Monday, April 19, 2010


By Shawn Fury

When Louise [his wife] 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 Harlequin novel or poorly sourced sports biography. Or mail it to someone in South Africa who will really appreciate it. ♥

Shawn Fury is an award-winning writer who has written for newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. He currently works as a freelance writer in New York City, where he lives with his wife, Louise. His first book, KEEPING THE FAITH: In the Trenches with College Football's Worst Team, was released by Lyons Press in September 2005. Visit him on and


  1. Great blog post! I not only enjoyed learning more about your wonderful wife, who I've met at Lady Jane's numerous times, but also a bit about South African bookstores.

    As it happens, my husband and I are moving this week and today I plan to pack my mass market book collection. I will take great care with each one!

  2. Fascinating post! As an MBA with an unshakable faith in the supply-demand curve, I'd be curious to know the economics behind all this. Presumably new titles are imported into the country, rather than printed locally, therefore putting SA at the mercy of more prosperous economies? When we sold Russian rights to my novel, I was told that author advances are smaller there because the average hardcover retails for $3.

    I've studied a lot of industries, and publishing still has me scratching my head and asking dumb questions.

  3. Wonderful post Shawn. Now I feel a bad about my sad pile by the bed. Will fix it up.

  4. Our house, too, has piles of books everywhere, in every room, even on the stair landing--and yet we still try to treat them with respect, even the inexpensive paperbacks. Oh yes, we have bookcases, but those are overflowing. So how could we treat books with respect if we pile them? When they're in use, we don't bend back the covers, or mark them unless we're using them as a study aid, or throw them, or step on them, or (as you wrote) store them open and face-down to mark the last page read; and when we're done with one, we put it carefully back onto one of the shelves or piles.

    Why go to all this trouble, even with books that may be paperbacks or marked-down-for-sale hardcovers? For one thing, many of our books have come to us as gifts--some as birthday or Christmas gifts, others as special gifts, including ones signed by the authors themselves; we respect those books in part because we respect those who gave them to us. For another thing, as published authors ourselves, my husband and I are mindful of the hundreds and thousands of hours of work--writing, editing, re-writing, copy editing, typesetting, correcting galleys, proofreading, printing production--that go into each book we hold; we treat these objects with respect because we respect the effort and the hours that have gone into making them. And all of that is apart from the enjoyment and the use we get out of our books; the better we treat our books, the longer we can escape in their stories and glorious language, or research exactly what we need to know.

    Of course, when it comes down to it, books are only temporal possessions--but, goodness gracious, they sure can be enjoyable and helpful temporal possessions, so for as long as we have them, they deserve to be treated with care!

  5. I loved reading your post,and I smiled when you mentioned Louise`s reaction to your initial book handling skills.Louise could never get enough of the written word and as a little girl I remember how she would pack all her story books on her shelf and because there were so few she would write her own story books and we would have to sign the books out for the day as if it were a libary book...and when she decided to go over seas her books were the first items to be packed and we wait patiently for your visits home so that we can add to our libary....Mother-in-law and father-out-law...winks

  6. Thank you for this perspective, Shawn. It's good to be reminded sometimes of what we take for granted.

    Happy reading, all!

  7. Oh my goodness, of course my mother would find this post and reply to it. She is a stalker I tell you, a stalker LOL