Books as Clutter

Like the culture at large, I’m moving from physical media to digital. I’m slowly getting rid of almost all paper documents via my scanner. I haven’t bought a CD in years. I’ve never been a collector of movies. I haven’t had a roll of film developed since the early 90s. Our printer isn’t even usually hooked up, and when it is it’s usually to sign-and-scan a contract or something, as I haven’t found a great replacement for that yet.

Even more than the digital conversion, I don’t even bother with much physical media. Files are backed up to online services like S3 or Rackspace via Jungledisk. I have some 1TB external drives for peace of mind and Verizon’s inevitable billing errors, but never burn anything to DVD or CD.

I kept all of my old CDs, because I wasn’t comfortable with throwing out full-quality versions of something. There is FLAC, but at the time I switched a few years ago I wasn’t happy with the FLAC-encoding tools so I went with 256k VBR MP3 files, and figured I’d re-encode them again someday and then be able to toss the discs. This argument does’t make a ton of sense given that I now pay for degraded copies of new music, but that’s a little psychology I’ll put off analyzing.

Books, however, are tough for me. I’ve been using a Kindle for a while, and love it, as do most who have one. I look at my bookshelf and think “this doesn’t really need to be here”. I’ve tossed a number of books, but I pick up an old Choose Your Own Adventure book and the innumerable hours I spent reading and re-reading them comes back to me. The thought of throwing it away is unsettling.

I will probably never even read these books again. I’m not sure if my potential future kids would bother with them, but the sentimentality runs too deep. So I keep them, and even my minimalist girlfriend probably understands. It’s not like I have thousands of them, there’s probably 100 books I can’t toss.

Some books I keep because technology just hasn’t caught up to them yet. Cookbooks, picture books, and so on. These will probably go eventually, I end up tossing a few each time I look through the shelves. The sentimental books that are signed by the author or were gifts I keep too, I don’t see a real clutter issue there either, and again, I don’t have too many of these.

The quandry comes with new books. These books have no sentimental value yet, nor will they ever, and I think that’s part of the trouble. The part of me that wants to move into the future, to be more mobile, more organized, more free of physical possessions has not yet found a decisive victory over the nerd who did a book drive for his Eagle project and spent those precious half-days of school lost in the annex at the Ames Free Library.

I’ve always looked at books as some strange kind of investment. I spend $10 on a book, and read it. I can read it again years later, or give it to someone else, there’s some residual value, (not monetary, selling books is hardly worth the trouble IMO). But now I click “buy it now” and I still realize what is arguably the real value of the book, yet I have nothing to put on my shelf and page through from time to time. Nothing to jog my memory when I see it, or spark a conversation when someone else sees it. Nothing I can hand to a friend and say “you really need to read this”.

I’m not even that concerned with Amazon going away or revoking my access to these books, while that would be unfortunate, I can always buy them again somewhere else. Physical books can be destroyed or stolen too, probably even more easily than e-books. Nor am I too concerned with the privacy issues, although I do recognize that lack of concern is a privilege not everyone has. The idea of an oppressive government “burning” or suppressing a book is real as well, but I think computers are so numerous now that this knowledge will find a way to survive. One small hard drive can hold literally millions of books, I’m sure at least one copy will survive.

Unfortunately this isn’t a very constructive post, as I don’t think there is an actual solution to this. I guess this is more of a eulogy. It’s a problem faced by most generations that see the things they grew up valuing being devalued, and it stings for someone who, if you asked him anywhere from age 5 to 15, probably would have said the most valuable/important thing he owned was his book collection.

  • i’d like to see an amnesty for books. provide some proof of owning books and get free access to the digital equivalent. one way might be that you have to donate books to a library / nonprofit as proof. you’d physically haul in your books and get credit for each book.

    this would cost almost nothing (other than negotiating with confused rights holders), as you are very unlikely to re-buy a book you already own, and it would create heaps of good press for all the ebook service, which still have an uphill battle to fight against the installed base. imagine all the shelf space / clutter cleared up around the world!