though that once I own the books, I only retrieve them occasionally. But when I go through my lethargic periods and need some inspiration, I do pull them from the shelves.

I have to strike a balance when it comes to adding new titles to my collection. I limit myself to a maximum of 5 books a year. It is a hard choice to make especially in the midst of a resurgence of independently published books. The options are endless. And of course, books are expensive and I have to keep within a budget. 

Someday, I hope to pass on my small collection to a worthy institution back in Manila. Hopefully a few kids will rediscover the magic of the printed page again just like I did so many years ago.