I don’t know how many books I own. I’ve never counted. They are not few in number. They get shuffled around, moved here and there, set aside and dug out again. Some have sat on the same shelves for years, untouched. Some wind up in a different room of the house every week or two. Some get given to the local public library for its book sales, at which I buy more books to replace the ones I got rid of. If a personal library has no ebb and flow to it, no immigrants and emigrants, it’s no longer home to a working reader.
An interview I did a while back got me thinking about which books I’m really attached to–as physical objects, as codices–and why. There are expensive hardbacks I would happily give away and cheap softcovers that I will cherish long after they fall apart (and some have). The Anchor paperback of The Secret Agent, the one I read in 8th grade, the one whose glue binding has lived up to its cheap reputation, has more value in my library than an early 20th-century copy of Quentin Durward, which has lovely illustrations but never mattered to me as a story.
Alexander Halavais, an associate professor of communications at Quinnipiac University, took a more dramatic approach than mine to culling and tending his library. He decided to undertake his own book-digitizing project. He’s been taking books from his collection, slicing off the spines, and scanning the texts, which he keeps as digital files. You can read more about how and why he does this on his blog, A Thaumaturgical Compendium. Here I’ll just say that it’s a combination of space constraints (small NYC apartment plus toddler plus 5,000 books equals time for something to go), a desire to simplify and declutter, and a recognition that different books have different uses.
Not all of Halavais’s books go on the chopping block. He spares the special ones: fiction, art books, unique volumes (for instance, his mother’s copy of Das Kapital with her marginalia in it). Most of what he’s scanned is nonfiction he might want to look at for research purposes–Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital, for instance–but has no special need to keep around in print form.
I enjoyed talking to Halavais about his project. He’s a bibliophile, and he feels a little bad about what he’s doing. “I’m over a thousand books in, and even now I get that–especially with hardcovers, for some reason–that gut feeling of ‘Will I be judged by the book gods for doing this?'” he told me. “Destroying books is very difficult.”
I’m not likely to try it myself any time soon but what Halavais is doing doesn’t bother me. I may be in the minority, though. One person who commented on the article found the slice-and-scan idea “abhorrent.” Another said, “I find myself both fascinated and horrified. I’ve thought about digitizing some of my 4000+ books, but could never muster the strength of will to destroy them in the process.”
Could you do it? How attached are you to your books? Which ones matter most to you and why?
I cringed all through reading that article! Most of my personal library is fiction, so I don’t have any research reason to digitize it like Halavais does. It pains me even to cull and send books to the library or used bookstore, but I console myself that at least somebody else will read them.
Is a digitized version of your library as safe, more safe, or less safe than your hardbound one? Until I knew, I wouldn’t undertake this project.
Are we judging the advisability of doing this only on your ability to retrieve the information in those books for future use? If so, seems you could do it more easily with a digitized library.
How high a value do we put on a reader’s private experience with a book? My guess is that that is what causes the shrieks of horror. They’ll have to pry the silver-bound paperbacks of Proust I originally read from my cold dead fingers. But I don’t kid myself that I feel that way because there’s something inherently superior about the book format. In the course of our lives, we pour a lot of ourselves into our physical surroundings–into books more than many other things. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad, but it’s good to know where you and your sense of yourself end and the physical object of the book begins.
No. Wouldn’t do this. A good chunk of my personal books are scholarly, and I can’t retain scholarly information read on a computer, ereader, etc. I really have to mark books and write things down to retain information, and it does need to be marking on paper with a pen.
Fiction, possibly, but I’ve cut way back on buying fiction and read library copies instead, unless it’s a book I really love.
And if it’s a book I really love, I wouldn’t want to cut it up. I also think I’d find a digital copy of it way too sterile.
Brett Bobley says
Nice post, Jennifer.
I’ve recently embarked on a new project to give away most of my books to charity. Why? Call it an epiphany — I dunno. But several factors have lead me in this direction:
1) I have tons of books and the collection just gets bigger. I’m out of space.
2) I have really come to enjoy reading new books in electronic form. I particularly like being able to read Kindle books on multiple platforms (laptop, iPhone, iPad). For me, this allows me to read no matter where I am, as I always have one of those devices with me. But this has also made me come to realize just how…(wait for it)…wasteful(?) physical books are. I walk into my library, stuffed with books — hundreds, no, *thousands* of pounds of paper and who knows how many dead trees. Why? My life is half over and chances are I’ll *never* read most of these books again. Why hoard them?
3) I’ve also decided — perhaps in light of the ebook — that my notion of saving these books for my young son is a crazy idea. First of all, he’ll almost certainly read books electronically. And even if he does decide to read a paper version of Democracy in America or Plato’s Dialogs in college, what are the chances that his prof will assign my (now) 40 year old edition? Zero. Zilch. So he’ll need to buy it again. So why am I keeping it? And, frankly, if I really ever do need to consult Plato, it is faster and easier for me to grab it on the web than to search though my piles of books. And why keep all these novels? What are the chances his taste will overlap so much with mine that it is worth the effort to save them for years and years?
So will I be cutting and scanning my books? No. But I am giving a whole lot of them away in the hopes that other folks — hopefully folks who actually want to read them and not just horde them — will take them.
Amanda French says
I’ve always been a bit of a reverse snob in this regard; I’ve tried never to keep books around unless they really mean something to me and I plan to read or refer to them again sometime. I also got into the habit in impoverished grad school of a) never buying books if I could possibly help it (except for class, when I always bought the exact edition I was supposed to, unlike some students I’ve had), and b) selling even rather meaningful books to the many used-book stores in Charlottesville to pad my wallet.
For me, getting rid of physical books has been my way of trying to keep myself intellectually honest. It’s tempting to keep stuff around just because it looks impressive, or because a whole lot of books always looks impressive even if they’re just mysteries, so I police that temptation. I give myself enough problems through being a smarty-pants showoff as it is. :)
Carole Sargent says
I agree with Amanda, partly because I work in the book business, so I travel light and de-acquisition books whenever possible. I probably only have about 70 or so books at home, and my box of giveaways is a popular stop at Georgetown every year.
But you asked about digitization, and my answer is “Not yet.” It is close, because I love Kindle books on my tiny laptop (not on a Kindle device), and I enjoy other digital options for certain types of books. But that’s maybe 10% of my library.
It seems that Halavais may also have been pulling a stunt to get people to argue the opposite. By slicing books, he has folks coast to coast clutching their pearls and crying “Save them!” Maybe that’s what he wanted…?
Note that he’s an associate professor of Communications. Maybe he studied viral marketing gimmicks as a way to self-promote and also get a save-the-books discussion rolling? If he did, who can blame him… it often works.
Great comments all. Thank you.
Laura and Sophylou, you’re far from alone. I’ve been fascinated by how many people react viscerally to the idea of cutting up books. For all the talk about and movement toward e-books, the physical book still inspires a protective sort of reverence. I can’t think of any other class of inanimate object that causes people to feel that way about it. Antiquities, maybe, or great art, but there we’re talking about items that are rare or unusual or historically valuable, not mass-produced assemblages of print. I’ve been thinking that books are to a lot of us what the old household gods were to the Romans–not the great ruling gods but a bit of the divine in the everyday.
As Mark pointed out, books are also repositories for experiences, so they become a kind of aide-memoire or a physical extension of ourselves. Which helps explain why many of us are so protective of them still. That unglamorous paperback of The Secret Agent matters to me in part because it gives me back my 14-year-old self. But I have the story, and the memory, even if the book disappears.
Amanda, Brett, and Carole: The idea of moving books along, finding them new homes, not letting them weigh you down is incredibly appealing. We had friends over for dinner the other night and I decided to vacuum the bookshelves. I hadn’t done it in a while, and the amount of dust that had piled up along the top edges of some of the books was a reminder to me how long it had been since I’d bothered with them. Some of them do play a more active role in my intellectual life than they do in my day-to-day life, but it’s good to keep an eye on I’m keeping all that printed matter around. (
Brett, I sometimes am oppressed by the thought of the weight of all that paper, much of it put to not especially memorable uses. Back when I did a lot of reviewing, there were books I would cheerfully, even gleefully have shredded, I disenjoyed them so much. But the figurative and literal weight even of good books can get to be too much. I want to be a reader, not a caretaker. Rehousing–a nicer term than de-accessioning–some books is a way to keep a library from becoming a museum. When I do get an e-reader, which I expect to do soon, I wonder how/whether it will change these interactions.
Living with kids who love to read but who aren’t weighed down with reverence for the book as object has been instructive, too, but that’s probably a subject for another post.
Cassandra @ Indie Reader Houston says
I like to have hard copies of books. I like having something to hold in my hand. However, I think that I would be perfectly happy digitizing my paperback collection. I couldn’t touch any of my hardbacks, though. I don’t have many (though I’m getting more since I started my blog), and I don’t buy them unless I already love the book or love the series. They mean a lot to me. I respect what he’s doing. I may join him someday when space becomes an issue. I’m not there yet, though.
Cassandra: Thanks for the comment. It makes sense that you’d value your hardcovers more since you buy them more selectively. The hardcover-paperback breakdown is murkier for me. There are certain paperbacks I am very attached to, mostly because I read them at a significant moment in my life or acquired them under memorable circumstances. And there are many hardcovers I don’t care that much about. A lot of those are books I haven’t gone out of my way to buy and read, though; they just find me, which means I don’t have much invested in them at the start. Some become favorites; others I’m happy to find new homes for. I haven’t gone as far as scanning anything yet. The personal library of the near future will almost certainly be a hybrid of print and e-books, with the proportions depending on the habits of the reader. It’ll be fascinating to see it take shape.