I love books. I always have. More than just the words and stories, I love books as physical objects: the cloth ribbon of the spine, the sound of pages turning, the smell of the paper.
Like most writers I’ve met, I was an early and voracious reader. At first, I got my fix from the public library, but once I started being able to buy my own books — Scholastic books from the school flyer, or the complete Three Investigators series — I quickly filled my shelves.
Over the years, my collection grew. A lot.
Transporting them was always a pain, of course. During my first few years in Los Angeles, I moved into a new apartment every summmer, which meant boxing up everything again and again. But I felt sure it was worth the hassle. I knew that someday I’d own a house with a proper library, and I’d have a permanent place for all these books I’d accumulated over the years.
I now own a house with a proper library.1 It can hold roughly 2,000 books. And since I honestly don’t ever want to move again, I think I finally have library I always wanted.
Except I don’t really want the books anymore.
Most of the books I’ve read in the last few years have been on the Kindle. E-books obviously have pros and cons, both for readers and authors. As a consumer, I mostly value their convenience: my book is always there, ready to read when I want it.
But it’s not just the experience of reading that’s changed. The notion of “owning” a book on Kindle is very different than owning a physical book. An e-book doesn’t sit half-read on a table, mocking you for not finishing it. There’s never a question of where to store it when you’re done. E-books are the clever butlers of literature: there when you want them, absent when you don’t.
Over time, e-books have become my default choice. If a hardcover and a Kindle edition are the same price, I’ll pick bits over atoms.
And the same holds true for books I already own. Until quite recently, if I wanted to re-read Candide, I’d find the paperback copy on my shelf. But now, honestly, I’m more likely to read it on my Kindle, or my iPad or my iPhone.
So why keep all these printed books?
I can think of a few reasons:
To show off. For most of human history, vast personal libraries meant you had money and culture. Even now, I’ll confess to gawking at library porn. But something about huge private libraries makes me queasy, the same as when someone has a giant swimming pool or double tennis courts. How much can you actually use those? Why not share them?
To remember. With some books, I remember exactly when I read them. I can feel the plastic-y beanbag chair upon which I read The Mists of Avalon. The physical book helps ground the experience in a place and time; it was the only time I stared at those pages.
To have a backup, just in case. An electromagnetic pulse could theoretically wipe out all the data in North America. But if that were to happen, I think I’d have bigger concerns than wanting to re-read Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
So, for the last year, I’ve been casting a hard eye on my books. Every few weeks, I pick a new shelf. Taking each book in hand, I force myself to choose between three options: Keep, Donate or Recycle.
Recycle is for books that don’t have value for me, and probably don’t have value for anyone else. In this category go old software manuals and how-to books, “modern” science books more than 10 years old, and outdated travel guides. My test isn’t “might this book be useful for someone,” but rather, “is it likely that someone wants this physical copy?” If the answer is no, it goes in the blue recycling bin.
The Keep books go back on the shelf.
The Donate books go in a box that I drop off at the library.2
Deciding between Keep or Donate starts with one simple question: “Is the best place for this book my shelf, or some else’s?”
When you phrase the question this way, it’s surprisingly easy to empty your shelves. You’re not abandoning these books; you’re giving them new homes where other people can enjoy them.
You’re like Andy in Toy Story 3. You’re doing the right thing.
Except that most of the books you’re giving away aren’t Buzz and Woody. They’re the various indistinguishable plastic soldiers you never really cared about.
These are books you half-read and barely remember. These are gifts you received, unsolicited. You’re never going to read them, so why not let someone else?
When I think back on my fantasy library, I suspect what I wanted more than books was a temple of knowledge, a sanctuary in which I could find quickly answers to any question.
And now I have that. It’s called the internet, and it’s free.