my skillz

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So I just re-read Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World — a book I read not long after it came out, but uncarefully. Now I have read it with great care and attention, and … well, you can look at the image above to get a sense of how immersed in it I have been. I will have more, much more, to say about its key themes in due course. 

But for now I want to talk about something else. 

Among the many — too many — things I own, the most valuable to me are books that I have read and annotated as thoroughly as I have read this one. Family photos? I have digital copies of those. Similarly, my computer could be replaced, as could my guitars. Furniture, ditto. I could buy replacements for my guitars, my camera, my clothes. But the annotated books? Irreplaceable. Oh sure, I could buy other copies and annotate them, but those markings would be different than the ones I now have. (I’m especially fond of books that I have read multiple times, with different annotations at each reading — here’s an example.) 

But the really interesting thing about these heavily annotated books is this: they are extremely valuable to me, but have virtually no value for anyone else. Think about it this way: If I put this book up for sale, I would be unlikely to get any offers for it. I mean, why would anyone want it? What meaning would all those tabs and scribbles and highlights have to them? Wouldn’t a fresh copy of the book be a better use of money? 

But suppose someone said they would offer me twenty bucks for it. I wouldn’t consider that for a moment — and not because of the IKEA Effect. That is, the value of the book to be does not lie in the work I put into it in the past, but rather the value I expect it to have in the future, as I return to consult it, think about it, maybe write about it. If I were never going to use the book again I might well sell it — and in such circumstances the IKEA Effect would kick in, and I’d want a dollar amount that corresponded, in my mind, to the effort I put into annotating it; which would definitely be more than $20. But at the right price, sure, I’d sell it. People talk about “sentimental value,” but I am not a sentimental guy, not in this respect anyway. 

Knowing that I will use it again in the future, though, alters my calculus radically. Obviously, I could buy another copy, re-read it, and annotate it all over again — but would I notice the same points? I could well miss some important ideas and implications reading the new copy that I caught the one I sold. (After all, didn’t I read it badly the first time? Maybe the stars have to align for a person and a book to make the sweetest connection.) The whole situation would be fraught with uncertainties; I therefore would be reluctant to sell the book for any imaginable price. 

And by “imaginable” I mean that if someone offered me ten thousand bucks for it I’d agree before they could change their mind. 

I think reading and annotating books is the thing I do best — it’s my most sharply-honed skill. But that in itself has almost no market value, even though it has great value to me personally. And I find that difference interesting.