General Chatter

What Makes a Second Hand Book So Special?

Before we dive in here, it’s probably best to acknowledge that this post isn’t being written from an entirely neutral perspective. World of Books only sells second hand books, therefore an element of bias can’t be ruled out. However, even with that disclaimer, there’s still plenty to say in favour of used over new.

Let’s compare books and cars for a minute. Physically, aesthetically and functionally they don’t have a great deal in common, true. However, when it comes to second hand models and those hot off the production line, there are some similarities.

Firstly, you pretty much devalue it the moment you drive off the forecourt or turn the first page. Once you’ve assumed ownership, it instantly becomes used. Sure, you get to enjoy the satisfaction of being the first one, admiring the pristine cover and perfect paintwork; then there’s the smell, oh the smell! Anyway, enough of that.

The problem is that all feelings fade. Ultimately, a car is there to get you from A to B (safely, economically and swiftly) and a book should be read. New or used, those functions don’t really change. This is where the analogy falls apart a little though.

While the specification of cars can change massively from year-to-year, model-to-model, the printed word remains the same. It doesn’t really matter if you buy a copy of Oliver Twist that’s a decade old or a day old, the story won’t change. Sure, reference books may have revisions and special editions are released occasionally to stoke the embers a little, but ultimately the core of the content is pretty set in stone.

Then of course you have to decide whether you prefer the classic styling of an Aston Martin DB5 or the faster, wind-tunnel-tested, ergonomically perfect modern counterpart. A leather bound first edition will always attract a certain audience, while the latest reissue has its own market. There is no right or wrong, it’s just a question of taste.

But rather than disparaging the case of new books, let’s look at why second-hand doesn’t mean second-rate.

1. They’re cheap

First and foremost, the main reason most people choose to buy a used book is simply because it is much cheaper than getting a pristine copy from the local bookshop. Why spend £10 when you can get it for £1?

While all books maintain a certain intrinsic value, most reduce significantly with age. There are exceptions to every rule of course, some books have managed to fetch an eye-watering $7.9 million at auction; that said, it was the incredibly rare and highly sought after anthology Birds of America, but still it is certainly second hand and almost two hundred years old.

2. They have a history

A brand new book may have a certain untouched charm, but one thing it can never replicate is history. The life of a second hand book is a mystery. Who else has owned it, where has it been, what happened to page 142? Unless you are incredibly dedicated, it’s unlikely that you will ever be able to answer these questions. And that’s absolutely fine.

Sure, some may have been discoloured by nicotine, contain unwanted and unexpected extras within their pages or include phrasing that doesn’t sit well with modern sensibilities, but that is all part of the joy of second hand books. They aren’t perfect, they have been loved and cherished by others, but they always carry a mystique.

3. They have a unique charm

This leads nicely on to the next point – charm. Again, this isn’t a measurable commodity, nor is it something that you can attempt to manufacture. Charm comes with imperfection; scuffed covers, musty odours and imagery that belongs in another time entirely.

Of course a second hand book may only be a month old, but it can still have something that you can’t quite put your finger on.

4. They help save the planet

Why buy a book and then throw it out a couple of days, months or years down the line? While you may have tired of it, that doesn’t mean the book’s natural life is at an end. You could pass it on to a friend, give it to charity or make a few pennies by selling it on.

So by buying second hand, you can effectively recycle a perfectly good book. Therefore, in a roundabout way, you will be doing your bit to save the world. A noble act if ever there was one.

5. They might be your only choice

New books don’t last forever. When a publisher pulls the plug, that’s it – the book becomes a finite resource. So if you’re looking for a new copy of a very old or slightly obscure title, it may not be as easy as you perhaps hoped. It’s at times like these that you should be grateful to those people who treasured their books and re-released them into second hand circulation.

When new simply isn’t an option anymore, preloved comes into its own.

6. They’re cheap

Oh, did we mention that they’re cheap?

So what do you think? Are you a second-hand book collector that would always prefer something a little worn around the edges? Is there a particular characteristic that draws you towards used titles over hot off the press alternatives? Maybe you prefer pristine and shun imperfect pre-loved books. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

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  • Reply citywallsbooks May 9, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    Reblogged this on citywallsbooks.

  • Reply Glynis O'Halloran July 26, 2016 at 8:22 pm

    I love secondhand books. I always wonder who had them before me and if they enjoyed them. Sometimes people will leave something inside the book. I have found several book marks and a letter at various times – and an empty crisp packet! Not so exciting. I once bought a book at a car boot sale. It was an English grammar book and someone had be made pencil notes in the margins – obviously to help with their homework. The owner had written her name on the inside page and the date – 15 May 1896 – and I bought it on 15 May 1996. Exactly 100 years after she had carefully written her name in it.

  • Reply Peter Malaba July 23, 2021 at 12:22 pm

    Would like to guest blog here, request from

    • Reply Jonella Vidal July 26, 2021 at 9:59 am

      Hello Peter,

      Please send an email to [email protected] to discuss this further.

      Many thanks,
      World of Books

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