Books, Ebooks, and What to Keep

20:49 Sun 03 Jun 2012
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In the time since I bought a Kindle, I’ve been extremely happy with it. But the rise of the ebook has brought with it questions about my relationship with books, specifically about book ownership and the notion of a personal library. I’m still trying to cut down on the physical books in my possession—the limited physical space that partly prompted acquiring a Kindle in the first place is still the same—and am finding it difficult to do so.

One of the reasons for this difficulty is some confusion over the notion and purpose of a library. What is a library for?

  • Storing books I haven’t yet read but intend or hope to.
  • Storing books I have read and think I might re-read.
  • Storing books I want to use as references.
  • Displaying books for the benefit of visitors (i.e. as a way to indicate something about me—or, less flatteringly, as vanity and status-seeking).
  • Reflecting, for myself and others, my reading history/proclivities, as an aspect of the environment of my home.[1]
  • To prompt thought, creativity, and exploration by encouraging random or meandering dipping in.
  • Storing books that can be lent out or given away.

The storage purposes are almost certainly better addressed by ebooks. Further, by making it so easy to acquire books—or store them—it calls into question the strict need for a personal library per se, at least of the books that are easily accessible digitally[2].

The display and reflection purposes, however, are not well served by ebooks. Visitors can’t see my ebook reading history in my apartment, and there’s no good solution for this. The same applies to reflecting my reading in my environment, although the solutions to this are more apparent—it’s not hard to work reminders of my own reading into my digital environment, given that I track everything I read.

Similarly, it should be possible to encourage “idle curiosity” in an elibrary[3] by displaying its contents in the right manner, but it’s unlikely to be as inviting as a real array of books—particularly to someone brought up on books as physical artifacts, for whom a collection of books always demands investigation.

Loaning or giving away ebooks is a problem. The strict “loan” options supported by some ebooks systems aren’t acceptable, and they’re only active for certain books—at the discretion of the publisher. The Kindle ones seem to have a time limit, I think of two weeks, which is not how it works when I loan people physical books. As far as I know, none of the systems support giving away or selling ebooks. This just increases the motivation to rip the books out of their DRM shells in order to deal with them reasonably, and to treat them more like physical books—except, of course, that as digital files, the obvious thing to do is copy them, not move the originals.

Without getting into a side argument on copyright infringement here, I don’t really see a problem with this on a small scale. Books of mine have certainly been given away repeatedly, first by me and then by others down the line, and of course the publishers and authors only see the first, new, sale—the same applies to used book sales—and there’s nothing wrong with that model. Giving someone a copy of an ebook I’ve read, and having them do the same for a friend, and so on, is the same. The problem arises when you get large-scale sharing; I’m not saying this is a “problem” in the absolute sense, but rather that it’s the qualitative breach with the old, physical, model.

A related problem is giving books as gifts. I’ve always loved buying books for people, but as my own relationship with books is changing, and I’ve been trying to cut down on the physical books in my possession, my attitude about that has changed also. I’m not as eager to give people the physical objects because I wonder about the burden this represents[4]. But giving ebooks isn’t simple—you have to know what platform the recipient is on, and there’s an extremely long history of human gift-giving centered on the presentation of physical objects that isn’t easily moved over to the realm of the intangible.

The immediate problem for me is deciding what to keep, given everything above. I’m having trouble establishing good criteria, but these are what I’ve been applying so far:

  • Keep books given as gifts. This will eventually be unsustainable, clearly, and even before that will perhaps make more difficult the use of the library as a reflection of my own tastes. I’m going to have to make this a softer rule.
  • Keep books that I like and that are not available as ebooks. But should that latter clause instead be “are not available as ebooks or easily available online”? After all, if a book is easy to get, regardless of whether it’s physical or digital, why not use that potential availability as storage instead of storing it myself?
  • Keep books I want to use as references. This is probably the easiest criterion—I have no desire to get rid of my copy of Garner’s Modern American Usage.
  • Keep books that I haven’t read yet, unless I’m sure I’m not going to read them. My current attempts at slimming the library have revealed that I have a lot more of these than I thought—perhaps enough that a drive to read them (so that I can remove them) might significantly tilt the balance of books read this year back to physical books over ebooks.
  • Keep books that are favorites and classics—this is the truly problematic criterion. What do those things mean, exactly?

    I loved Moneyball, and it’s a classic of its genre, as well as being a highly influential book—does that I mean I keep it? (Right now my answer is “no”.) What about The Illuminatus! Trilogy, which I love and which I feel loyalty towards, and that is simply should be on my shelves? (The current answer is “yes”.) What about the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series, which is a classic[5] and a favorite, and which I currently have in attractive hardcover first editions, but which I also have digitally? (I’m currently planning to get rid of them.)

That last criterion makes things difficult, and brings back the display/reflection purposes of the library, as what to keep becomes an issue of the composition of the entire library rather than just the individual book.

That’s not good for my drive to get rid of physical books, as it more or less guarantees a big pile of books marked “undecided” and a requirement to shape the library over multiple passes.

There are also issues around how to handle the elibrary side of things, and on how movies are undergoing a similar evolution, but I’ll leave those for another time.

[1] Of course, the fact that the dominant feature in my apartment right now is junk might say something about those proclivities too, but let’s not dwell on that…

[2] Which is likely to soon mean just about any book that’s a “classic” or has been popular in the last 10–20 years.

[3] If ebook is fine, why not elibrary? Some equivalent term needs to exist.

[4] This is a little silly—first, other people are unlikely to burdened by the physical objects; second, other people are unlikely to feel as I do that you kind of have to keep the books people give you; third, we might be at a point where physical books are more appreciated precisely because most people will get them as gifts while buying ebooks for themselves (although I have no idea how sustainable such a model would be economically).

[5] Although its place as a classic isn’t secure until the series is actually finished, of course.

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2 Responses to “Books, Ebooks, and What to Keep”

  1. Niall Says:

    Man, I feel your pain, except I have a lot more space to store the books and a lot more books.

  2. jeffliveshere Says:

    This might fall under “reflecting”, but it’s different enough for me to amount to another reason: Some books that I have read sort of define a certain time in my life, and I find it comforting to simply have them around. Often the cover art/fonts even bring back fond memories, when I look up at them on the shelf.

    That said, I suspect that I will eventually replace most of my physical books, but not all, as long as DRM-less copies of them (epub is my default) can be found.

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