booksKaetrin at Dear Author poses an interesting question: are books substitutable? She discusses the example of a patron searching for a book to read at the library. Absent a special circumstance (such as a new release by a favourite author) would one do as well as any other?

Kaetrin’s conclusion—which I agree with, but for different reasons than she does, is yes. While she does ascribe a higher value to books she truly loves, she doesn’t know that such books will have that value until she’s read them already. So, at the browsing stage, they really are all truly equal to her.

I agree—but for me, it’s more an issue of quantity. I read so many books that new releases from a favourite author account for only a tiny fraction—maybe five or six books out of 100 over the course of the year. So, the rest of the time, I am reading books I just happen to find out there—Kindle daily deals, subjects I am suddenly interested in, and yes, whatever happens to pop up at the library.

If I read fewer books, it might be a different situation. The Beloved, in response to my more prolific consumption, has joked with me that he will read NO books this year, and be proud of that (he does read a lot of other non-book content). And then his favourite podcast personality came out with a new book, and he folded and came to me to say he wanted it. This book is going to be his only book of the year. He has carefully chosen it—this one specific book—and no other book will do. So in his case, books are not substitutable.

But for me? Meh. If I am in the mood for genre mystery, I won’t go off and choose a romance novel. But once I start trolling for genre mystery, I can be just as happy with any number of them. As Kaetrin says, the true valuation comes after you’ve read it, when you know whether this is a book that will last the ages for you.

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  1. What I tend to say is that individual books may not be substitutable, but reading time is. Almost everyone will have more than one book they’re interested in reading. If they can’t get one, well, might as well read another instead. They can always read that other one later.

  2. I think, Joanna, that there is a misuse of “substitutable” and that Chris has the essence of it. If you love Stephen King and his new book is available but only to a select audience of which you are not a part, and you want his new book to read, it does not mean that you will say, “Oh, forget King. I’ll buy Koontz instead.” If King and Koontz were substitutable one for the other, it would mean that you wouldn’t care whether King’s new book was available.

    Butter is a substitutable product because one brand of butter can be substituted for another brand and almost no one would know. Wine, OTOH, is not substitutable (well maybe it is to the very average person but not to the oenophile) because wine that you buy for $3.99 for a gallon doesn’t have the same taste or give the same taste experience as the wine that costs $40 for a half-liter.

    Books are like wine, not butter. We may because we have reading time available buy Koontz if we cannot buy King, but that is not because Koontz is substitutable for King; it is because, as Chris notes, we can read King later — right now we just want to fill some available reading time.

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