The Need to Hang on to Books

We are undergoing a minor renovation of our basement that has stirred up more than drywall dust. The basement has become a repository of children’s toys that once belonged to our children who have officially “launched.’’ My concern is the hundreds of books stored there. The books belong largely to me and the toys are kept by my wife for the times when grandchildren visit. The renovation has initiated a struggle to decide what to keep and what to dispose of. It has also evoked a thoughtful consideration of the reasons we clutch onto physical objects we rarely use.

I have always enjoyed reading. Over the years the accumulated books have overflowed the available shelves. Is this a indication of the need for more shelves or a warning that I need to consider trimming my library?

Why do we bear the burden of caring books through our lives? Many of the books could be donated to libraries and barely be missed. Some of the books are classics the contents of which could be found on line. One of my favorite books is dog-eared copy of the Federalist Papers which can be found and searched on line. In the event I wish to consult with James Madison, John Jay, or Alexander Hamilton, I am more likely to have access to the Internet than to be in my basement office near my physical copy of their essays.

No one argues that all books should be disposed of in favor of their digital counterparts. Some books have intrinsic value beyond their words. Some are signed by their authors. For others, there may not yet be a digital copy. Some books are works of art in their binding and illustrations. The fraction of my books that would fit into these special categories is small.

Are my books an intellectual trophy boasting the amount and quality of what I have read — my intellectual bona fides? Are they a safety line to what I thought I once knew? Are my books a simple library decorating theme to create a warm environment to relax in? Why do I carry these hundreds of pounds of paper through my life?

Some point out that paper books are easier to read, and there is truth to this argument. However, digital displays are rapidly approaching the resolution of books. A recent study showed that reading on a electronic book was only 10% slower than reading paper. This discrepancy is likely to disappear with higher resolution displays, while the advantages of carrying an entire library with you everywhere in a few ounces grow. The sale of electronic books now exceeds the sales of hardcover books at Amazon. As a sign of the times (some perhaps some believe the end times) the next edition of the venerable Oxford Dictionary may go entirely digital

Others enjoy the tactile feel of books: the way a page lingers on the fingers or the substantial weight of a book in the hand. The distinctive smell of old and aging pages lends authority to the words contained. These sensual pleasures are not to be dismissed, but will ultimately prove less important than the convenience of electronic books. In much the same way, a fountain pen is a pleasurable way to write, but most people now pound out their thoughts on a keyboard.

I am now convinced that the strong inclination for some of us to keep a library overfilled with books points to a more fundamental need, a need illustrated in an exchange on the television program, Star Trek: The Next Generation. The android character Data has a discussion with his creator, Dr. Noonian Soong.

SOONG: Now, let me ask you a question. Why are humans so fascinated with old things? Old buildings, churches, walls, ancient things, antique things… tables, clocks, knick knacks… Why?

DATA: There are many possible explanations.

SOONG: If you brought a Noophian to Earth he’d look around and say, “Tear that old village down. It’s hanging in rags. Build me something new, something efficient.” But to a human, that ancient wall, that old house, is a shrine, something to cherish…. Again I ask you, why?

DATA: Perhaps, for humans, old things represent a tie to the past.

SOONG; And what’s so important about the past? People needed money, They got sick. Why tie yourself to that?

DATA: Humans are mortal. They seem to need a sense of continuity.

Books like other items are physical manifestations of past times. Perhaps we remember what was going on in our lives when we read a particular book. We may have obtained certain books during a period when we had a particular interest or were struggling with a particular question. Simply holding certain books can trigger nostalgic memories. Physical books bring people a sense of continuity with the past.

However, technology has changed. We should not ignore the advances of new technology just because of a comfort with the present. Even the human need for physical continuity does not quite justify hundreds of books in a world where many books are quickly retrievable digitally. We do not do justice to those special books associated with special memories, when they are lost in a confusion of hundreds or even thousands of volumes. Culling books from our collection allows us to focus on the more unique and important ones and frees us from the pressure of clutter.

In the long term, a modest special collection of books might find a home when we pass. However, if the collection is too large and the gems included too small a percentage, the books may simply be disposed of. If we want our important books to survive us, we increase the odds by maintaining a small, well considered and organized collection. Loving reading and loving books may overlap, but they should not be confused with each other.

These are brave words. In the process of renovation, I have managed to prune my collection, but not nearly to the extent justified by my argument.

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