“Where Are the Books?”

Books have lined the shelves of the offices of all my colleagues at every school where I have worked.  In my early days of teaching, or when spending a term as a visitor, I’d wander into a learned neighbor’s office to get acquainted.  The titles and content of those books announced a persons’s intellectual background and interests. They were instantly and extensively a topic of earnest discussion.  If my interlocutor should be interrupted by a call or an assistant popping in, I’d amuse myself by grazing over the titles, scanning the shelves that added up to an inventory of knowledge.  On their shelves and mine, students attending office hours would likewise find easy ice breakers.

When visiting the homes of friends, especially new friends but longer-term friends as well, it has always interested me to see what books are stacked on their shelves, in the living room, the study, along hallways. At parties, these books have been great conversation starters, fountains of discourse and debate.  You could even pick them up and hand them over, citing the passage on a given page where you recalled a point being made particularly well.

My wife and I, when house hunting the last time around, inspected two dozen apartments before falling in love with the homey charm of the one where we live now.  As an anonymous broker showed us through the absent homeowners’ place, we’d scan the stacks of books that gave a sense of the people who lived there–lovers of art history, a denizen of Wall Street, devotees of history, biography, the Civil War.  Stephanie and I would joke, when viewing that rare apartment empty of books, that the absence of books was an absence of warmth and that we would not trust the people who lived there.  “Where are the books?,” we’d ask in bewilderment as we rode down the elevator, never to return.

Today, with reading so often done and “books” acquired digitally, stored in pixels on hand-held devices, we see fewer new titles gracing the offices of colleagues and teachers, the homes of friends.  No longer on display, they can no longer be conversation pieces.  The average age of books on shelves is rising steadily and even these becoming anachronistic.  Shelves are given over to decoration, clocks, cups, bells, photographs.   My wife and I wonder, “what will our kids think, 10 or 20 years from now, when they see an apartment without a single book in it?”  Maybe nothing.  We would be horrified.

But exactly what the future holds is uncertain.  One of my recent books, The Essays of Warren Buffett, is selling briskly in both print and digital, though with vastly more sales in print than digital, yet it costs $35 in print and half that in digital.  Time will tell.

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23 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    Not to go into too many details but a policeman once visited my home. He was so captivated by my bookshelves that he completely forgot his reason for being there. He even forgot to shoot my dog. To hell with the little plastic boxes, I want a book, a big one too. And keep ’em coming.

  2. Lizeau says:

    I grew up in a household full of books. My first husband and I added a fourth bedroom to our house so he could have a library – the room was lined with bookcases to hold his collection, some of which he inherited from his grandfather. In my current household, there are bookcases in every room – in fact, my husband removed the drywall from a wall in the guest room and used the studs to create a built-in wall of books. All digital? Oh, the lost pleasure of browsing someone else’s collection! Fortunately our kids haven’t yet switched completely; they still have plenty of the three-dimensional kind.

  3. Richard says:

    I have a very short attention span and the unread stack of books is a constant reminder of things to revisit. Stuff unread on my Kindle is easily ignored.

  4. Oakenheart says:

    Given the choice between spending thousands for books and shelves, and not being able to get certain out of print items, I’ll take the e-reader, multiple free libraries like this one: http://oll.libertyfund.org/ and have thousands of books at my fingertips. Imagine lugging all those books with you on vacation or to the doctor’s office.

  5. JP says:

    I always find it interesting when intelligent and well-educated people don’t have any books in their homes. My parents were doctors, and I was surprised to see how many of their colleagues had few if any books other than medical references. It was no coincidence that their colleagues really weren’t very interesting…

  6. Austin says:

    Wife and I planning to build our 3rd home to include an office with a lot of space for books. Looking at builders’ portfolios of homes they built, we are struck by so-called libraries , many stunning and well built, without books.

    I do not think it is kindle that has killed the book, but rather pop culture. Not only do people not read books, for entertainment, like they used to, but people do not get together to sing like they used to.

  7. I sympathize — you really can learn a lot about a home from the reading material on display — but I also sympathize with readers who plump for e-reading devices…at least, if they have my problem with books.

    I have a very large personal library — about 13,000 volumes at last count — and it’s driving me out of my home. If the e-reader hadn’t come along when it did, I might be featured on that TV program about hoarders, except that the “junk” would all be books, and carefully organized by author at that.

    So I bought an e-reader. I use it for my “entertainment” reading, and for the more ephemeral current-affairs books. For now, I still buy nonfiction books likely to endure in value in “dead tree” form. But there might yet come a time when i’ll be forced to buy even the worthiest, most perfectly timeless tomes in digital form…though possibly on CDs rather than as paper. At least the limit on the number of CDs one can stuff into a middle-class home is more generous than the limit on paper books.

  8. Publius says:

    I’m with JP (#5). A house with books in serious quantities, which nearly always connotes some number of serious books, is more likely — though not guaranteed! — to contain interesting people.

  9. Kendall says:

    I think what we need is a device like a digital photo frame that could be kept on a shelf, only it would slowly scroll through the books registered to your Kindle.

  10. I write about cars, the auto industry and car culture. The Henry Ford Museum redid it’s car display and opened Driving America last year. In front of many of the cars are display cases with artifacts from that car’s era, including a lot of ephemera.

    I worry that going forward into the digital age we’ll have fewer physical artifacts. At this year’s big auto shows, a lot of the car companies did not have printed brochures about the cars but rather a barcode that you could read with your smartphone to download a digital brochure.

    Information is information and it doesn’t really matter what form the text is that you read, but there’s still something about being able to look at and handle an old Life magazine or a booklet from the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

    How can you collect author signed first editions of an eBook?

    Ronnie Schreiber
    Cars In Depth

  11. Squid says:

    I’m with Preemptive Offender — I live in a small home, and our library quickly outgrew our capacity to keep it. The e-readers have been a godsend! We still invest in “real” books where we feel it’s important to have them, but for most of our daily reading, it’s nice to have them in a format that doesn’t require regular trips to the Goodwill to give them away.

    In any case, I find that what makes people interesting is the amount of material they’ve gotten from the books into their brains, as opposed to how much of it they’ve left on the shelves.

  12. Tonestaple says:

    The only advantage to an e-reader is the ability to pet one’s cat at the same time one focuses on one’s reading. With my Kindle Touch, I have one hand for the book and one for the kitty who seems to know when I want to read and comes a-running. It’s much harder to manage the cat while reading a good-sized 3-D book and if I don’t pet him, he won’t shut up so I can’t read.

    But I still love having books around, and reading 3-D books, and when I walk past a house with the curtains open and I don’t see any books, I have to wonder what on earth is wrong with those people.

  13. When I sold my house, the “stager” made me remove the books and book shelves to make it look larger. She chose six books with nice bindings to display on a built-in shelf.

    I donate the books that I don’t plan to read again or use for reference to a high school (the subject of “Our School”) and to the “friends’ of the public library. As I buy more books for my Kindle, I’ll have fewer to donate.

  14. Cam Edwards says:

    First off, love the fact that you used Montaigne’s Essays as the graphic. I’ve got a copy on my shelf at home.

    Thankfully I’ve instilled a love of reading in my kids. I think it helps that they see my wife and I reading books all the time.

  15. robert says:

    Something to consider (from a book lover): Can you bequeath your e-books to family? What little i have seen so far is you cannot. your are licensing the rights to the publication for yourself, but when you pass, so do those rights.

  16. Ellen says:

    I live with books. Lots of them are on shelves; lots more are in computer memory. If a book is a read-once, there’s no reason to annoy a tree. You can carry a hundred digital books with you for those slack moments waiting in an office or vehicle.

    A reference book or a classic is better on paper. And some books, I have in both forms. Paper for permanence, digital for searching.

  17. Doubting Rich says:

    Interestingly a lot of books are still cheaper in print. I have a lot of good books (it was lovely to take a visitor, looking for something to read on her stay here, through my collection and remind myself of the delightful collection I have amassed) but prefer to read my kindle now. Yet sometimes Amazon will offer a new book, printed and delivered, cheaper than the Kindle edition. Frequently one of the businesses selling there will. The other day I even bought a book from a supermarket for £1 which was on sale in Amazon for nearly £5.

    Why are prices still so high?

  18. mrsizer says:

    I feel exactly the same way as the author. However, we’re just old. Times, they are a changin’.

    How about a Google Glass application that shows you a title list when you look at a Kindle? A privacy setting or two to hide the pr0n and bookshelves are back!

  19. Micha Elyi says:

    My ideal virtual bookshelf displays images of the book spines. Scanning multiple books at a time to locate the one I want to open is easier as I pan along just as my eyes would when in front of a real shelf of books.

    I assign this idea to the public domain.

  20. Mark D'Antoni says:

    I used to have those children, too. Then I moved. And moved again. I kept moving boxes of books, until I found many remained packed in between moves. A couple years ago I sold off these children, along with my house, and now travel full-time. It’s all on the Kindle now.

    But I do miss perusing titles when I go visit a friend or colleague and the discussions that result. Maybe there could be a facsimile? How about an app that projects covers on the wall — rotating through the different titles? Oh, bother!

  21. MrJest says:

    For over two decades, I hauled around from place to place all my books. Lugging those dozens of boxes was the WORST part of moving for me, but also the most indispensable effort – I could always leave the bed behind and buy another bed, of course. I am a voracious reader; mostly mass-market fiction for pure entertainment, but also philosophy, law, etc. When I got married 3 years ago and moved into my wife’s rather small home, the -by this point a literal TON and a half- book collection went mostly boxed up into a storage unit. The treasures were displayed on the limited shelf space; the entertainment tomes and flood of cheap paperbacks lived in darkness confined by cardboard “bankers boxes” at a local U-Haul storage facilty.

    Two Christmases ago the step-kids bought me a Kindle. I fired it up fully prepared to hate it; it surely couldn’t just “feel right” like a real book. And there was that creepy splash screen (all you G3 Kindle owners know full well who I am talking about 🙂 ). To make it feel more comfortable, I ensconced it in a hard leather case with an integrated LED light for late nights/early mornings, and gave it a try. I figured if I didn’t like it, I could sell it on eBay for half it’s original cost; no worries.

    In VERY short order I fell in love with the damn thing. Between the readability in all light conditions, and the humungous storage capacity, this became my portable library. I re-purchased dozens, no, hundreds of my old favorites I had sitting back in the storage unit in digital form, and often re-read 10 – 20 volume series on it before eagerly downloading the most recent episode (think “Honor Harrington” books).

    Three months ago I surrendered, and dug those boxes out of storage. After carefully sifting out the treasures (items with emotional/memorabilia appeal, or signed first editions, etc.), I hauled a ton and a half of well-loved and cared for mass-market books down to the local library and donated them.

    I never looked back, and have never been happier. I understand the author’s point; maybe the suggested technological “Google Glass” solution or something like that is the bridge to cover the issue. All I know is I have come to love e-reading, and can’t see going back.


  22. I’m rather attached, in other words, lacking in the Indian religious and philosophical virtue of non-attachment (e.g., aparigraha,) when it comes to books. I have oodles of them: on shelves, on the floor, on the plant stand, on an old piano, on our dining table, in bedrooms, the bathrooms, and the “living” rooms of our small home. I do not look forward to the day we might move, nor to my death for that matter, for that would mean I’d have to decide what to do with all these books (I imagine passing at least some of them down to our granddaughter and donating others to libraries that would treasure them). I like the sensual feel of books, their (slowly diminishing and disappearing) production and aesthetic values (fonts, artwork, etc.), and the fact that they age alongside those entrusted with their care: yellowing and crinkled pages, weakened spines, occasional intentional an unintentional marks and spills on pages. I’ve grown accustomed to their role as tangible reminders of earlier times and places in one’s life, in particular, discrete moments in an arduous and uneven process of intellectual, psychological, and ethical individuation. Sometimes just spotting a particular title or author’s name on the spine or cover of a book will trigger chains of thought on a subject I may want to further pursue or think more deeply about. I do not like to read on the computer monitor’s screen, still preferring my paper copy of the Los Angeles Times (such as it is these days, but a shell of its former self) and am constitutionally disinclined to purchasing or using any sort of electronic reader for downloading or reading books, articles, what have you. My books are tactile reminders of what I value or cherish, what is meaningful and important to me or essential to an idiosyncratic lifeworld and worldview, of what I’ve yet to learn or understand, and the myriad worlds—in miniature or in a grander sense—that exist, suffer, and flourish outside the rather limited orbit of my own world.

  23. Darren Shupe says:

    Patrick (#23): that’s one of the best comments I’ve seen on a blog in quite some time, and a terrific distillation of my own views on the subject.