The tragedy of the virtual bookshelf

This weekend one of my favorite authors – science writer James Glieck – wrote in the New York Times an interesting homage to books in this day and age of digitization and “fungible” storage.

One could imagine the book, venerable as it is, just vanishing into the ether. It melts into all the other information species searchable through Google’s most democratic of engines: the Web pages, the blogs, the organs of printed and broadcast news, the general chatter. (Thanks for everything, Gutenberg, and now goodbye.)

“But I don’t see it that way. I think, on the contrary, we’ve reached a shining moment for this ancient technology. Publishers may or may not figure out how to make money again (it was never a good way to get rich), but their product has a chance for new life: as a physical object, and as an idea, and as a set of literary forms. ”

Gleick’s piece brought to the forefront an issue I’ve had since last summer. I’ve been a Kindle user since early September and have, to date, read the following titles through the $350 device:

  • Baseball Between the Numbers
  • Moneyball: Michael Lewis
  • The Audacity of Hope: Barack Obama
  • Oblivion: David Foster Wallace
  • Genghis Khan: Jack Weatherfield
  • The Glass Castle: Jeannette Walls
  • World Without End: Ken Follett
  • What is the What: Dave Eggers
  • Execution: Lawrence Bossidy, Ram Charan
  • Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen

I like the Kindle. Indeed I love it. But I can’t indulge my penchant for giving away books thanks to this selfish device. I can tell people to read “Moneyball” but I can’t back that up by emphasizing my desire to share that experience by giving them my copy. The Kindle, ultimately, is a selfish device that cannot be loaned. Last week, while driving my son home from college, I sang the praises of “Shadow Country,” this year’s National Book Award in fiction. But I can’t lend it to him and indeed, tragically, I don’t have a physical copy to park on my favorite shelf next to the previous three books in the Watson series.

Oh the agony of the modern bibliophile. On the one hand my wife isn’t yelling at me for bringing more bricks of paper into the house, heavy rectangles that need to be stored someplace. I also don’t need to cram them into my backpack when I travel.

But, now I have a plastic device in a leather sleeve that isn’t half as ergonomically satisfying as a book, one that needs electricity to survive, and which I can’t lend to other people.

So I am conflicted. Like Glieck, I am delighted Google is digitizing the world’s libraries, giving a second life to millions of titles doomed to acid based paper and the physical barriers of getting inside of the Widener Library at Harvard. On the other hand I envisioned myself retiring, a wealthy man, into a lavish library with a leather chair and a roaring fire, and no other responsibilities in my dotage than to read my collection while getting sipping expensive eau de vie and shuffling around in my smoking jacket, a snoring terrier at my feet. Instead I get a glowing panel casting, in the words of Tom Wolfe, a “tubercular blue glow.”

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

8 thoughts on “The tragedy of the virtual bookshelf”

  1. It’s too bad that the recording industry didn’t set a good example for how to operate profitable, open media distribution in the digital age. I suspect your quandary will exist for quite some time, at least as long as it takes for a critical mass of writers to go around publishing companies and publish online in less restrictive formats.

  2. Unless Amazon has changed their policies, multiple Kindles registered to the same Amazon account can share books, magazines and newspapers. Obviously, this would almost start to make economic sense if Amazon reduced the price of a 2nd or 3rd Kindle to the sub $100 range. Not likely. A feature that enabled Kindle users to publish their reading lists and “share” with other Kindlers might provide Amazon with evidence to extend a 2nd/3rd Kindle discount if one’s sharing resulted in new book purchases by the sharees at or above some threshold.

  3. I think we are all conflicted… especially us book nuts. Of course there are advantages that I love but we give up a lot that cannot be replaced. A few additional ones that come to mind are the secondary market for used books, getting your books signed, and the future appreciation and retention of the cultural artifacts.

    I do not see the printed book going away anytime soon but I worry that we will reach the point where fewer titles will actually get printed and their costs will be very high because the volume of actual printed books will dwindle to the point of financial infeasibility.

  4. Hi Chuck,
    I wonder about these same issues. I just bought a new set of beautiful bookshelves that I love. They showcase my books so well, and I considered how I would feel if those bookshelves were only virtual. I get as much joy from having my books near me as I do reading them. They provide me with a chronicle of where I’ve been and different interests I’ve developed over time. Books I sat with long into the night while I was in college, studying the library. Books I consulted for certain new projects I worked on.

    The challenge for literature going forward is how do we incorporate technology without that technologies diminshing our enjoyment of the literature. I don’t have any answers to that yet…


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