‘Paradise Will Be a Kind of Library’: Buying Books in a School Year Like No Other

When “Back to School” is not what you dreamed of, at least your books can be

A stack of well-loved books. Photo by Kimberly Farmer for Unsplash

Note: This post contains affiliate links to Bookscouter and to Indiebound, two services I use to buy and sell books. Proceeds from this post will go to the Maryland Food Bank)

I can’t get around the sadness of this back-to-school season, let alone the ongoing fear and occasional fits of rage. Why are we here now? Some of us are grounded; others of us forced to risk our lives to put food on the table and put our kids at risk for school. What do our kids make of all this? How will they remember this time?

Some schools have already opened, either low-key online or craptastically face to face, while others brace themselves. Yet for all the scrambling and uncertainty about instruction methods and schedules, about how different the back-to-school lists will be (passcodes and downloads instead of tissues and crayons), I have seen very little about how to get a hold of what we might still consider the lifeblood of a curriculum: Books.

My son, entering his senior year in college and just beginning to fledge, has been here since March, and will remain here this fall: Stuck at home with us, never seeing his friends except in a tiny box on his laptop or phone. He has yet to get his course or reading list, from a school that prides itself on dense reading. In a way, though, his learning didn’t end in March, and it’s not merely starting up with the calendar now.

Books have come to matter so much more to him — to all of us — in this extended season of the looming fever, and the latest flare-up of the national infection of anti-Black racism, and the heartening, fragile and resilient human uprisings for a better future. At our house, we’ve been reading and listening to books all summer: print books, audiobooks, ebooks. We are hungry to know and connect. We’re reading fiction and nonfiction, history and future speculation, writers of all genders and races and ages, poetry and polemic. We are trying to understand where we are, what we are, and what comes next.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” — James Baldwin

Buy a book cheap. Read a book for dear life.

B ooks are one of the most cost-effective ways to find out just how to keep up with your life. A really good book — preferably in print or on audio, to rest your eyes from all those bright screens— is a friend for these times. Plus, our kids gotta get a few for whatever school will bring.

  • Bookscouter is one of the most comprehensive services for buying, renting, and selling back used textbooks and thousands of other used titles, in print and as ebooks. They aggregate vendors so you don’t have to spend hours looking for the best deals. I have used them repeatedly for school and pleasure, and I find them fair and prompt.

For recreational reading, I intend to buy many of my books new to support authors or causes (such as Rhonda Magee’s recent book The Inner Workings of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming our Communities through Mindfulness). Here are my picks for great ways to get your general purpose books:

  • Before there was the very fine Bookshop.org, there was the also-incredibly-fine Indiebound (affiliate link). Indiebound is managed by the American Booksellers Association. They carry ebooks, audiobooks, and print books. Whatever an independent bookstore would have, Indiebound will have —and they work with your local store to either ship direct or hold for pick-up.
  • August is Black-Owned Business Month, so if you want to support a Black-owned bookstore, here’s your list. Many Black-owned bookstores are experiencing peak sales and awareness since May, so you might have to be patient to receive your order.

“I have always imagined paradise will be a kind of library.” — Jorge Luis Borges

(Note: Through no fault of any of these services, but because the Postal Service is currently being manipulated and delayed, you may find your orders slower than expected)

Which book format is best for school?

There’s been surprisingly little research into the relative advantages of print and e-reading for learning. In 2017, The Hechinger Report did a thoughtful overview that demonstrates strengths for both approaches. I was especially intrigued by the finding that “working your way through a print volume leaves spatial impressions that stick in your mind (for instance, the lingering memory of where a certain passage or diagram appeared in a book).”

These days, when even our “in-person” meetings are mediated by liquid crystal displays, I find myself craving things to have in my hands, to touch and do (maybe that’s why replastering the garden wall suddenly looked good to me this week). My son is a listener, and loves a good audiobook. Of course, the convenience of ebooks — for storing, especially — can’t be beat. Yet I have a hankering for an old-fashioned print book, plus it feeds the growing need to show support for our Postal System, to order a few by mail.

Ultimately, it depends on your purpose. It seems that ebooks lend themselves to more possibilities for multimedia, links, interconnections to other texts, and quick retrieval of key points; while reading in print leads to greater retention of supporting points, and potentially more engagement with the ideas through note-taking by hand.

In some cases, it might be nice to have both.

Send me your book picks!

I’d love to know what you’re reading. Drop me a line and tell me about the words you are putting in your brain. And in this time of nothing-normal, it’s more important than ever to keep going — and don’t lose your nerve!

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I’m a 50-something bohemian with a mountain of debt and regrets. Can I dig out before it’s all over? I brake for poets.

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