Monday, March 27, 2006

Cheapskates and ‘bookalikes’

When I came to Roskilde University, I had only a vague idea of how to procure the titles on the lengthy reading list. There were at least 20 novels and textbooks to be discussed over the term, and a supplemental list of twice that number.

The photocopy machine is a fixture at every Philippine university. Each building is accessorized by a couple of these animals at every floor and wing, cranking out stinking facsimiles that manage to survive long enough to one’s final exams before degenerating to a pale gray pulp. Entire businesses are built around the copy machines, and at UP-Diliman a row of shops proudly advertise high-quality, back-to-back copies of expensive titles, carefully bound, the titles stamped in gold leaf. Some enterprising fellow has dubbed them “bookalikes.”

But Denmark is dead serious about international copyright law. Like other affluent countries its universities don’t ban photocopying per se, but discourage the practice by making the cost prohibitive and the quality shoddy. The only sure way to read everything on your list—especially if you’re a quiet foreigner who finds it tough to make friends—is to buy everything on your list.

To find the price of an English title, brand new, covert the cover price to Danish crowns and then add 25 percent VAT. Even my Danish classmates complain—and their tuition is free, with a student’s allowance to boot. At the RUC bookshop, I came upon a young woman in my British Studies class grimly considering the Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume 2. This is a tome so massive that, even in paperback, a well-aimed copy could kill a cat. Volume 2 cost 500 Danish crowns (a little over P4,000). “It’s just money to be burned,” she sighed. The other books on our list, not to mention the compendia for each subject, cost between a 150 and 300 crowns.

I suppose most people in Northern Europe are leery about investing in a brand-new book because much of the time they don’t have to. Each municipality in Denmark must have at least one library, and these are beautiful affairs, with reading rooms, online search systems, music and video collections, and free membership. Additionally, each library is linked to a central database and one can order a book from any part of the country and have it delivered by post, free of charge. Oh yes, majority of these wonderfully accessible titles are in Danish, and I doubted very much if a search would yield any of the small-print-run Caribbean and African authors on my list. There’s a charity shop in many a neighborhood, and no shortage of books there, either, but again only a handful of those are in English, and tend toward bodice-rippers and such.

I obtained as many titles as possible in Manila and carried them all on the plane. It was worth it. Filipinos like to complain about the high cost of books, as an excuse to avoid reading. We don’t realize we’re getting them at a discount already. At National Bookstore there is perennially a disparity between the cover price and the tag price, the latter being lower. Since these titles arrive in Manila many months after their first appearance abroad, local stores must be operating on some sort of deal whereby they sell old books at a discount to a less-affluent market. Like apparel, books have to be gotten rid of eventually, else the costs of storage would soon outstrip their value. Fortunately the majority never go out of style.

Most of the others I bought online, from Amazon.com, a harrowing experience for this first-time Internet user with a well-founded distrust of the postal system. I didn’t purchase a single bookalike this term. I hear some people have discovered the digital-age counterpart, though, photographing 400-page volumes from cover to cover and consigning whole libraries to their hard drives. Some folks are just anal.

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