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What We Hide Behind Our Electronics


Thanks to Gabriel for sending me this great Slate.com article about e-books vs. physical books and another aspect of loss in that changing tide.

It really struck a chord with me, because books, and the books that people choose to read for pleasure, are an endless joy and fascination for me. One of my favourite things to do (occasionally surreptitiously and politely, but usually unabashedly) when I am in a new friend’s home for the first time is to peruse their bookshelves. Is it neat and orderly, tidy? Is it largely textbooks and career books? Is it stuffed to overflowing, books crammed here and there at various angles? Does he have rare and collectible books? Does she have a secret shelf of shame devoted to bad romance and old Sweet Valley High from her tween years? What’s on the nightstand? Which book looks to have been read the most?

We lose all that, now. I imagine it would be considered very rude indeed to pick up someone’s e-reader and start idly flicking through, but inching from one end of a shelf to the other, head cocked at an uncomfortable angle, glass of wine in hand, is perfectly acceptable, joyful snooping. I love exclaiming when I find one of my favourites on their shelf. I love begging to borrow when they have a book I’ve been dying to read. I love silently judging when they have Grisham, Clancy, Koontz, and perhaps old issues of Soldier of Fortune.

For me, books are part of my house, part of my decor, and part of who I am. When you come into my home (mind the clutter), I expect and welcome you to eye the shelves, laugh at how much Calvin & Hobbes I have, ask about titles, pull down copies, admire my few cherished collectible books, borrow, and discuss.

The thought of replacing the four plus shelves worth of dusty, papery, dog-eared books in my home with one sterile e-reader seems efficient, yes. Tidy. Minimalist. And it makes me sad, at all the happy chatter and exchange of ideas and understanding, of bonding, that might be lost as a result.

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Beth Carswell

About Beth Carswell

I've been reading, selling, researching, loving and writing about books with AbeBooks since 2000.

4 Responses to “What We Hide Behind Our Electronics”

  1. I think the increase of e-readers will only increase the personal potency of book ownership. The removal of practical purpose from an object means an increase in its cultural symbolism. Records went from being something everyone had to something only connoisseurs own. VHS went from being universal to being a cult art/film geek affectation. Newspapers are mutating into refined luxury objects. Books will, at worse, go from being everywhere to being selected solely for their personal meanings.

    Even if people own less books, it’s okay. You can learn as more about a person from their favourite three books than their whole 30 bookshelves.

  2. Beth Carswell

    “Records went from being something everyone had to something only connoisseurs own.”

    So you mean books will be relegated to milk crates in the apartments of disaffected hipsters who will proudly talk about how they have Hesse’s Siddhartha on paper?

    Kill me.

  3. Beth Carswell

    Also: “You can learn as more about a person from their favourite three books than their whole 30 bookshelves.”

    I disagree. I like to see the variety people enjoy.

  4. Hipsters are too quickly demonized. There’s nothing wrong with being particular about what culture you absorb. Books will become a point of pride and personal affectation.

    I dis-disagree, a variety of items can give a rough sense of a person but if you look just at their favorite ones, or the ones they’ve kept with them for decades, you’ll see a core sample of their personality.