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.


Sparkleneely said...

I love this more than words -- on paper or in this case, digital -- can say.

amosgirl said...

I saw a lot of your books that I wish were my books. Perhaps if you look at the 42 boxes of books that I have packed you'll find some you like and we can swap? I like that logic, how bout you? Fantastic post Andy Murdock!

Andy Murdock said...

@Sparkleneely - Thanks! All of this talk about the weight of words makes me want to re-read The Phantom Tollbooth. Ironically that's one book that is not in my collection.

@amosgirl - So you want my copy of "Maureen Birnbaum Barbarian Swordperson" I take it?

Anonymous said...

Re: how to represent your personality essence to guests, in the absence of physical books in your home. People have more online friends now. As such, online friends don't ever visit you because they live 320 miles away and/or don't actually want to meet you because that's scary. So they never see your books. They only see your postings about books. Just keep a few treasured book photos and you're set.

Anonymous said...

Also, I need to alter that quote. Make it "we're looking at more words than ever, we're just not actually reading them." There, all better.

Rana Jean said...

My "book image" problem is that I give away the books that I love because I get so excited about them and want others to read them. I hang on to the ones I didn't like so much. So while I don't have a copy of "The Liars Club" or "American Pastoral" to show off my literacy coolness, my shelves are lined with things like "Ten Days in the Hills" and "Three Junes".

Dean said...

The annals of Maureen Birnbaum no doubt holds wisdom for us all. Regardless, I'd rather reread The Phantom Tollbooth (I can loan you my copy if you like).

Elizabeth said...

I've tried to read Love in the Time of Cholera three times, and Anna Karenina four. Are you suggesting I should just lose all hope?

And studies back you up, about your rooms showing your personality--better, in fact, than any self-reporting:

Andy Murdock said...

@anonymous - So true. I look at far more words each day than I actually read.

@Rana - Just don't invite anyone over and you're in the clear.

@Dean - Ooh, please! I would love to read that again.

@Elizabeth - I remember Malcolm Gladwell mentioning that study in 'Blink' (which happens to be on my bookshelf). And yes, after 2 tries it's probably never gonna happen.