What is it about books furnishing a room? I’ve been a book lover for as long as I can remember, a publisher for most of my working life and joint owner of a rolling inventory of well in excess of 1,500 books, and I’ve always held to the notion that they do. Lately however, I’ve been wondering rather more about what that might actually mean. Is it just about covering wall space – look at the pretty spines!- or is there something more?
I love my own bookshelves, especially those custom-built in the study that have a sturdy, permanent feel about them that the IKEA Billy never quite achieves. I love that books come in different shapes and sizes, creating challenges of organisation, so that order is matched with aesthetic appeal. A challenge, by the way, never shared by music or film lovers, whose wares only really come in one basic physical shape. Books really are different to the extent readers have a physical relationship with them that isn’t true for music or film lovers, whose consumption is – and always has been – mediated by other technologies.
But all his is now changing for book people such as me as it has for music and film people over the last 10 years. I’m going though that change as an iPad owner of something over 6 months, a piece of kit that I have also supplemented with a Kindle. Of the 20+ books I have bought and read during that period, only 2 have been physical books (ironically, one of these was the biography of Steve Jobs).
On the whole, I am loving this transition: if I’m interested in a book, I can sample it easily, purchase it in moments and be reading almost straightaway; I no longer have to lug heavy hardbacks around on the train; I can highlight, annotate and share in ways that will make reading collaborative and interactive in exponentially more creative ways than they are now. In a sense, it puts the focus back on the Art of Reading, the words, the ideas – after all, the point of the exercise – without the flimflam of ‘liking the way a book feels in my hands’.
There, are however, things I will miss. Actual shopping is one of these, for despite all the clever algorithms that Amazon has developed, there’s nothing quite like the serendipity of browsing a well-stocked and well-informed bookshop. This is still possible, of course, but for how much longer now that Borders is gone? And I confess that whilst I still go into bookshops, I rarely buy there, as I prefer the lower cost of ebooks and their greater convenience. I’m not sure how much longer I will do this anyway, as browsing without buying makes me feel dishonest.
The other kind of browsing I have always loved is that of other people’s bookshelves. This isn’t just nosey, it’s about human cultural interaction, about the revelation of character and discovery of shared interests. It’s the essence of why books do furnish a room – they put our souls on display. How will this discovery, this sharing take place when we sit around in empty rooms void of books, void of music CDs or DVDs of films? Following each other on twitter, or friending each other on Facebook, for all the good thing these technologies bring, isn’t going to be quite the same thing. I like browsing and borrowing, and I reciprocate by being a promiscuous lender; my lending tends to have a permanency about it too, both because it gives me pleasure to pass on my treasure, but also because it frees up space for more purchases.
For, alas, bookshelves are finite (even for a colleague of mine who built a whole extension to house his burgeoning collection). So, effectively limitless digital libraries ought to be nothing but a boon. However, for one thing, outside of a tight circle (e.g. a family), it’s not possible to share. At the same time it dispenses with the need to cull. This might equally be seen as a good thing – no need ever to get rid of anything – but in truth, culling is a tortuous and essential pleasure. It forces choice: What books still really resonate, which books, in effect, would you put in a crate and have shipped to a desert island? Do you cull books you have read, or those that remain unread? (I’m an ‘unread’ guy, which people find weird, but my thinking is that if you haven’t read a book, it isn’t properly grafted on to your personality, so is in some way fraudulent.)
I think culling is essential. It allows you to take your library (or music or movie collections) down to the real you, eliminating the poor choices, the wrong turnings, the simply execrable. Physical collections thus have a living, organic quality about them. Digital libraries will, I fear, never have that kind of integrity, and the cast-offs don’t have the chance – at least not yet – to find a new, better home, via re-selling. Everyone’s digital library will then be sustaining its very own Island of Misfit Toys, which may not do anyone any good.
So, something will be – is being – lost to our shared cultural life. Books furnished a room not just by having colourful covers, but because of what they said about the character of its inhabitants, and because of the ways they could spark shared cultural experiences. All that will be lost as our cultural life is mediated ‘invisibly’ rather than through physical artefacts. What remains in people’s homes will be more like museum displays than libraries, preserving what once was, but no longer is. Books will at that point become literally furnishing, simply covering wall space, like the vast library of Downton Abbey, to provide a backdrop in the same way a Persian carpet brightens and breaks up the ground beneath your feet, but with no greater meaning.
My library is headed in this direction. I cull now almost never, despite buying books at, if anything, more frequently. I know that if we move, we’ll take very little of it with us, due to cost, time ,effort and space. I can’t help feeling a little sad about this, even as I embrace the possibilities and opportunities of the future.