Friday, February 26, 2010

For the love of bookshelves

Kevin Hartnett has posted a nice, short piece over at the Millions about bookshelves. The piece, like shelves themselves, is simple but very effective, considering how the rush to digitized books will mean the eventual end to printed books, and the end to the packed bookshelves many of us keep in our homes.

Hartnett mentions how looking at someone's bookshelves is a way of seeing into their inner lives, not revealing too much necessarily but revealing a bit about their character.

A chief virtue of digital books is said to be their economical size—they take up no space at all!—but even a megabyte seems bulky compared to what can be conveyed in the few cubic feet of a bookshelf. What other vessel is able to hold with such precision, intricacy, and economy, all the facets of your life: that you bake bread, vacationed in China, fetishize Melville, aspire to read Shakespeare, have coped with loss, and still tote around a copy of The Missing Piece as a totem of your childhood. And what by contrast can a Kindle tell you about yourself or say to those who visit your house? All it offers is blithe reassurance that there is progress in the world, and that you are a part of it.

This is a tragic truth. In fact, I went to a friend's house for the first time recently, a novelist, and of course I went right to the overflowing bookshelves. I'm always drawn to bookshelves in a new house, and always disturbed - for the record - when I walk into a home void of bookshelves. Anyway, as I started inspecting, he jokingly said something along the lines of, "Soon we won't have books taking up space, we'll just have Kindles," and I immediately started acting out walking up to a small screen, perhaps posted on the wall, and hitting a button to scan through titles, just as one might approach an ipod and run through the song titles. It worries me that I could react physically in this way, so quickly, as if it would be the same. It's like my body was all ready for the transition, just as we quickly got used to remotes and keyboard shortcuts in the past.

Hartnett gets at the heart of the matter. These books on someone's shelf - a family member, a new friend, a date - immediately indicate an interior, just as in a previous post I mentioned Junot Diaz's use of books indicated an interior world for his characters. But more than anything, I really love when the books on those shelves look used, look marked up or worn out. It's nice to see pristine books that are cared for as well, but it's the beat up paperbacks that I always want to grab. That's why this comment from Hartnett really smarts: " To the extent that bookshelves persist, it will be in self-conscious form, as display cases filled with only the books we valued enough to acquire and preserve in hard copy. " Oy vey, he may be right.

I'm keeping my shelves, and god knows my boyfriend's books aren't going anywhere anytime soon. (Thank god because I still have many I plan to read someday. Moving in with him was like buying a whole library - definitely an asset.) And I'm grateful. I'm all for technology, but I will not be impressed by anyone with a sparse, shiny home without a book to be found, with a Kindle or i-pad sitting shiny in the middle of the room. Maybe I'll just grab the device and start scanning titles, but again, to go back to Hartnett, who also links to another post:

Edan has commented on how they portend a drawing down of the public space in which we read—with the Kindle you don’t know what the person next to you is reading, or how far along in it they are, or whether their copy of the book is dog-eared or brand new (because it’s neither).

It's a fair point. An e-book will not say as much about the owner, so you won't necessarily know how much the books uploaded say about this person. (Of course, the files won't stick around long anyway, so one could assume many of the books found haven't even been read.) I don't want to lose this connection with others in the interest of technology.

Mark another point for the printed book, right?

(Hartnett's post found via Shelf Awareness.)

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