How To Build A Library (Part One)

From The Globe and Mail (via Arts Journal): ‘They don’t belong to Harbourfront. They are my books.” So declared Greg Gatenby during a testy press conference at his Toronto home yesterday morning, hoping to end the questions surrounding his announcement that he was selling his book collection, about 28,000 volumes worth an estimated $2-million, amassed in part during his time as director of the Harbourfront Centre’s literary programming.

Twice an assistant attempted to cut off questions regarding provenance. The issue: When publishers send out free review copies of a book for promotional purposes, are they sending them to the individual or to the institution the individual works for? Gatenby maintained that the publishing industry sends them to the person and that the books then become that person’s property.

“One of the perks is that the person to whom the book is given keeps the book,” Gatenby said.”

I’m not entirely sure I agree with Gatenby. (He clarified that about two-thirds of his collection consists of books he bought on his own; only one-third of the books in his collection are review copies.)

On the subject of whether a review copy belongs to the person who’s reviewed it, no question it does. And it should: in India, book reviewing is so poorly paid that you’d be lucky to be making a rupee a word. The only perk of the job if you review frequently is that you get to keep the book.

But if you edit a book section for a newspaper, should you keep the books? One of the places where the Babu worked followed this policy: the editor on the literary pages was told that the books were his or hers to keep. This seemed okay as long as we were talking cheap paperbacks; but it seemed a little wrong to keep expensive coffee table books priced at Rs 3,000 and above, that typically got a two-line or one-paragraph review. I solved my personal ethical problems through a combination of laziness, a lack of space on the shelves at home, and occasional fits of generosity. If someone really, really wanted a book that had been sent to us for review, and if we had an extra copy or if the book wasn’t going to be reviewed and would just sit on the shelves forever, they got it. Books that I couldn’t be bothered to take back home were sent down to the office library–not for moral reasons, but for reasons of space, this turned out to be most of them. Books that looked rare, or that were obviously expensive, posed a major problem: I’d have to contact the publisher and ask if they wanted the book back if we weren’t going to review it. Because of the volume of books coming in to the office, it wasn’t always easy to follow up on this.

But most books page editors know that the books are being sent to the institution, not to them. Given this, it might be fair to follow the policy the institution sets: if your journal says it’s okay for you to keep the books, build more shelves. If not, donate them to the library. In Gatenby’s case, he makes it clear that the Harbourfront Centre could have got in touch with him earlier over the question of ownership and didn’t–in other words, they didn’t have a policy in place. I guess that makes them his books; I’m just not so sure that this is a principle that would apply in all cases.

Now it’s much easier: I either buy the books I need or warn publishers who’re sending me books that I may choose not to review the book in question. That way, if they have limited copies or if it’s expensive, they can choose not to send me the book at all; if I decide later I’ll need it, I can always buy it. Books that I don’t want to keep are donated to the defence library, though what a bored soldier up at Siachen is going to do with The Essential Sindhi Cookbook or a treatise on post-colonialism in the modern Indian novel, I have no idea.

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