Ben talks to book fondlers

I spent the labor day weekend organizing my office. This can at times seem like a Sisyphean task, throwing out, recycling, giving things away to garage sales or Goodwill, and selling books. I actually managed to make some rather stunning progress over the course of three days, but it has led me to inescapable conclusion:

I have too much stuff, especially media.

My Dad did a recent post on the benefits of physical books, quoting Churchill’s advice to hold you books from time to time, even if you’re not going to read them. Dad actually has a pretty even hand, promoting a both/and culture, though still seeming to prefer the tangible qualities of books as keepsakes and memories. And I have to admit, having some of my grandmother’s old Bible’s is pretty cool.

But there are others who practice an almost fanatical devotion to the physical book, regardless of content or context. They speak of the smell of the pages, the bookmarks and other items they hide in-between the covers. They evoke the touch of aged yellowing paper, the satisfaction of physical weight, etc.

As someone who has been surrounded by books all his life I think these sorts of people need a reality check (albeit a playful one).

The physical book is a piece of technology: The printed book is an amazing technological achievement, and has been responsible for the democratization of knowledge and story telling. But at the end of the day it is just one kind of medium with a certain set of properties. Books have permanence, even cheap ones can last decades. They only require energy in their initial creation (as opposed to the battery powered e-Reader). Books can be any size and shape, with variations in quality of paper, typeface and binding.

The modern eReader is light, holds charge for a long time, can hold thousands of books, and is roughly the size of a paperback. If we’re talking the Nook in specific, it is contoured to fit comfortably in your hand, turning pages with a gesture or button press. And it is free from the distractions of tablets and computers (even the Kindle Touch has games and a browser which can be occasionally diverting). Millions of books are available within seconds and you can hold a library in your hand you’d need a whole house to store.

The best books make the best use of their medium. The printed sci-fi paperback, mystery novel, literary genre, romance novel etc. is really no different in one form or the other. Sure the weight of a big book can make it feel like an accomplishment, but the younger generation is already pretty used to the idea of non-physical gratification. The artbook, the colorful textbook, the children’s book (sometimes) are better suited to paper. But well crafted tablet eBooks and apps can offer ways to tell a story books cannot.

Not all books are created equal: As I organize and try to live well in my house, I need to be able to differentiate between the book I’ll read once (if that), and the book I’ll keep coming back to. If it’s a book I love, I’ll get the nicest copy possible (but I’ll probably also keep an electronic copy for everyday use). Almost all technical references are better served on a tablet device (which can hold 1000 pages as easily as 100) and have search capabilities and hyperlinks. These books don’t need the permanence of dead trees, as they’ll be out of date in 5-10 years anyway.

One of the reasons I wrote an electronic Fractal reference was because there were so few affordable and available for the eReader. More than half of my research was done using dead tree books, often the day’s work had to be carefully selected, as my bag could only carry a couple of books at a time. Sure I love having two shelves of fractal books, but it would be equally nice to just carry them on a tablet when I’m working out.

Keep memories: Keep your nice books that have meaning to you. I’m not the kind of guy who writes in books, but reading the marginalia of my other relatives is nice. But just because something is old does not mean it is precious. I have plenty of old books I obtained cheaply from Half Price Books or library sales that have little particular significance to me (even if occasionally the old cover is cool). But bookshelves don’t show cool old covers, but well organized eBook libraries can. Agatha Christie is a good example. I have about two dozen of her books on my eReader, and a number of old paperbacks. She’s one I’ll replace with an eBook copy, then sell the physical.

I guess my message is, it’s okay to have stuff, just don’t have it because you acquired it thoughtlessly. I’ve lived a life where books just piled up, and now I’m having to weed them back just to make my places of writing and working livable again. I like having some physical books (my complete Peanuts collection is a treasure for example), and I certainly have a lot of kids books and Hardy Boys in the wings for my hypothetical child to enjoy. But I also had a lot of junk that kept me from getting the most out of my library. And even a lot of the things I enjoy for entertainment’s sake, are best kept on a device that doesn’t get bigger with each book I add. Interests change over time, and an eReader full of books I no longer want to read at least isn’t keeping my door from opening.

Woo rambling post. Got any thoughts of your own?


Filed under Books + Publishing

2 responses to “Ben talks to book fondlers

  1. I admit I’m a fondler too. I love very old books, just because they are very old. I’ve got several on my shelves that I purchased for that reason, but never read. I’ve got others that I purchased because they were old, ended up reading and loving them. Rootabega Stories by Carl Sandburg is one example, from the $1 rack at Powell’s bookstore. In about 36 hours it became a favourite bedtime story book for my daughter. Wacky and incomprehensible, but oh so funny. And I feel it’s more satisfying to watch my progress through a physical book than an electronic book.

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