Of course there’s another way to look at old books, not as something to read but as an item to trade and sell. The first big online used book database system, Bibliofind, was developed right here in Great Barrington, and made its creator, Michael Selzer, very rich (or perhaps very richer) when he sold it to Amazon. Now of course one can buy secondhand books from around the world through Amazon, or Alibris (great website, by the way), or Abebooks, and no doubt from others. I love this service and happily search for the best value, based on price and condition. My tendency is to go for the ones with lovingly old-fashioned descriptions of the book’s condition, which I imagine being typed into the online database from a tiny shop in remote Maine or Montana or the Malvern Hills.
The prices vary wildly, some booksellers posting ridiculous prices–$119 for a book also available, in the same mass-market edition, for $7.95–like a fisherman once in a while sticking a hunk of cheddar cheese on the hook. Who knows what you might catch?
But this misleads some authors about value. Two people have boasted to me recently that their books, one out of print and another recently published, are selling for high prices online. What they really mean is that at least one seller is offering their book at a high price (prices in general have come down dramatically since the advent of online database systems, because of competition, and Amazon). I am more and more convinced that one of the major problems of our time is a lack of economic literacy, and that connects with the problem of scientific and mathematical literacy–to look at economic issues sensibly, some understanding of numbers is necessary. Instead, most of us seem to assess economic issues–whether used book pricing or the use of natural resources or government subsidies to certain industries–based on faith of one kind or another, or magical thinking.