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It's better to splurge and buy that book – just ask Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith offers a cautionary tale about the complications of not buying a book that catches your eye.

By Contributor / January 20, 2014

When it comes to buying books, suggests bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith, it’s best to throw common sense to the wind.

Chris Watt/Pantheon/Schocken Publicity


We have landed once again in January, the month in which, perhaps more than any other, readers are supposed to embrace financial restraint when it comes to buying new books.

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The exuberance of the holidays is over, and with it, presumably, our no-holds-barred willingness to buy books as gifts for others – and even ourselves.

Now that the bills from another yuletide are starting to arrive in the mail, a tightening of the household book budget is apparently the order of the day. All of which means that, when we see a tempting title, either online or in our neighborhood bookstore, the better angels of our nature should compel us to keep our purses and wallets closed and leave that literary object of desire unpurchased.

But among those of us who like to buy books – and if you’re reading this blog, you probably count yourself in that number – passing up a chance to buy a book can lead to intense pangs of regret later on. 

Just ask Alexander McCall Smith, the Scottish author known around the world for his bestselling mystery series “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.”

Smith has a heightened profile these days, thanks to the recent release of the latest installment in his “Ladies” franchise, “The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon.” Just published by Pantheon in a hardcover, the book promises to extend Smith’s popularity among whodunit lovers across the globe.

But in addition to being an accomplished writer, Smith is, not surprisingly, a voracious reader, too. He recounts some of his bibliophilic adventures in a recent nonfiction title, “What W.H. Auden Can Do for You."

Smith’s Auden book is ostensibly a celebration of the mystery writer’s favorite poet, but Smith’s narrative also includes a few asides about his book-buying adventures during his frequent travels. Among other anecdotes, he offers a cautionary tale about the complications of not buying a book that catches your eye. 

Here’s Smith:

“I once spotted a large tome on monastic sign language in a used bookstore in Toronto but caviled at the outrageous price. Returning to Scotland, I regretted my failure to buy the book; of course I would have loved to have had it, with its lengthy photographic section showing Trappist monks signing their various messages: ‘The Abbot says that bell must be rung... We must plant potatoes this year.’ That sort of thing.

“I returned to Toronto the following year and made my way to the bookstore in question. Going up to the desk, I asked the proprietor whether by any chance – and I said I knew it was a remote one – they had in stock a book on the sign language of monks. He looked at me in astonishment that shortly became delight. ‘As it happens,’ he began....”

Luckily, Smith’s The-One-That-Almost-Got-Away story about his bookstore find has a happy ending.

But the moral of his story is clear. Sometimes, when common sense tells us not to bring a treasured book to the cash register, it’s best to throw common sense to the wind.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”  


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