In Defence of Used Books

by Emily Young

We all appreciate the satisfaction of receiving a new book. I am sure I am not alone in finding something inexplicably pleasing about the angular cubism of what is essentially printed wood pulp. A new book isn't bent, battered and twisted like a used copy. The spine is unblemished and smooth, a blank canvas ready to receive the wiggled crevices of each page turn.

'there’s more to a used book than meets the eye...'

In contrast, you may unearth used books mottled with unidentifiable stains and imbued with odd odours from unfamiliar places. Occasionally (horror of horrors) you may discover that people have inked their thoughts and musings onto the pages; indelible tattoos tracing joy, triumph or anguish over every seemingly incomprehensible phrase. On the surface, used books seem substandard, a second-best alternative to their brand new counterparts. In this article we’re going to dig a little deeper though, proving there’s more to a used book than meets the eye.

I am very lucky that I can comfortably afford brand new books, a luxury and privilege that I do not take for granted. This appreciation was reinforced by my parents who always bought my brother and I books at Easter instead of a chocolate egg (a marvellous tradition), and as a result, to this day, all of my books are cherished.

When I received my first proper paycheck following graduation in 2018, I realised that I could treat myself without guilt. For the first few months of being gainfully employed, I enjoyed the new sensation of being able to splurge guilt-free. I bought brand new paperbacks (I couldn't quite bring myself to stretch my budget to hardbacks) and was sucked in by the publishing industry’s gushing over new releases and awarded-winning tomes. I equated buying the latest, shiniest new books with successful adulting. Unfortunately, glowing reviews by illustrious literary critics did not necessarily translate to books that were actually ‘readable’ by most mere mortals. So often I was left disappointed and annoyed that I had spent £10.99 on a self-absorbed and self-congratulatory magnum opus. I felt cheated that I had spent so much and gained so little. The shiny new books remained unnaturally clean as they languished on my bookshelf, unfinished and unloved.

Around this time a friend recommended a podcast, The High Low, which I decided to start listening to right from the beginning. Dolly and Pandora, the show's hosts, discuss all elements of culture and society (both high and low) and would often recommend books from 2017 or before. I could search for these books online or in my local Oxfam bookshop and find them for a fraction of the price of new releases. For £40 I could stack up my reading pile with 8 or 9 new book recommendations, and if any of them weren't my cup of tea then at least I hadn't sunk a tenner on them and could pass them on, guilt-free.

'...pass that shiny clean volume back to Oxfam for some poor English lit student to… ‘enjoy’.'

Marie Kondo (internationally-renowned tidying expert who coined the “does it bring joy?” question) has this appreciation method for saying thank you and goodbye to items that may not have suited you, but that nevertheless have been valuable in teaching you what you do and don’t like. I am like this with books – there are some that really wind me up (I am not a patient person) – so especially if I’ve only spent a few pounds on a book, I can calmly say “thank you Herman Melville, I now know that I do not find long-winded and existential tomes about whales interesting”, and pass that shiny clean volume back to Oxfam for some poor English lit student to… ‘enjoy’.

Since falling down the rabbit hole of second-hand book buying, charming, scruffy books have been dropping rhythmically onto my doormat from World of Books or Better World Books (ethical alternatives to Amazon – buyers take note), each a packet of memories from another person's life. I mean this literally as, in some cases, a note or letter (or even a strip of passport photos in one example) would fall out from between the pages. A personalised collage card from Moonpig wishing someone a happy birthday and reminiscing over fond shared memories from a trip to Antigua fell out of Ma'am Darling by Craig Brown. Slipped into the pages of Hunger by Roxane Gay was a Christmas card hoping that Vanessa would have a great time in 2018, and a postscript – "not the fish” – left me delightfully baffled.

Here I must meander, offering a short interlude about another second hand book institution – the public library. Journalist Sue Halpern summarises the value of the lending service in her article ‘In Praise of Public Libraries’ in The New York Review of Books:

'A public library is predicated on an ethos of sharing and egalitarianism.'

A public library is predicated on an ethos of sharing and egalitarianism. It is nonjudgmental. It stands in stark opposition to the materialism and individualism that otherwise define our culture. It is defiantly, proudly, communal.

Libraries may sometimes be perceived as quaint anachronisms from a time gone by; a throwback to the 'nanny state' of yesteryear. But I maintain that they are still an essential public service, and are in fact more useful than ever before, providing for the varied needs of the most vulnerable in society. I have the luxury of not being reliant upon libraries for my educational or escapist needs, but with authorities strapped for cash, my local library has already held a consultation on reduced hours which I fear may eventually lead to closure. The thing about local services including libraries is that if we don't use them we will lose them.

Sandi Toksvig (she of QI and The Great British Bake Off fame) waxes lyrical about the joys of libraries in Between the Stops and joins the likes of Karl Marx and Virginia Woolf as a regular of the British Library’s famous reading room. The patronage of such literary stalwarts makes me ponder that there must be something about the regimented order and quiet of a library that inspires writers and thinkers. Perhaps we could all be inspired to take up the call of the stacks to achieve our own enlightenment.

I don't have to rely on the library right now, but I want it to be there for the people that do, and I want it to be there for me if I can't afford books one day. I now make a point to check the library catalogue first whenever I want a specific book before buying it. Even during lockdown I could reserve the item online and go and pick it up in a few days – it’s a practice I’d recommend and is so easy to do. Signing up for a library card is also free – you just have to provide proof of address which I was able to do online in my borough, and then the world of words is yours.

'It makes me think that being a member of a library is like being a part of a silent and never-ending book club.'

Occasionally another reader will reserve an item before I have finished with it, something which can seem annoying at the time, yet it's these disruptions which have allowed me to reconsider an author or book, with one example illustrating this poignantly. I first reserved Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race last year and got through the first half before having to return it. I took the book out again this September and was struck by the difference in reading it before and after George Floyd’s death. What had seemed a little abstract and historical the first time around I now realise was an urgent warning that fell on deaf ears. The anguish with which the book has been received this year reflects the limitations of societal change since it was first published in 2017. Reading library books mindfully, knowing that I will have to return them soon, often changes my experience of empathy and understanding as a reader. It is a privilege to think that the book that has made me think, reflect, laugh or cry will soon be shared with another person, and then another. It makes me think that being a member of a library is like being a part of a silent and never-ending book club.

That all being said, libraries aren’t just places to read books. There is a sizeable minority of people who rely on libraries for basic services from the internet to heating. In 2019, 7% of households in Great Britain did not have access to the internet. Between 2006-2016 approximately 250,000 older people died because of the cold – they could not afford their heating bills. For those in need, libraries offer free wifi, and a warm, dry, safe place to stay, which is especially valued in the context of wide-ranging government cuts to adult day care centres. But that's not all libraries offer; they also provide a place for parents with young children to meet for mutual support; an information hub for job seekers and those with housing problems, and even, as with my London MP, a location for his constituency surgery once a week.

Perhaps privileged people often feel guilty for using public services. I know I do. My employer provides a small stipend for non-urgent health services, so I try and use private dental care where I can to avoid adding to the burden of NHS provision. Yet, counterintuitively, we must all try to use libraries more. Local authorities use careful footfall analysis to calculate which libraries are being used the least, and are inclined to close those services or reduce their opening hours. So, I urge you, please join me in taking a stand and keep libraries open by voting with your feet!

There was a time in history when books were so expensive that hardly anyone could afford to buy them outright. In the mid-nineteenth century those who could afford to would make use of a circulating or subscription library. According to the British Library, 'in the 1870s ‘Alice in Wonderland, for example, [was] 7s (shillings) 6d (pence), equivalent to a week’s rent on a three-bedroomed terraced townhouse, while a 30-volume Dickens collection costs ... 17 guineas … – equivalent to a year’s rent’. In contrast, Mudie’s subscription library was charging a guinea a year (about £125 in today's money) – a more affordable option for the expanding professional classes and their increasingly literate families.

'They gave female authors the chance to teach women about what to expect from life, love and of course marriage.'

The Victorian lending libraries were also crucial for women's social and romantic education. Many (middle-class and literate) women, who were otherwise unable to access books – especially novels of a romantic theme – were targeted by these public lending libraries. They gave female authors (often writing under pseudonyms) the chance to teach women about what to expect from life, love and of course marriage. In their instructional novels the likes of George Eliot and the Brontë sisters included a healthy dose of scepticism regarding the tired and restrictive patriarchal institutions of being a dutiful daughter, wife and mother - subtly planting the seeds that would later become the women's suffrage movement. By the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century access to literary works had expanded enormously. The introduction of free universal primary education and the advent of free public lending libraries heralded a new age of improved literacy and access to free reading material for all classes of society.

These days, we may take libraries for granted, and indeed books in general (although, interestingly, books are still exempt from VAT because they are considered a necessity). Their relative affordability means that they are often treated as single use items, but they should be valued more. We need to remove the embarrassment of gifting second hand books this Christmas and embrace them; they’re bursting with character, are undeniably sustainable and won’t break the bank.

'For me, passing on a used book is an act of personal devotion and I am always touched when one is shared with me.'

I believe books should be passed on as cherished and respected items; items which can help us stay connected with loved ones despite an age of isolation. You could even use them to set up a mini book club with your friends as I did with a copy of E.M.Delafield’s The Diary of A Provincial Lady (a hilarious semi-autobiographical and satirical account of the author’s experiences around the Second World War), discovered lurking in the back of a quirky charity shop in Bath. I read it first then sent the book to my Grandma – we both loved it and we bonded over my Grandma’s fascinating reminiscences of being a child in the war. For me, passing on a used book is an act of personal devotion and I am always touched when one is shared with me.

In lockdown many of us had a clear out of clothes, but it’s worth going through your books too. Think about passing your used books on to a friend or donating them to a charity shop, and have a browse whilst you’re there – you never know what gems you might find either for yourself or for a friend tucked between a Gareth Gates CD and a macrame manual.


I have a habit of reusing train tickets as bookmarks. It is a hill that I am willing to die on that those thin, card train tickets make the very best place holders. They are small enough to get properly wedged into the spine of a paperback and do not forsake me by falling out like some of their more flashy and expensive peers. I can be horribly self-conscious about what I am seen reading on the tube, but I have absolutely no shame in reusing train tickets as a sustainable and practical alternative to commercial bookmarks. I hope one day that someone will tuck a used train ticket into one of my books, purchased proudly from an Oxfam. Perhaps my old ticket will flutter out, and maybe the reader will take a moment to wonder what the previous owner was doing in Crewe, or speculate on whether I had fun at Hampton Court Palace, just as I still smile, wondering what “not the fish” was all about. Resources - The Hand Me Down Bookclub. - Check the reviews of a book before you commit to buying it. or - Both sites sell new books, but support independent bookshops.

Emily is a bored Civil Servant working in the transport sector and enjoys reading, podcasts, soap-making, baking, running and whinging about socio-political issues in her free time. She also has a cat called Annie who is a furry dictator. Follow Emily at @youngemilyf!