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Books! How we will miss you.
February 28, 2010 11:12 AM   Subscribe

Of the bookshelves I’ve inspected in my life, two stand out as particularly consequential.

"The first was my mother’s, which was built into the wall of the bedroom where she grew up. When I would visit my grandparents in the summer I would spend hours inspecting that bookshelf. The books were yellowed and jammed tightly together, as though my mother had known it was time to leave home once she no longer had any room left on her shelves. In the 1960s novels, the Victorian classics, and the freshman year sociology textbooks fossilized on the bookshelf, I got the clearest glimpse I ever had of my mother as a person who existed before me and apart from me, and whose inner life was as bottomless as I knew my own to be."
posted by spindle (77 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
Growing up, my father's bookshelf also taught me so much about him: he only owned one book, I never saw him read it, and neither of us is sure if he can.
posted by Sova at 11:25 AM on February 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


I liked this essay. Thanks.

My dad's bookshelf was a huge unwieldy thing, all dark-stained wood and these weird glass panes that dropped down in front of the books, presumably to protect them from dust. On the shelves were an array of books that seemed to range from Elizabethan drama to Modernist novels to mid-twentieth-century American fiction, in a sort of grim/woodsy/OldEngland/NewEngland narrative arc that I can only describe by calling up images of large leather chairs, pipe-smoke, and a flannel shirt to keep warm while one fetches wood for the wrought-iron woodstove.

Without any conscious attempt to replicate my dad's collection, I seem to have amassed a pretty similar bunch of books, plus a bunch of comics and postmodernism, marking the cultural moment I belong to.

Just as I used to browse through the books on his shelf, I hope my future children will search through mine, hoping against hope, with all their hearts, that Thomas More's Utopia might be just the kind of story to have some really juicy sex scenes buried somewhere in it.
posted by Greg Nog at 11:48 AM on February 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm completely unable from perusing bookshelves when I'm in people's homes. They're so damn interesting.

In the latest issue of The New York Review of Books there's an interesting article about Facebook which makes the following observation:
If a social network profile was an online "home," then a Facebook page, in the early days, looked like a room in a recently constructed dorm: you might put up a raunchy poster or fill the shelves with favorite books [...] What was college if not a series of "position takings"? Much more, of course, but the early Facebook couldn't be faulted for failing to embody the complete college experience. It even became something of a norm to greet a friend in the dining hall by declaring, for example, "I see you added Trotsky to your list of favorite authors—but dropped Marx!
A list of favorite authors or books will never equal a bookshelf (if only because non-favorite books end up there too) but it is akin to it.

That said, I don't think I ever check people's favorite anything lists on Facebook.
posted by Kattullus at 11:53 AM on February 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


The author touches on some of the issues around 'aura' raised in Benjamin's 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' - only at the next level of reproduction, electronic reproduction.

Can we say 'don't judge a Kindle by it's cover?' yet? If we can, does that mean it's fair game to judge books by their covers? I'd always had a sense this phrase came from a time when folios were bound by a bookbinder, resulting in uniform libraries and bookshelves - this (apparently) isn't the case.

Thanks Spindle.
posted by davemee at 11:54 AM on February 28, 2010


Very timely. I have been reading with interest the debate about the e-readers here on these pages. Currently I am torn. It is time to paint the place, and while I'm at it, renovate the bathroom and put a hardwood floor into the living-room. This means that my floor to ceiling shelves of books that cover most walls in the place will need to come down, and all the books packed away.

Having completed this Herculean task, does it make sense to then haul them all out again, or do I give them up for a plastic gadget, and increase my living space by a significant amount?

What does a Kindle "say" about me, when someone comes to visit. How can a gadget start a conversation? You can't leap up during a discussion and offer to lend or give someone your book device. Where does the author or a giver sign the thing?
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 12:00 PM on February 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


i really like this essay.

i love to peruse others' bookshelves, and i am happy to let people browse mine.
posted by gursky at 12:05 PM on February 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


What does a Kindle "say" about me, when someone comes to visit. How can a gadget start a conversation? You can't leap up during a discussion and offer to lend or give someone your book device. Where does the author or a giver sign the thing?

i had a conversation about these questions not long ago with a friend and fellow book-hoarder, and we both agreed that having books suits us better. considering it took me until 2007 to get a cell phone, and even then, it's only a pay-as-you-go phone kept in the car for emergencies, i'm not too worried about having a Kindle in the near future.
posted by gursky at 12:07 PM on February 28, 2010


I'd much rather have shrinking and enlarging machines than e-readers. But alas, the technology just simply isn't there yet.
posted by inkytea at 12:12 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


One thing I notice is that a lot of secondhand books available via Amazon these days used to be library books. I think if we all know that hard copy books are going to become more and more rare, and if fewer and fewer hard-copy books will be printed, we all should become advocates for the preservation of existing libraries.
posted by newdaddy at 12:13 PM on February 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


I feel like someone who saw her neighbors buying Model Ts and wept over the beauty of her horse-drawn wagon, but I can't help myself, largely because the changes in the books I've read and carried with me and noticed on my friends' shelves have so much to do with the changes in my life. It's right to say the books don't make the man, because you could own Mein Kampf or The Bible or Leaves of Grass for any number of reasons, but it's also wrong, because books change the way you think about the world, and so your books tell people what's been running through your head.

It's not even just the bookshelf, though, it's that someday people won't be holding books in their hands, dog-earing the pages they love, smiling at the dried tomato sauce on page 78 of a cookbook because it reminds them of that awesome dinner party, packing up to move and thinking hell, you're heavy, but I couldn't live without you, Infinite Jest. Can you imagine some kid learning that such and such book was the last one printed on paper?
posted by sallybrown at 12:14 PM on February 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


I hope my future children will search through mine, hoping against hope, with all their hearts, that Thomas More's Utopia might be just the kind of story to have some really juicy sex scenes buried somewhere in it.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank my parents' copy of the Harold Robbins novel The Betsy.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 12:15 PM on February 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


When I scan through my bookshelves, I can see different periods of my life that were significant to me in some way.

The shelf of old, bad sci-fi I got from my grandfather when I was much younger, the first-year English literature an ex-girlfriend left behind, the piles and piles of books I bought from that awesome bookstore near the office where I used to work.

It's hard to look at a directory of .epub files on my harddrive and feel any nostalgia whatsoever.
posted by threetoed at 12:20 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, those e-book readers look awesome...until you realise that all those shelves had great insulating properties, like filling wall cavities with hay, but hay you could pick up and read at any time.

Let's see the kindle help keep you warmer...

(yes, this is my excuse for my books)
posted by Katemonkey at 12:21 PM on February 28, 2010 [8 favorites]


E-readers will not, in any near time, eliminate books being produced, any more than the laser-disc player made VHS go away. It took several more format attempts, and decades, to eventually drive VHS out of the consumer mainstream. The current e-book readers have far too many limitations, too many problems, and too many issues to replace books completely in terms of mass market ubiquity in the same way DVDs have replaced VHS. Right now, we are still in the age of laser-discs.

Call me in 10 years, and we'll try this again.
posted by strixus at 12:25 PM on February 28, 2010


A list of favorite authors or books will never equal a bookshelf

When space is limited, available shelf space should be reserved for the books not yet read, shouldn't it? My faves are generally in a box at the back of my bedroom closet, accessible if necessary but not without a little lifting and searching.
posted by philip-random at 12:25 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I hope my future children will search through mine, hoping against hope, with all their hearts, that Thomas More's Utopia might be just the kind of story to have some really juicy sex scenes buried somewhere in it.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank my parents' copy of the Harold Robbins novel The Betsy.


This Is Just To Say, Dad:

I read
your copy of
Howard Stern's
Private Parts

which Mom
was probably
hiding
from me

Forgive me
it had pictures
of naked people
and of someone named Fartman
posted by sallybrown at 12:27 PM on February 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


I liked this essay as well.

My parents each had very distinctive styles of book collecting. My dad's was eclectic, I think he would read just about anything once, though he was especially fond of science fiction and fantasies, popular science writing, dictionaries and other reference books and, for lack of a better term, contemporary "literary fiction." My mother's habits were much more focused. She periodically became profoundly interested in a particular topic, either due to her work or for personal reasons and would proceed to fill up several shelves with books on this latest obsession. So she had lots of distinct shelves of books on female sexuality or organic agriculture or adult education. Her pleasure reading was of the rather trashy sort: Harlequin romances and Mills and Boons which she obtained by the bucketful from local libraries.

Books were bought pretty much every week in our household with few restrictions placed on what I could and couldn't read. Evidence of the years of book acquisition before I arrived on the scene was the store room, where they kept all the books they'd decided they didn't have room for in the main house. From time to time I was allowed to enter this dusty room, stacked floor to ceiling with boxes of books. I usually emerged with a few yellowed prizes before the room was locked up again.

So bookshelves mean a lot to me, but I have to say I'm glad to have a Kindle now. I haven't stopped buying "real" books at all, far from it, but am glad to have a way to buy something to distract my mind for a few hours without having to think about the space it will occupy in my small apartment. I'll always have room on my bookshelves for the books I want to keep forever.
posted by peacheater at 12:27 PM on February 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


M parents house has several floor to ceiling bookshelves my Dad built to house all the books. When I was a kid, I would sometimes just sit and read all the titles, or pull out random books and read a little bit, then pull out another (yes, sometimes I would even put them back when I was finished.)

If we had to move a shelf from one room to another, we would have to take all the books out first, and replace them when the shelves were moved. You would think this was all a fairly straightforward process, but it usually took the whole family several hours. Someone would get their hands on a collection of Hirschfeld caricatures, and they were out; then another would be setting a field guide to the birds of the world in a box and it wouldn't quite make it; another would be chugging along just fine until she got to that one volume of the encyclopedia with the transparencies of the human body and that was SO COOL... Eventually one of the adults would attempt to get everyone back on task, and we would, for a while, but fifteen minutes later we would be reading Terry Pratchett or Dorothy L Sayers or Shakespeare or something about Dr. Who...

I can't imagine not having physical books around, that I can grab randomly from a shelf and hold and smell and read.
posted by louche mustachio at 12:28 PM on February 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Books are not disappearing anytime soon. As physical objects they have value that e-books can not replicate. This nice essay just adds one more reason. It's hip and cool right now to jump on ebooks but in a few years the hype will wear off and books will still be with us. Ebooks will be one more option, like how paperbacks became a new option in the 1930s.
posted by stbalbach at 12:31 PM on February 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't have nearly the book shelf space I need. I think, $200 or more books? The books almost always win.

I attribute this quote to Spider Robinson, but he might not have said it, "You can't tell a lot about a man by the books he owns, but I can tell if I would let him marry my daughter."
posted by cjorgensen at 12:31 PM on February 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I hope my future children will search through mine, hoping against hope, with all their hearts, that Thomas More's Utopia might be just the kind of story to have some really juicy sex scenes buried somewhere in it.

Heh, I remember reading my mother's copy of Flatland for this very reason, because the back cover made some reference to the sex lives of triangles.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:35 PM on February 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Books don't break when you drop them.

It seems like if cheaply printed books had somehow been invented after e-readers, no one would be having this discussion; they are clearly a superior technology for information delivery... disposable (and degradable), infrastructure-independent, cheap, resilient (short-term anyway), impossibly easy to use, truly portable, transferable... blah blah blah, someone more intelligent can probably give better reasons why a printed book is a better device for holding lots and lots of dense information.

I still bought a Kindle for my girlfriend though.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 12:46 PM on February 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


My dad's shelves contained bibles, bible commentaries, lots of apocalyptic fiction/"nonfiction" (ala Hal Lindsey) a few historical novels (John Jacobs, Michener), WWII novels, and spy thrillers. Oh and the Reader's Digest books you got with your subscription to the magazine/inherited from grandparents.

My mom never read anything but how-to books or newspapers.

I don't remember learning to read, but from a young age I lived AT the library, lived FOR Scholastic book sales (and my only childhood act of theft was taking 5.00 for more books from Mom's purse), and eventually they gave me an entire storage closet as my "library" and I'd go in there and shut the door, alone with my books like Gollum with his Precious.

I'd think I was adopted except I resemble both my parents physically quite a lot, so probably I'm just an anomaly. None of my three siblings keep books to speak of, anymore than my parents did. I meanhwhile could use at least two more large bookshelves to hold mine and my husband's and now my son's books too.

And then there's my magazine addiction...
posted by emjaybee at 12:56 PM on February 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


My parents' library included The Joy of Sex and More Joy of Sex -- conveniently located on a lower shelf well within the reach of a six-year-old with precocious reading skills -- so I knew about cunnilingus and latex fetishes long before I figured out you could actually do these things with people to whom you weren't married.

Mr. Danaos is threatening me with an iPad, and I may eventually accept one for travel reading, but I will never, never give up my unwieldy, encroaching, rapidly metastasizing and deeply loved book collection.
posted by timeo danaos at 1:07 PM on February 28, 2010


Haven't embraced the Kindle concept yet. Books are a passion of mine, and I love to check out the collections in other people's houses (kind of like checking out the medicine cabinet). I long to have floor to ceiling built-ins for my own large, very eclectic collection. In fact, I'm having my SO build me some. I loathe having my books packed away in boxes.
posted by mnb64 at 1:22 PM on February 28, 2010


The "books will never die" comments here are killing me. I bet you guys thought the internet was just a fad. Also, the personal bookshelf going away is already a solved problem. Apparently the author has never heard of GoodReads or LibraryThing. Sure, the first generation of e-paper readers is little clumsy, but we already have hybrid transflective LCD/e-paper screens on the market, tablets based on that technology will dominate the market in a couple of years. A few years after that, some large publisher will realize that switching to an entirely digital distribution system would allow them to undercut their competitors by a huge margin and the era of dead-tree publishing will be over, except for a few boutique shops and print-on-demand services for fogeys.
posted by signalnine at 1:47 PM on February 28, 2010


After taking a year to read one book (yes, just one; slow reader here), I finally got started reading one from one of the hearts of my collection--old books. At present (when not typing) I'm reading Carriage Days and Carriage Ways, about historic and sometimes apocryphal events on various roads in England. My copy was published in 1914, and has a hand-tooled, painted leather cover.

I learned to love old books because one of my parents collected old books during the Depression, when something like a book was a thing not everyone owned. And both of my parents were generous--I could look at any book they had. So, being ten years old, looking at old books that someone else read before I was born, vessels of experience beyond their contents; well...

Kindle has its place. But not at my place. At least, not until I get through the old books...
posted by datawrangler at 1:50 PM on February 28, 2010


My Kindle sits on a side table next to the chair I prefer for reading. I've had guests ask about it and have shown them how to flip through what I have stored on it. Within a few years there will be an interface like the album view on the IPod touch where the display of what books you have will be a little more visual. It will be a "bookshelf" view without taking up so much room. I've never had enough bookshelf space for all my books, I have yet to run out of hard drive space.
posted by Edward L at 2:09 PM on February 28, 2010


signalnine--don't know that anyone has said that e-books won't win, just that getting to know someone by what they have on their bookshelf is a pleasure many of us will miss.

A related pleasure/pain is when someone walks into my house and says "Wow, that's a lot of books!" Whether they say it in alarm/confusion or delight tells me a lot about how well we'll get along.
posted by emjaybee at 2:16 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have a Sony E-reader and I grant it is handy for bringing along something to read on a long plane trip or train ride. Probably the most evocative thing I have downloaded into it in the few months I have owned it is the pdf archives of a long-defunct magazine that a friend found online and sent to me. I occasionally open up a magazine issue that I recall buying in print form, decades ago, and leaf through it electronically.

I have somewhere around 5000 books on the shelves. Probably the most evocative book I have is a souvenir of my 25th birthday: I was working on a farm in the desert in Israel, thousands of miles from my family and friends, none of whom I had seen in months. This was, I knew, the first birthday where I would see no well wishers and receive not a present. I had nothing to read in my time off except one novel and one travel book, and I was mighty tired of them, so I took a day off, hitchhiked into Tel Aviv and scoured the used bookshops for something to read, I eventually came up with a single-volume paperback of The Lord of the Rings. I picked that up because I had not read it since age twelve or something, and I knew it would take me a while to finish. I read it cover to cover twice during the rest if my stay on the farm. English books in Israel are a bit of a luxury, so it cost me something like two days' pay. After that kind of expense, I said I would be damned if I was going to abandon that thing someplace, so I crammed it into my backpack and hauled it across another two continents -- rereading parts of it occasionally -- before I put it back on my shelf.

There it sits, still with the price in shekels written in pencil in the flyleaf, the store clerk's notation of the date sold, the edges of the pages slightly stained from my grubby hands from working in the dirt all day in the Negev, the jam stain from a breakfast in Cairo on the Council of Elrond, an Irish bus ticket used for a bookmark in Moria, a cute Swiss girl's phone number inside the back cover.

No comparison, dudes.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:37 PM on February 28, 2010 [21 favorites]


In the 1960s novels, the Victorian classics, and the freshman year sociology textbooks fossilized on the bookshelf, I got the clearest glimpse I ever had of my mother as a person who existed before me and apart from me, and whose inner life was as bottomless as I knew my own to be.

Such a pretty sentence. Which I read, of course, on the internet.
posted by tigrefacile at 2:42 PM on February 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


apparently the author has never heard of GoodReads or LibraryThing. Sure, the first generation of e-paper readers is little clumsy, but we already have hybrid transflective LCD/e-paper screens on the market, tablets based on that technology will dominate the market in a couple of years.

So much technology, (and effort uploading/downloading etc) to merely be as good as a book.
posted by smoke at 2:43 PM on February 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I would like to take this opportunity to thank my parents' copy of the Harold Robbins novel The Betsy.

My younger self (aged 12) would have told you to read Harold Robbins' Dreams Die First instead. Much juicier.
posted by Miss Otis' Egrets at 2:49 PM on February 28, 2010


...whether their copy of the book is dog-eared...

Can't some readers let users annotate the files? Wouldn't you be interested in reading someone's heavily annotated copy of a favorite book (your favorite or theirs)?

And what by contrast can a Kindle tell you about yourself or say to those who visit your house?

Maybe once readers are ubiquitous, people won't have any hesitation about looking at the lists of books on other people's readers. Is the experience identical to looking at a bookshelf? No, but I like looking at the lists on friends' iPods, sometimes, and that's not the same as scanning a shelf full of CDs or records, but I still get to see what music they like, or at least own; looking at the spines of DVDs isn't identical to looking at cans of film, either (not that a lot of people collect those...). Looking at a list is less tactile, less evocative, but when you see, say, Wuthering Heights on someone's ereader, will you be any less tempted to say, "Ooh, I really like that one!" than you would if it was on a shelf? I think that scanning those lists could come to have the same place in people's experience, at least until that technology is overcome by the next massive leap to yet another technology ("I miss looking at the list of exotic titles on my Dad's reader: House of Leaves, Love in the Time of Cholera, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies... With the growing popularity of skull-mounted computers, will the kids of future generations ever get to have that exciting look at their parents' lives, pre-parenthood?"), as looking at their bookshelves does now.

I wonder if people had these kinds of discussions on the advent of recorded music? Did they lament the loss of the chamber orchestra? Of going to concerts? Of Uncle Merle breaking out the fiddle? I think they might have. But we still have music (okay, that's a matter of opinion).

Don't get me wrong: I loves me some books. I'm going to need another shelf, soon. But behaviors change with the technology, and the feelings go along with the behaviors.

It's hard to look at a directory of .epub files on my harddrive and feel any nostalgia whatsoever.

I have actually had nostalgic feelings about files on my computer. It doesn't take much to evoke those kinds of memories or feelings for me, though...
posted by Mister Moofoo at 2:49 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I grew up in a house where there were books in every room(and yes that includes both bathrooms). I still have most of those books plus hundreds more. I have stacks, boxes and shelves. I also enjoy audiobooks. But the usefulness of e-books escapes me. If I want to read a paperback works find as a portable but i-pod is even better.

The essay was interesting and I sent a link to my kiddo, the english PhD student.

Books will be around for the rest of my life time after that you guys are on your own.
posted by bjgeiger at 3:01 PM on February 28, 2010


So much technology, (and effort uploading/downloading etc) to merely be as good as a book.

Eh, it's not like there is anything inherently simple or low-tech about modern books. Books were originally expensive and rare luxuries, and it is only through hundreds of years of technical innovation that it has become feasible to print them as quickly, cheaply and frequently as publishers do today.
posted by fearthehat at 3:15 PM on February 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


My younger self (aged 12) would have told you to read Harold Robbins' Dreams Die First instead. Much juicier.

Oh, trust me, once I knew what I was looking for, I headed straight for the public library to familiarize myself with the rest of Mr. Robbins' oeuvre.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 3:28 PM on February 28, 2010


Ereaders today feel somewhat like cellphones just before 2001. They are not yet ubiquitous, but they are well past the early-adopter stage and their growth seems poised to go geometric.

I'm not necessarily saying this is wrong, but I live in a big city and have yet to see one actual e-reader in actual use by an actual person.
posted by regicide is good for you at 3:28 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


The "books will never die" comments here are killing me. I bet you guys thought the internet was just a fad.

The internet is not a fad. Books will never die before the internet does.
posted by ovvl at 3:43 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I love books, but a significant percentage of the books I read are mysteries or thrillers or science fiction; they're stuff that I know I will never re-read. And that's when a Kindle (well, the Kindle iPhone app) is great. I don't need my shelves groaning beneath the weight of hundreds of potboilers. I need space for reference volumes, graphic novels, collections of poetry and classics; stuff to which I will refer over and over. There's a place for dead-tree books and e-books in my library. I like both.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:13 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


My parents' bookshelves were endlessly fascinating to me, spanning an incredibly range of topics and styles. It was there I encountered the vital information in Our Bodies, Ourselves and a healthy skepticism in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. There were classics and counterculture literature, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Slaughterhouse Five. Between the library and my parents' bookshelves, I received quite a liberal arts education.

One of the predictors of children's ability to acquire literacy is books in the household. Being surrounded by print material helps children accustom themselves to written material, understand when and how it is used, and even aspire to gain the skill of reading. One of the goals of preschool and primary grade classrooms is to visibly create "a literate environment" - to surround children with the printed word, with words embedded in artwork, with reading in action. Will online or e-book reading do the same? Without a rich culture of illustration, cover art, print - without ownership of something very special in the form of a book, inscribed to you - what would create this affective relationship to reading in a bookless future? If the literacy level of today's teens and college students is any indication, I'm not terribly hopeful for this as any sort of boon for culture or literature. Kids who come from aliterate environments exhibit definite compositional and comprehension problems and delayed reading skill acquisition. I wonder if kids from households where any reading happens on a screen will show similar deficits.
posted by Miko at 4:35 PM on February 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


I grew up in a household where there was no bookshelf, and the few books around the house were half hidden on a high shelf, and most of those were Sanskrit religious texts. It was a matter of immense pride that I had more books on my bookshelf as a child than the entire house. Bookshelves have always been a centerpiece in every subsequent dwelling place, and I watch visitors to see if they are 'book types' or not, just by their glances towards the bookshelf. I'm also agonizing over the ebook reader situation, now that I'm in a spanish speaking country and books in english are hard to come by. The advantages are immense: the possibility of reading the book when I want to instead of waiting and hoping that the order from Amazon somehow makes it unscathed through the Mexican postal system, or hunt around in second hand bookstores. I reckon if I do go the kindle route, the purpose of the bookshelf will change, it will only display books that I have found accidentally or with great effort, rather than a representation of what I am currently reading.
posted by dhruva at 4:53 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Libraries now seem hell-bent on pitching any book that hasn't been read in the last 3 days.

It weren't always so.

I have a fond memory. I took a book out of Butler Library (the Columbia University library) in 1963. I found it in the stacks, which civilian students were then allowed to wander.
It was some epic poems by Robert Southey--early 19th-century swords-and-sorcery trash, in verse. I was reading prose s&s at the time, so I thought it would be interesting.
It was certainly as good any other s&s--literature does not advance at the same pace as electronics. But you knew that. And it was in verse, which just flows in the hands of master--the way every fourth line of a song can be utter crap, but you never notice ("I don't want a pickle?" wazzat?)

I bring it up because the card in the pocket of the book had it's borrowing history--borrowers signed the card, which had the due date filled in, and was kept by the library until the book was returned (did you ever wonder how that worked before computerz?)

The card showed that the book had been taken out three times between 1830? and 1963 (when I took it out for its next semicentennial excursion from the stacks). But generations of librarians recognized its rights and left it peace.
posted by hexatron at 5:50 PM on February 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


Well, the book-fetishism arguments have gone from "ebook readers are the tools of Satan" to "I concede ebook readers are going to succeed, but", so that's progress. The only people I hear many anti-ebook arguments from anymore are either older or hardcore book fetishists like librarians (no negative connotation intended for "fetish").
posted by DecemberBoy at 6:46 PM on February 28, 2010


I bring it up because the card in the pocket of the book had it's borrowing history--borrowers signed the card, which had the due date filled in, and was kept by the library until the book was returned (did you ever wonder how that worked before computerz?)

Heh. When I was in university, I paid a visit to my grandparents. On my grandfather's impressive shelves, I spotted a book which had lost its dustcover and had a spine so faded I could not read it. Idly curious, I pulled it down and noticed as soon as I opened it that it was from my high school library. "Uh-oh,"I thought, "this book is at least two years overdue."

It got worse when I got to the title page... it was a book an auto mechanics, so I figured I must have taken it our when I took auto shop in grade nine, some seven years earlier. I looked at the card for confirmation of my fears, and discovered my father had signed it out and neglected to return it twenty-six years previously.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:46 PM on February 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Didn't you get an insight into people by looking at their music collections? A milk crate of LPs or a shelf of CDs was as insightful as the bookshelf. Scanning an iPod song list? Not as much.
In the same way you don't know if the Daryl Braithwaite track on my iPod is a secret pleasure, or a leftover from when my sister in law was making a mix tape of bad songs on my PC, I won't know whether you care to read a bunch of classics, or you just filled up the eReader at Gutenberg so you would always have *something* to read, even if you have yet to virtually crack one open.
At least with material books or music the effort to acquire and keep the item implied at least some connection. My digital things are so full of detritus that would take hours to scrub, much easier just to upgrade my storage than hunt around deleting shitty little files.
So you never really know what I value from looking at my ipod/ereader (currently the same device).
That said, I still have lots of books and music in physical forms, so I can have it both ways, but I am sure my grandkids might one day think grandpa sure was into music until he stopped buying CDs almost overnight in the Y2K.
posted by bystander at 7:03 PM on February 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


My mother was a librarian, and we didn't own that many books, but there were piles of library books everywhere all the time. It was like having a completely different shelf every week, which was outstanding. But now I am an incorrigible purchaser of books, and have a romantic/nostalgic attachment to big dusty collections of them.

I love how convenient it is to read things on screens—especially searchable texts, when I am trying to find a particular passage or whatever, or articles I have to read but am not married to and don't want to print out—and when I find an ereader I like I will probably fill it with fun stuff to read and carry it around with me everywhere, and that will make my purse lighter by a substantial amount... but I also love bookstores and old books and other people's books. One of the first things that struck me about my SO when I saw his apartment for the first time was that our bookshelves had a few important areas that overlapped, but otherwise we had quite different reading interests, and that was awesome.

Used bookstores are basically my favourite thing: it is awesome to find sweet things in used books (most recently: a business card from a different used bookstore with a note on the back that said, "Hope you like it. It seemed like your kind of poetry. Happy birthday, Falina"—I guess it wasn't their kind of poetry after all?), and go on intense book-shopping expeditions. It is very convenient to be able to get things online quickly and easily, but when it is a thing I don't need desperately right this minute, I like the thrill of the chase. Finding a book by accident or because someone remembered seeing a copy underneath a pile of other books at the bottom of the stairs a few weeks ago and maybe it is still there, that is a singularly satisfying experience.

The best date I ever went on was to a bookstore! My SO stood behind me and rested his hands on my hips and we pretended to look at books for a long time.
posted by bewilderbeast at 7:07 PM on February 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


An interesting aside to the digitisation of books/music and movies is the ability to access back catalogs. A large majority of the books in my house came from 2nd hand book shops, garage sales or from friends collections. As of now, I am confident perhaps 10% of those could be obtained digitally.
My CD collection was full of old stuff too, as I updated that Pink Floyd LP to CD, but I know 99% of my CD collection is available digitally. Because MP3s gave everyone the chance to digitise their sounds, the step to an ipod is small. Similarly the step from DVDs to a media centre computer or some sort of on demand video service.
But there is such a vast installed base of books, and they are so unwieldy to digitise, that I can't see ereaders taking over as completely as Ipods ever.
posted by bystander at 7:09 PM on February 28, 2010


There should be a Flickr thread for people photographing and then tagging their bookshelves. There might already be one, I don't know. But if there isn't one, there should be. Just about every book that makes it to a shelf instead of a box has a story. A lot of those stories sound the same and aren't very interesting, ("textbook, another textbook, book I stole from the library, etc.") but I'm sure a lot are at least semi-interesting.

I have three copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four, for instance. One is a second or third edition that belonged to my mother that she bought new when she was a kid in 1950-something. She was so proud to give it to me, but it was and is in such poor shape that I couldn't really read it without damaging it, which was why I had to get the other one. I'm not sure why I ended up with three. I think my favorite is either my dad's copy of When the Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells or his copy of Hodgson's The House on the Borderland.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:45 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


DecemberBoy: Well, the book-fetishism arguments have gone from "ebook readers are the tools of Satan" to "I concede ebook readers are going to succeed, but", so that's progress. The only people I hear many anti-ebook arguments from anymore are either older or hardcore book fetishists like librarians (no negative connotation intended for "fetish").

That's a fairly ungenerous characterization. Most people who've tried an ebook reader have come away from it with a fairly negative experience, and for a good reason since ebook readers are still fairly annoying to use (the page-changing flicker, for instance). In a few years the kinks will be worked out and ebook readers can offer an alternative to books, which is a mature, refined technology that people have used since they were children and are therefore highly trained on.
posted by Kattullus at 8:08 PM on February 28, 2010


That's a fairly ungenerous characterization. Most people who've tried an ebook reader have come away from it with a fairly negative experience, and for a good reason since ebook readers are still fairly annoying to use.

What Kattullus says. I'm certainly guilty of some book fetishization (browsing Kindle or iPod lists doesn't have the same visual and tactile appeal that browsing books and records or even CDs does.) But a large part of the reason that I don't have a Kindle or similar device right now is practical: I want something that can show me scientific papers in color, something that will let me take notes, and something that is incredibly durable. None of the various ebook readers are there yet. I'll happily stop killing trees in favor of using something Kindle-like for reading biochem papers when the technology is there, although I suspect I'll still be telling you that you can pry my personal (real-book) library from my cold, dead hands.
posted by ubersturm at 8:34 PM on February 28, 2010


I'm a big fan of good-old fashioned physical books, and don't think I'm ever voluntarily giving up some portions of my library, but I reached the point where the problem of managing the sheer volume of them started to become a burden a decade ago. The only solution I could think of was to borrow more and buy less... and I've still ended up with a lot of technical titles for work. eBook readers can't replace my copy of Watership Down (well, copies: the coverless, dog-eared, even bled-upon copy I've had since I was eight, the recent paperback I loan out, and another hardback) and other books I really just love. But they do offer a solution to the space-management problem for titles I don't care as much about, which certainly includes most of the technical stuff and some measure of the casual reading. I will probably buy one soon.

If a lot of people share my perspective, then I think we'll see both paper and eBooks published for quite a while, decades at least, possibly centuries, though I do wonder if we're going to see a bifurcation where the water is tested with eBooks and only certain popular / beloved titles make it to print.

I'd never thought about the social angle of the shelves before, though, and it's going to be interesting to see what if anything can even partially fill that void on the electronic side. Social networking profiles can do part of it, but they're utterly divorced from the spatial and personal context offered by a home. There probably isn't going to be any way to completely replace that particular nexus, which is why I hope that my prediction of coexistence is the most marginal one for paper texts.

Of course, even if physical books do suffer inattention and ignominy at some point, it will likely only be a matter of time before some nostalgia movement resurrects them. See you at PaperPunk Convention 2200 AD?
posted by weston at 9:26 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


My younger self (aged 12) would have told you to read Harold Robbins' Dreams Die First instead. Much juicier.

Eh. My twelve-year-old self encountered Robbins and ... hated him. Fortunately, my parents' library also contained Ada, and so I became an inveterate Nabokovian. Luck of the draw, I suppose.

One of the curious features of my dad's library -- which includes esoteric professional collections such as numerous works related to the history of Galena, Illinois, and first editions of Frank Lloyd Wright books, from when they were released -- was discovering several works on being a gay Midwestern teenager, such as Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest. I haven't yet asked my mother about this aspect of their relationship, though. Without that bookshelf, I can't imagine how I would have discovered this. It certainly reflects on the several men of indeterminate sexuality that I knew he interacted with professionally when I was a kid.

On the other hand, it probably beats pulling down the address bar and finding Hot Hung Hunks or whatnot.
posted by dhartung at 10:02 PM on February 28, 2010


. In a few years the kinks will be worked out and ebook readers can offer an alternative to books,

Something I can read in the bath, spill coffee on, throw against the wall in a rage, drop behind the couch and think I've lost, then stumble upon three months later when I finally get around to vacuuming back there ...

Yeah. I'm still waiting.
posted by philip-random at 10:22 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


... smack a bug with, use to prop up a crooked piece of furniture, hollow out and stash some hashish inside ...
posted by philip-random at 10:24 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I bet you guys thought the internet was just a fad.

Like, how the paperless office/government/economy was just a fad. Oh wait.. it was. The internet created new mediums, while old mediums continue to co-exist alongside it. There are complex interactions between the two, but rarely does one medium totally replace another. Even the much vaunted music industry example still sells lots of CD's despite MP3 rippers and iTunes. Newspapers still sell well in local and regional markets (nationals are hurting) despite the Internet. If your talking 40+ years all bets are off because technology will be far advanced, but in the foreseeable future, books are fine.

One thing I've noticed is that most book readers are emotionally attached to the physical object. There are a lot of reasons for this, a big one is a sense of identity. Books represent something about a person, not just the content (which is important). It is a sign of belonging to the middle-class - you have the money and free time to own and read books, to frivolously spend time and money on mental pursuits. Books are displayed in a home the same way furniture, china, silverware, antiques and other items that say something about belonging to the bourgeois. This identity issue is much more serious and important than a convenience or price question.

My prediction: Fragmented markets. Instead of 1 way of buying a book (hardcover), there will be a bunch: hardcover, softcover, audio, PDF (computer), mobi/etc (ebook reader). Ebooks themselves will begin to fragment into different types, including interactive content, video etc.. such that they are no longer books in the traditional sense.
posted by stbalbach at 10:55 PM on February 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


iRead and kin also represent a sanitized version of a person's reading history. No way I'm going to publicly on Facebook or wherever to admit to all the trash I've read, but I guess there is still some dubious "gems" to be found on my bookshelves. Which is fine by me, I guess. If you're in my house browsing my shelves probably means that you'd like to get to know me, and I you.
posted by Harald74 at 12:08 AM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am both a book fetishist and a Luddite, so I will stake out the extreme end of this argument.

Ebooks are Satan's bulletin boards, and upon them are hung the post-it notes of PURE EVIL, impaled by the thumbtacks of HATE.


(Snuggles with a book, petting it softly. "Shhh. If we hide in here, the Kindle will never find us.")
posted by kyrademon at 12:11 AM on March 1, 2010 [5 favorites]


This discussion brings to mind Stacked Up, a site full of interviews with famous authors about their physical bookshelves. [Caveat: I know the people who run it.]
posted by bingo at 12:20 AM on March 1, 2010


No way I'm going to publicly on Facebook or wherever to admit to all the trash I've read, but I guess there is still some dubious "gems" to be found on my bookshelves.

It's actually the other way around in the digital environment to a large extent. Amazon keeps a record of all your browsing and purchases. Everything you click on is meticulously recorded. When you go to a library or bookstore, this doesn't happen -- it's not possible. Stores may keep an inventory of everything you've bought, but not everything you ever thought of buying. Libraries (at least in the US) are vehemently opposed to keeping a record of your past checkouts for privacy reasons. Amazon and other digital bookstores are not concerned with your privacy. I'm sure there is a way to beam your Amazon purchases directly into your Facebook, in fact.

Paper trails are much less trackable and aggregatable than digital ones.
posted by k8lin at 5:36 AM on March 1, 2010


I have a relatively small number of books - about seven hundred and fifty or so. The only reason I have a two bedroom is so that I have a room to make into a library. It is a cosy, book-lined room that smells like all the old books I buy from second-hand bookstores. It makes me feel safe to go in there and sit and read.

I have moved six times in the last six years, and I have evolved a system to move them, but it really boils down to paying movers, even just to move across town. They make moving longer, too, because I get lost as I'm packing them up. Oh! I think. I haven't read The Small House at Allington in forever! And then hours drift by. We always had books at my house. I remember hiding in the barn on bright summer days in the hayloft, reading and drinking milk and eating pickles. I learned to read early, and my mother knew that the best way to shut me up was to give me a book, and the best way to punish me was to take them away. I built a secret shelf in the bathroom under the sink to evade this restriction, so I could sneak in there and get my fix.

I don't like having people in my house, so I don't get comments about how many books I own except from maintenance people and the like. We've had some good conversations about books.

I have memories attached to most of them. My pickle juice-stained copy of Jane Austen's novels. The copy of The Master and Margarita I found in a truck stop. My copy of the collected works of e e cummings that someone I cared for very much carefully illustrated by hand. Can a digital file smell good, and feel good, and hold so many memories? I don't think they can.

I got a Kindle for Christmas, and I can tell you that it is a showstopper wherever I go. I am starting to think Amazon should be paying me a commission, because people at the YMCA, the university, the mechanic and a bunch of strangers and waitstaff at restaurants have all peppered me with excited questions. It is handy, I grant you that. You can peddle to infinity while reading a thousand-page book without breaking your arm, or take three hundred books wherever you go without lugging the actual books. I can read The Small House at Allington anywhere, or any of Trollope's other works. And since I like to read mostly fiction from the nineteenth and very early twentieth century, I can get everything I'd want to read off gutenberg for free. It is a different kind of reading: more about the content, and less about the experience.

I seriously doubt books will go. They'll become more of a collector's item. I do worry about all the books being thrown out, though. Google Books does not have all that great a scan tech, at least from all the pictures I've seen with the young person's thumb and sideways pages. What will happen to all those books that are being scanned haphazardly when the only extant copy is a smeared reproduction on the internet? What will happen when the current technology is obsolete? How will we preserve the knowledge in those books if we no longer have physical copies as backups?
posted by winna at 5:55 AM on March 1, 2010


Well, the book-fetishism arguments have gone from "ebook readers are the tools of Satan" to "I concede ebook readers are going to succeed, but", so that's progress.

Oh, they're tools of Satan, all right. Satan doesn't seduce us with obvious evil. He seduces us with what we most desire, and only afterwards reveals what we gave up along the way. Quite a popular literary theme... there's an ebook on it.
posted by rory at 6:08 AM on March 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


Amazon keeps a record of all your browsing and purchases.

I'm starting to suspect they only keep track of my purchases so that a few months after buying an item from them they can then recommend it to me.
posted by vbfg at 6:51 AM on March 1, 2010


I'll admit it, the first time I went to my current partner's home, I asked him point blank "Where are your books? I want to judge you."

Initially, he totally failed - having only technical books and maybe only 20 of those. He promised me he had more books back home in Portugal and I took his word for it. It's true, he does. That bookshelf full of everything from Isaac Asimov to Heidi was a nice confirmation of a curious mind.

(My own books are currently scattered between my apartment and my parents' home since SOMEONE didn't own bookshelves until I moved in. Even now, we don't have enough to house my full collections, which are legion. If you want to judge me, I own mainly art books, spec fic, biographies of women who have been beheaded, and nearly everything by Rainer Maria Rilke and Jack Kerouac.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:04 AM on March 1, 2010


I have 770 books organized alphabetically not counting video game guides and tie-in novels (an occupational hazard.) This is probably in large part a reaction to my parents.

My mother is a pretty avid reader - fiction, nonfiction, whatever. She always has a book or two going. But for whatever reason she feels no need for bookshelves. The books are just piled haphazardly all over the house. When I come home to visit, I know I'll find something interesting to read before bed, but finding it is something of a scavenger hunt. I really don't understand how she does it.

My dad, on the other hand, hasn't finished a book in years. He starts them, skims them, and loses interest - of course, he mostly reads business and self-help books, so I can hardly blame him. When I was a kid, he'd leave books next to the toilet, knowing I'd read them. Then he'd have me explain them to him. He's no more on the bookshelf bandwagon than my mother, though. The toilet tank has always been good enough for him.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:36 AM on March 1, 2010


Once upon a time, it was commonplace for books to be sold unbound, and if you were so inclined, you had it bound yourself. People would select some consistent style, so their library ended up with personalized and distinctive books. I predict this will recur as a hobby in the years to come -- people will buy e-books, print them, with the opportunity to do their own design, and bind them. (This is assuming that the forces of evil lose the DRM wars, of course.)

I think that'll be pretty neat.
posted by Zed at 9:01 AM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a rule, I'm on the side of eBook readers, and against the fetishization of books as objects. If you ask me, it's the words that are important, not the package they come in. Also I used to travel a lot for business, and would have cheerfully murdered a stranger to have had a Kindle back then.

BUT. I have serious qualms with the fact that currently, eBook readers are a device of privilege. You have to drop several hundred dollars to get one, just in order to pay full cover price to read the books.

This is a huge barrier to entry. If I'm opposed to anything in this life, it's barriers to entry to READING.

Maybe one day libraries will have a collection of eBook readers that you can borrow for free. Maybe one day used bookstores will throw in a free eBook reader when you buy 10 "used" eBooks. Maybe a national charity will spring up, dedicated to giving eBook readers to underprivileged schoolchildren.

Will that happen? I sure hope so. Because otherwise it looks like we're leaving the poor and the lukewarm-on-reading behind, and that is a Very Bad Thing.
posted by ErikaB at 9:20 AM on March 1, 2010


Books are going to stick around for the same reason printed photos will. There will certainly going to be a lot less of them printed, but that's a good thing. First editions and signed copies will become more valuable, I suppose. I think we'll also see some advances in printing technologies (3D illustrations/holograms?)

I can't imagine reading to a baby off a computer or electronic device. Miko and ricochet biscuit make some other good points.

My digital things are so full of detritus that would take hours to scrub, much easier just to upgrade my storage than hunt around deleting shitty little files.

Exactly why books, records, paintings, and other analog physical art will always remain. People will download stuff to listen/read; people will buy physical artifacts to keep as treasures.

No way I'm going to publicly on Facebook or wherever to admit to all the trash I've read, but I guess there is still some dubious "gems" to be found on my bookshelves.

Forget the "trash." What about the erotica/pornography?
posted by mrgrimm at 9:22 AM on March 1, 2010


I also note that, nostalgic reminiscences aside, a lot of really valuable early reading experiences were provided by books that a child stumbled upon by happenstance. "It was on my parents' bookshelves," "I found it for a nickel at a garage sale," "I bought it at a truck stop," "A neighbor gave me a huge box when she moved."

Clearly, the ability for a child to encounter a book "in the wild" is a critical component for developing a life-long love of reading. Will eBooks have a corollary? I honestly don't know.

The sad truth is that few people read, and almost no one buys books. Publishing companies are struggling, and have been for many years. If you had to choose between a publishing company converting to eBooks exclusively or going under, I know which I'd prefer.
posted by ErikaB at 9:37 AM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


E-readers will not, in any near time, eliminate books being produced, any more than the laser-disc player made VHS go away. It took several more format attempts, and decades, to eventually drive VHS out of the consumer mainstream.

I think this gets at a fundamental issue that several people are missing: ereaders aren't a different format from books, they're a different medium, and to say that DVD destroyed VHS or CDs or MP3s destroyed records or tapes is to miss the point. Can you imagine reading House of Leaves on a Kindle? Would it make any sense when the words burrow through the pages, worm-like, in a way that only makes sense because you can trace the location on the page? Can you read Infinite Jest with hyperlinks instead of endnotes, and pretend that they have the same function? How do you replicate the page of black in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman? There are ways to translate each of these things, but that's what it is: translation.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:42 AM on March 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


[philip-random on the multiple uses of real books]... smack a bug with, use to prop up a crooked piece of furniture, hollow out and stash some hashish inside ...

...cannibalize for emergency loo paper when you're caught out in the wilds of Corsica after some funny shrimp!

(Thank god for extremely long Russian novels...)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:08 AM on March 1, 2010


I do worry about all the books being thrown out, though.

Depends on the book. The vast quantity of books currently on the planet, I could care less about. The Harlequin romances, the Dan Browns, the Robert Ludlums, the Dean R Koontz's, the Michael Redfields, everything by Stephen King since say, Different Seasons -- I can imagine a none-too distant future where these replace coal as the fuel for much our hydro generation (once we've exhausted all those god-f***ing-awful platinum selling record albums of the 1970s-80s that continue to clog up our friendly neighbourhood yard sales and flea markets).

Can you read Infinite Jest with hyperlinks instead of endnotes, and pretend that they have the same function? How do you replicate the page of black in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman? There are ways to translate each of these things, but that's what it is: translation.

Nicely put, and of course, much is lost in translation, but sometimes something is found. For instance, I'd love to see some kind of hypertext extrapolation of William Burroughs Naked Lunch, or much of Robert Anton Wilson's stuff, even a laugh out loud skewering of Atlas Shrugged or The Secret.

The future, as always, is interesting.
posted by philip-random at 10:39 AM on March 1, 2010


The future, as always, is interesting.

Oh certainly, and I don't mean that I'm opposed to the existence of ereaders. I just think that the idea that the hardcopy book is on its way to obsolescence elides a lot of unique features of the medium.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:44 AM on March 1, 2010


I'm one of those terrible people who fetishize books. I remember telling my parents at a very young age that my life's ambition was to be able to walk into a bookstore and buy any book I wanted to read. That's not very ambitious, they'd tell me. You don't know how many books, I remember retorting.

I do lust after a Kindle. My living situation is unstable currently - I've moved three times in the past three years, and I know I'll move at least two to three more times in the next five. Most of my books are in my parents' house and I only keep one or two "safety blanket" favourites, and the four to six books I'm currently reading, with me. It's just a matter of pragmatics. (I've come to hate moving.) I do go to the library for books, but not every library is well-stocked.... Plus, I would like to be able to show my support for the author; if there's one thing I don't mind spending money on, it's books. I would love to have a good eBook reader so I can continue my...patronage, as it were, without having to worry about adding an extra box to the eleven I already lug around.

Still, I definitely agree with the people who think that E-book readers will never fully replace books. Just from the personality aspect alone, books offer so much more: there's the effort of acquisition and the many stories behind them, the physical evidence of devotion in the form of wear and tear, the demonstration of trust when you hand over your only copy of a book to a friend with an admonition to be nice to it, the demonstration of love when you give your copy of your favourite book to your favourite person... All of that simply cannot be replicated by digital media. I send people songs that remind me of them, but it's just different than sitting them down in your living room and playing them a record.* And I've got about 35 books on my iPod from Project Gutenberg that I'm slowly working my way through, but the presence of one book over another is a click's difference. What can that tell you about me? All of that is just about what my collection tells the world; it doesn't even begin to touch on what my collection tells me.

But my point (and I do have one) is that the two media should co-exist. Imagine if you bought an eBook for $10, and loved it so much you had to have a physical copy to cherish and treasure forevermore. I say you should be able to pay the difference between the eBook and the physical book, plus a small mark-up and shipping, and have a copy sent to you. This could work for everything, not just books: you could order newspapers for dates that are particularly important to you, magazines with an article by someone you know, etc. Instead of print media battling it out with digital media, why not have the two complement each other? One offers convenient storage and travel, and the other offers memories. You should have your cake and eat it, too.

Get on it, Amazon.

*Of course, you can play tracks for friends when you're both in the same room, too, but that's not really the point. Sharing electronically has become so easy that we seem to no longer feel the need to make it an experience to be had together.
posted by Phire at 11:15 AM on March 1, 2010


The other problem, of course, is that after the Apocalypse of 2011, your ereader will only be useful for so long except as a surface for cutting cocaine. My several hundred pounds of books that I will push around in a shopping card whilst hiding from cannibals? Good for a lifetime*.

*3 - 4 years
posted by shakespeherian at 11:29 AM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thinking about it more, it seems to me that the "e-reader replacing books" issue is a great example of a First World Problem. The vast majority of bookstore/library patrons will never be able to afford an e-reader. (I speak as someone who has spent more than my fair share of time in both.) Hell, I can't justify plonking down for one and I have a non-trivial amount of "disposable" income.

Perhaps the book selection will become slimmer as publishers start paring down available titles, but I don't see the book as object going anywhere anytime soon. The biggest sellers in most bookstores are not the books that appeal to the upper middle class, or even the middle middle class. The biggest sellers in the Borders where I worked were African-American fiction (the mass-market "urban lit" stuff), manga, and Nora Roberts. Your favorite author probably sold three copies per year, at best. People are going to keep buying books, they're just not necessarily people like you and me who read MetaFilter and ponder what we would do without our copies of Infinite Jest.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:30 AM on March 1, 2010


The last book I bought was the current edition of a $50 O'Reilly Javascript book that I'd been repeatedly borrowing from a co-worker. I got it at a library sale for 75¢. Probably most of the books I've acquired in the last year were through Paperbackswap, roughly $3 out of pocket per credit. Most of the rest cost less than a dollar at library sales. Most of the rest were remaindered or used.

I've been lusting over e-ink readers for a long time. But it remains the case that I see that $200 price tag and imagine the very tall stack of books I could get for that. And the books I got for a reader would be books I couldn't then swap for another book on Paperbackswap. (And I won't touch a reader whose content can be remotely deleted, or an e-book I can't freely convert into the format of my choice, so that I have the option of reading it on another device, present or future.)

When readers' prices drop into the double digits and book-DRM has gone the way of music-DRM, I'll certainly get one. Maybe I won't last that long. But until then, I can last a long, long time with paper books. There are disadvantages -- I don't have the big fat hardcover I'm reading with me simply because it'd be a pain to carry. But I'm consoled by my easy-to-carry paperback, which cost 98&cent (it still has the sticker.)
posted by Zed at 12:09 PM on March 1, 2010


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