Most readers hoard books and before long start complaining of lack of storage space. In societies where every town has a library this does seem crazy (although I know public library stock isn't always what we'd like it to be). It’s even more crazy if you don’t reread books – I know several people who never reread yet have houses creaking with books. Why don’t they just pass them on once they’ve finished with them? Or sell them? And is it really sensible of those of us who do reread to hang onto our books year after year, lugging them to new homes, building shelves for them, arranging them (and do you dust your books? Some people do!), when we may read them again once, perhaps twice, in a lifetime? It is true that some books are hard to find and thus if we are likely to reread them it does make sense to keep them, but this doesn’t really account for most of the books we own.
(Not entirely illustrative of anything in this post, but a beautiful photograph by Anthony DeCosta)
I know that on the whole human beings are naturally acquisitive and we like to ‘have’ things, including books. Still, though, I flatter myself that the reason there are heaps of books cluttering every corner of my home is not because I am a rampant materialist; I certainly don’t indulge greed in any other way. (Oh dear, that’s a lie.) And this is because I believe that books – like music – are a slightly different category of ‘thing’ to china dogs or cushions or many of the other objects which catch our magpie glance and fill our homes. They contain worlds of thought and imagination beyond themselves; they give us pleasure and creative experiences and new ideas. They make us more than we are.
Because of this, books exist as signifiers; they tell the visitor something about their owner and they tell their owner something about him- or herself. They can act as status symbols and some people do keep books to show off (and I am guilty of this – I had a copy of Roger Scruton’s Philosophy of Music for about ten years before I finally admitted to myself that I was never going to be clever enough to understand it and gave it away), but never only to show off – one does have to read or intend to read the books, otherwise the strategy will backfire. But on the whole, someone’s book collection is more interesting for what it reveals about a person – or what that person wishes to have revealed about them (their stash of Jilly Coopers may be safely hidden in their bedroom away from your prying eyes): an unexpected interest in eighteenth-century science, a love of delicately observed realist fiction. And even more interesting, it tells you, the owner of the books, about yourself and your life – that you are someone who studied French literature at university, that you devoured that copy of The Master and Margarita one rainy weekend in Berlin, that one day you will get round to reading those books on Gothic architecture because this is who you are and who you hope to be. When you are short of space and have to prune your book collection, sometimes you have to let go of these real or imagined selves and that can be immensely painful – or liberating.
Now e-readers will satisfy our practical need for books; we’ll be able to keep many more of them,
including the obscure and rarer ones, and we’ll never again feel the shame of a visitor taking down a book and then dusting a big cobweb off it. But without books as physical objects, we’ll never again find the tear stains in Villette from the first time we read it, the Christmas message ‘To Sandra with much love from Auntie Enid’ in an old Penguin we bought second-hand or a forgotten postcard from a now-forgotten friend who once visited Lake Garda and thought of us. And without books as signifiers, we won’t be able to broadcast an aspect of ourselves which we readers consider fundamental to our identities. Scrolling through someone’s list of titles bought on an e-reader will never make the same impression as a wall lined with bookshelves: it’s so visually boring we probably won’t get very far. It’s curious but because the life of the mind and imagination is invisible we need the proof that this life exists, the books, to be very much visible.
I’ve fallen rather into the books/e-readers dichotomy that I don’t believe exists but I hope in considering why perhaps some people's walls bow under the weight of bookshelves this post explains further why I think books will persist alongside electronic devices.
(If everyone else in the world does dust their books and never experiences dead spiders falling out of them, I don't want to know.)