Friday, November 20, 2009

Books May Be Dying, But They're Trying To Kill Me First

"Print isn't dying — we're reading more words than ever, we're just not reading them on paper."
This was a comment made in a talk last week by Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler. It's an interesting and provocative assertion, and one could run with this statement in many directions: the future of publishing, the death of the newspaper, the rise of the e-reader, etc. However, because I went through a move this week, this quote resonates on a much more personal scale with a question I've been pondering, namely:

Why do I own so damn many books?

There's nothing like moving to make you question why you hold onto certain things, and having 7000 lbs. of words on paper somehow makes books jump right to the top of the shit-list. Right now I think print should die, simply because I don't want to carry it around anymore.

If the only time I see most of these books is when I pack them into boxes for a move, do I really need all of these books? Determined to get an accurate picture of the situation, I did a detailed quantitative survey of the books on my shelf, the results of which are summarized in the following pie charts:

Firstly, I found that my books could be broken down into 11 functional categories:
  • Reference books. I adore reference books, but I came to the realization recently that I don't use them any more. It's sad, because I love flipping through a real atlas, or pulling out the magnifying glass to use with my condensed OED, but it's extremely rare for me to find the need to consult these books thanks to the wonders of the internetz. Fact: Your computer will never smell as good as an old dictionary.

  • Cookbooks. Cooking is one of my favorite hobbies, but my meals cooked to recipes used ratio is something on the order of 1000:1. A few books get heavy usage, others (I'm looking at you, Batali) just sit there full of potential recipe energy (PRE).

  • Trashy airport books. Perhaps "trashy" is a bit strong, as I would never call Ian Rankin or George Pelecanos trashy. Lee Child, on the other hand... Either way, the pulp mysteries and thrillers get a place of shame hiding behind more respectable books. Also, they're small, so they actually fit behind other books.


  • Books to establish nerd cred. Predictably perhaps, my shelves have more than their fair share of books that do little beyond proving to anyone that may look that I'm a total nerd.

    Nerd credentials firmly established

  • Ye Olde Bookes. I'm not an old-book collector to any notable degree, but I have a few that I've pieced together over the years that always get a prominent place on my shelf to draw eyes away from the trashy airport books.

    Ye Olde Bookes look better in sepia

  • Books I'll honestly read (or re-read). A small fraction of the books I own might actually get read or re-read at some point. I'd like to think it's a larger fraction, but I keep buying new ones, so I never make any progress on the old ones.

  • Books I'll never read again but am still attached to. God, there's a lot of these. I took a course on modern Italian literature in college that I absolutely loved, so I have lots of Calvino and Pirandello lurking on my shelves. I went through a phase of reading every Philip K. Dick book I could get my hands on. This made sense when I was 18, but now I can't imagine reading them again.

    A shelf full of Philip K. Dick books that haven't been touched in years

    This purchase must have been deemed necessary at some point in my life.
    At this point I'm only keeping it for the title.


  • Classics that I just can't seem to part with. No, I'm probably never reading The Odyssey again, but you can't get rid of Homer, right? Well, wrong apparently, because there are several dozen free versions online right now.

  • Long out-of-date travel guidebooks. Following this study, this fraction is now much smaller than depicted in the pie chart as I decided to recycle almost all of these, saving only the mid-90s edition of the Lonely Planet French Polynesia guide, because it had a good recipe for poisson cru in it.

  • Books I've been meaning to read for years. I've started Love in the Time of Cholera three times now, so maybe I should just accept that I'll never finish it. I want to, and I've liked it every time I've started it, but somehow I always get distracted by something shiny and put it down. I once convinced myself that I needed to learn to play Go, so I bought not one but two books on the game. I still don't know how to play Go (although I might if I ever actually opened the books).

    Challenge me to a game of Go, you'll win. In fact, all you have to do is tell me that you've won and I'll believe you.

  • Instruction manuals for graphing calculators. I don't do much graphing on calculators these days, but if I ever need to know the integral of a parabolic cylinder function, I know where to turn. I don't even own a VCR anymore, but at least I have the manual so I'll know how to program the clock if my old VCR suddenly reappears in my living room.
Other ways to look at the books on my shelf:

Books I don't actually need (shown in 3D for emphasis)

Does this mean the digital revolution will solve all of my woes? If all I was concerned about was weight and space, then yes. Digital books have the same content and the same cover art — the content is all there. But clearly that isn't the whole story, as this next chart shows:

There are some books that I should simply get rid of: I don't use them, and I don't even want to use them, I just haven't mustered up the energy to get rid of them because, face it, no one else wants them either and recycling books just feels like a waste. I'll keep the rest of the books around because I want them, not because I need them. This may be foolishly sentimental, especially when I have to move heavy boxes full of books I'll never look at again up long flights of stairs while cursing the paper they were printed on, but the simple fact is that I like having a book collection.

If albums and books all go digital, they're invisible. What goes on our walls? This may sound silly, but I don't think this is a trivial question. When you put books and music on your shelves, you're declaring to the world, "This is me. This is what I like. This is what I toiled through in school. I display these because they represent who I am, who I was, who I want to be, and who I pretend to be when I think no one is looking. I place that one there because it makes me look smart, whereas the one hiding behind it makes me look like someone who desperately needed something to read on an airplane. I keep that one over there because it has a funny title. Oh that? That came with my graphing calculator." At least we still have art, but if we use books and albums as external manifestations of our personalities, what fills the void when they disappear?

Whatever the answer is, I hope it's lighter than books.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

iPhone: The Backpacker's Best Friend?

How much technology do you need with you when you go on a backpacking trip in the wilderness? Or, perhaps more to the point, how much do you actually want with you?

My general rule with packing for a backpacking trip is to bring as little as possible, and only as much as you're willing to carry. When a friend brought his iPhone on a recent backpacking trip, I scoffed at the idea. Why on earth would you want to bring that confounded device into the wilderness? There won't be any signal, and you certainly can't pound in a tent stake with it.

The iPhone compass: because real compasses are a snooze-fest

As often happens post-scoff, my initial skepticism softened over the course of the trip as it became evident that the iPhone might in fact be worth considering on your packing list.

With an iPhone you get all of these:
  • Camera
  • GPS & Compass
  • Light
  • Emergency contact (if you happen to have signal)
  • First aid info
  • Taking notes, writing journal entries
  • Plant/animal identification apps
  • Dictionary to settle important arguments
  • Calculator for adding up your score in Rummy
  • Level: you can check to see if your campsite is level (it never is)
  • Entertainment: games, podcasts, music, showing friends stupid pictures/movies
  • Fending off bears
  • More potentially useful stuff hidden amongst the thousands of other apps
There are some drawbacks to many of these functions, in fact I'd venture to say that it's not particularly good at any of the important things. The camera is pretty abysmal and has no flash, but it does well enough as a point-and-shoot during the day. The GPS functionality is limited. The light is no match for an LED flashlight. Note taking takes longer than a pencil and paper. Many apps require connection to the internet. As an emergency contact device, the iPhone is not the best phone for maximizing reception in low coverage areas. Battery life on iPhones can be pretty bad, especially when you're, say, using it. The speaker on the iPhone is hopeless. Needless to say, the iPhone isn't built for withstanding the elements. On the plus side, for all of these functions, limited as they may be, the iPhone is light and extremely compact compared to carrying an individual tool for all of the above functions.

But here's the rub: by using an iPhone in the wilderness, you might just be reserving a special room in hell. You'll get to share this room with people that talk on cellphones while riding horses, smoke on chairlifts destroying the air for everyone behind them, blast loud music or have a gas-powered generator for their television in campgrounds, people on snowmobiles that zoom by while you're cross-country skiing, and a suite of other people determined to spoil the experience of nature with unnecessary bits of modernity.


While hiking through an old-growth Douglas fir forest in the Marble Mountains, I thought I heard people behind us. I stopped to listen; I could hear thin, distant voices, but couldn't make out where they were or what they were saying. Were there people gaining on us from behind? I doubted it, as we were hiking at a fair clip on a rarely used trail and hadn't passed anyone. When my iPhone-toting friend walked up, I found the source of the voices: he was listening to a podcast about the state of venture capital in the current economy through the tinny speaker on the iPhone.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Hmm? Oh, listening to a podcast. I already finished Madeleine Albright at the Commonwealth Club - you can listen to it later if you want."

I wasn't inclined to take him up on this offer and instead pictured myself snatching the phone from him and crushing it under the heel of my hiking boot with a satisfying crunch.

Now I'm the last one to fight the future – after all I have multiple Twitter accounts, blog in several places, and recently got a little too excited by seeing Chad Vader and Kevin Pollak in a hard-fought bout of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots — but there are times when the trappings of technology interfere with our enjoyment of the world. This was one of those times. I go on backpacking trips to get away from tweets and touchscreens: I want to build fires, swim in pristine lakes, hunt down wild onions for making soup, make seats more comfy by padding them with bracken fronds, and bore my friends to tears by explaining the concept of buzz pollination. No offense to Madeleine Albright and venture capitalist podcasters, but I would be happy if they stayed at home. Well, unless they wanted to carry the tent and some extra beef jerky.