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. Tom Stitt – Startup business development, funding and market adoption guy. 1.650.523.4944
    Tom says:

    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. Christa Avampato – The short of it: Writer. Health, education, and art advocate. Theater and film producer. Visual artist. Product geek. Proud alumnae of the University of Pennsylvania (BA) and the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia (MBA). Inspired by ancient wisdom & modern tech. Proliferator of goodness. Opener of doors. Friend to animals. Fan of creative work in all its wondrous forms. I use my business skills to create passion projects that build a better world. I’ve been called the happiest New Yorker, and I try hard to live up to that title every day. The long of it: My career has stretched across Capitol Hill, Broadway theatre, education, nonprofit fundraising, health and wellness, and Fortune 500 companies in retail, media, entertainment, technology, and financial services. I’ve been a product developer and product manager, theater manager, strategic consultant, marketer, voice over artist, , teacher, and fundraiser. I use my business and storytelling to support and sustain passion projects that build a better world. In every experience, I’ve used my sense of and respect for elegant design to develop meaningful products, services, programs, and events. While building a business career, I also built a strong portfolio as a journalist, novelist, freelance writer, interviewer, presenter, and public speaker. My writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post,,, Royal Media Partners publications, and The Motley Fool on a wide range of topics including business, technology, science, health, education, culture, and lifestyle. I have also been an invited speaker at SXSW, Teach for America, Avon headquarters, Games for Change, NYU, Columbia University, Hunter College, and the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. The first book in my young adult book series, Emerson Page and Where the Light Enters, was acquired by a publisher and launched in November 2017. I’m currently working on the second book in the series. A recovering multi-tasker, I’m equally at home in front of my Mac, on my yoga mat, walking my rescue dog, Phineas, traveling with a purpose, or practicing the high-art of people watching. I also cut up small bits of paper and put them back together as a collage artist. My company: I’m bringing together all of my business and creative career paths as the Founder of Double or Nothing Media: • I craft products, programs, and projects that make a difference; • I build the business plans that make what I craft financially sustainable; • I tell the stories that matter about the people, places, and products that inspire me. Follow my adventures on Twitter at and Instagram at
    Christa Avampato says:

    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…


  5. John Battelle – Bay Area, California – A founder of NewCo (current CEO), sovrn (Chair), Federated Media, Web 2 Summit, The Industry Standard, Wired. Author, investor, board member (Acxiom, Sovrn, NewCo), bike rider, yoga practitioner.
    John Battelle says:

    As it was with music, so shall it be with books (and I’m an author). F*CK DRM, let us SHARE!

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