Over the past 7 years, I have lived in 15 separate residences. Despite my sensitivity for the insignificance of this figure when considering the greater context of class stratification -- there are certainly plenty of women and men in the adjourning cities that I frequent whose residential addresses approach ∞ or an infinitesimal, depending on how you look at it -- this has felt like quite a few times to move all of my middle-classly belongings! Although I've streamlined and compacted many of the artifacts of these moves, including turning the bottom drawer of my nightstand into a fully-functioning recording studio and keeping a spare backpack filled with intra-move necessities ready at all times, I have expired a weary sigh an average of 2.14 times each year when facing the prospect of moving my entire bookshelf again, an endeavor that in the early days took at minimum two full Toyota Corolla wagon loads to transfer, and now still requires many trips to the corner of a U-Haul truck and maybe a couple Advils for my back.
Since the early days of bookshelf moving, several technologies have been invented that would at first seem to subvert my efforts to preserve all of these volumes of paper. In light of the "cloud," the kindle, and the tablet computer and given the hassle of forgoing these technologies for 300 lbs of material, why do I continue to bother with the bookshelf? In fact, as these technologies have become better, cheaper, and more widely available, I've only amplified my resolution to continue the effort to keep my bookshelf.
Perhaps this is a fitting moment to interject that I am not a voracious reader in the traditional sense. On the contrary, I'd rather recline with my laptop and a cup of coffee (as I am presently enjoying) and saltate through 6 Firefox tabs of news on my laptop than turn on my Ottlite and finish reading Djuna Barnes' "Nightwood," which has sat on my nightstand unfinished all month. I turn to Google Scholar or -- gasp! -- Wikipedia before pulling out my General Physics textbook when I want to find answers to everyday questions about how capacitors work. And perhaps most embarrassingly, apropos of the unfinished novel that is currently sitting inches from my palm, I've barely finished reading half of the novels on the bookshelf that I am so dedicated to lugging with me everywhere I go!
I've asked many other bookshelf-keepers why they like to collect books when there are so many other viable options for noetic stimulation. Many have told me that they like the stories and the feeling of the pages in their hands; others say they read best when the content is presented in print. There are also a few for whom the pretensions associated with the appearance of novels and a consummate library seem to inspire the decision to collect and show off these acquired works of authorship1. It seems that for these people, the texts on their shelves beget merit without ever needing to be read: they collect books because Books have value to them, by some axiom in their psyche or hearts.
I labor to keep these works for an entirely different reason, which is really two related concerns. The first and more stubborn motivation might stem from watching too many post-apocalyptic movies. What if a nuclear war wipes out the internet? Or a Tsunami storm destroys the power plant that powers all the iPads of the world? My access to all the information stored in servers and pads (yes, it exists SOMEWHERE; please don't be deceived by the nefarious "cloud" iconography taken up by data storage companies) is completely dependent on means that are far, far out of my control. Is this a paranoid fear? Perhaps a bit, but it is not entirely trivial, either.
By now many professionals who use computers have gotten into the habit of "backing up" important documents in the event of an unexpected but not entirely unlikely event that renderers access to the "original" documents (if that term is even ontologically appropriate for computer data) impossible. And in the more general sense, at great expense we all invest even more money in various insurance policies as indemnity against even less likely yet more dire accidents. Like it or not, many of our values and accomplishments are represented and described in writing that, if wholly lost (as unlikely as that sounds), would inspire eulogies ruefully composed with the knowledge that expiry could had been averted if the written word had not been saved in such a singularly perishable form. Although this dystopian outcome is far-fetched, it ought not induce derision to realize that we should not depend on electronic means to save or access the artifacts of our culture. As an admirer of many human achievements, I see it as an obligation to collect paper copies of a few books and articles that can be referenced if not in the event of a catastrophic disaster, then during a rolling blackout to inspire conversation or alleviate boredom.
The second reason that I keep a bookshelf is even more cerebral. As some of us have endured when members of our parents' generation embarrass us with the tactless brandishing of never-ending iPhone vacation photo exposés while we are trying to enjoy a pleasant dinner reunion, the advent of new technologies seems to inspire a social tendency to flaunt them at every possible opportunity, such that as we dangle them in front of our rearview mirrors, we block the view of the effulgent innovations, let alone polite dinner conventions, of our past. Although the aspect of my appreciation for books that I am working towards is not just about venerating the shoulders upon which our newer creations stand, nor is it my intention to wallow in anachronistic despair about what 'is' due to an idealized belief of what 'was', the existence of these books is nonetheless a radiant hallmark of several levels of human ingenuity and cognitive accomplishment that are worth noting. I am not an avid historian of language and I will not disservice my readers by producing hurried "facts" to support my propositions. To say little of the classical relationship between the flagship technology of the printing press and the correlated spike in literacy, democracy, and discovery observed in Renaissance Europe, I'd only like to note that it would be a major oversight to forget that printed books are artifacts of one of the most important and fairly recent technological advances in human history.
Technology reverence aside, the ability to read at all is such a fascinating trait of the human mind that is nearly unmatched by any other known species. Just as we once learned to count colored blocks, and then how to reify the abstract concept of the number as a thing independent of the block, so too have we learned to associate ideas with collections of symbols (by which I mean words of course, although I prefer the more general term "sign" or "signifier"), then rearrange those words to construct new--dare I say, emergent?--ideas that transcend anything contained in any singular word2. For these reasons, books do connect me to a very human and awe-inspiring ability contained in my, and your, head. In short, I appreciate that these books exist at all, and I appreciate that we can read and process these abstractions in our minds, and with a bit of effort, expand upon those abstractions.
But as I promised to elucidate, I maintain the bookshelves not only to venerate the past and to prepare for the future, but also to execute my love for understanding and using tools. As I alluded to in my anecdote about obnoxious dinner-table photo sharing, I'm often frustrated that given the broad potential utilities of contemporary "information technologies," it seems they are rarely used to disseminate or absorb the kind of information that I find most interesting. And before you jump on me for seemingly putting forward the proposition that your baby isn't cute or your Italy trip isn't beautiful, my criticism isn't so much what the technologies are being used for, but what they could be yet aren't. I've been tempted to explain this phenomenon by pithily stating that modernity is over and the trend is no longer to expect form to follow function, but I don't think that is the whole story at all. Instead, I think that most people simply do not care to use today's consumer electronics products to investigate abstract ideas. So what? Is it such a big deal that the periodic table of the elements app isn't as popular as Angry Birds?
Not at all. So I must admit, my second motivation for keeping books -- and by extension, magazines and journals -- isn't so much due to my perception of the value contained in the books themselves, but more from my aversion to the rampant Panglossian conviction that new inventions necessarily and fully replace the utility of older, simpler technologies. This enthusiastic deference to anything contemporary is sexy, ubiquitous, and frankly wrong. As the older method of acquiring information is increasingly discounted (not just using books, but reading at all), I am compelled to defend the unique benefits offered by traditional print media.
This is not a Luddite's fear of newness per se, but a rejection of technological myopia: just as valuing books for their status or author rather than their content is unfulfilling and myopic, to decode "value3" from the signifiers that represent new media technologies (ebook, iPad, RSS, even the wonderful Khan Academy) without any true consideration for the actual functions associated with the semiotic objects that they represent is equally short-sited. To value Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse" for its name and author is as meaningless as valuing a physician simply because she is named "Dr. Roberts;" the value of a physician is contained not in her title, but in the activities that her title implies she is capable of. Although the convention of allowing it to be assumed that the title "Dr. Roberts" implicitly contains the interpretant evidence of a doctor's value (surgical expertise, diagnostic reasoning, the ability to prescribe Prozac, etc), it's easy to forget that such titles are really proxies that absorb the veneration for what we are actually valuing, which are her particular skills and abilities. Perhaps this argument suffers a bit of tautological naiveté, for there are plenty of people who are willing to value items of status without any personal calculation for why those items deserve prestige; I just think it's extraordinarily vacuous4 to do so. So please excuse this semiotic digression, but the point that I am trying to make is very basic: a technology ought to be valued not because of its title or maker -- although it's fair to use these traits as convenient proxies for our real value appropriations -- but for its actual functional significance in our society.
In spite of the adage that necessity is the mother of invention, history has frequently shown this to be an inverted claim in political, scientific, and technological realms. One of my favorite expressions of this inversion is articulated by Dostoevsky's "ridiculous man" as he describes the moral devolution of a utopia that he dreamed about:
As they became wicked they began talking of brotherhood and humanitarianism, and understood those ideas. As they became criminal, they invented justice and drew up whole legal codes in order to observe it, and to ensure their being kept, set up a guillotine. -- (V) The Dream of a Ridiculous Man
Although at first glance one might see the society's growing demand for justice as a catalyst for the invention of the guillotine and thus consider the quote to be evidence for the veracity of the aforementioned proverb, the deeper interpretation is that as the society invented immoral thinking at all, the concepts of ethics and justice BECAME necessities that had never existed before in the minds of the people; invention led to necessity.
New technological inventions also have the power to create new beliefs about necessity. Two compelling examples come to mind that I will mention briefly: 1) the invention of the rail system that created the necessity of universal time keeping, and 2) the invention of the respirator, which led to a necessary re-evaluation of the definition of death. Although there are many more examples of technologies that create self-contained notions of necessity5 (this is, after all, a major way that an economy grows), the above examples are rarer cases where the necessities that the technologies created fundamentally changed the way that people perceive the structure of their world. In each of these cases, an invention led to a necessity that was itself so revolutionary to human perception that it DID lead to further inventions. However, because the vast majority of technological advances do create self-contained notions of necessity (for example, musical records create the necessity of record stores while mp3s create the necessity of online music stores that serve the same general purpose if we ignore the more commonly discussed aspects of intellectual property philosophy that mp3 music raises), it might not always be so important to embrace the newly reified necessity in exchange for the older one.
While I have personal opinions and biases about what ought and ought not be considered a "necessity," it is not my intention to parse out these distinctions. Yet it seems clear and outside of the domain of my personal biases that a technological advancement does not displace an earlier invention when the necessities generated by the earlier technology are a) still valued and identified as "necessities" and b) are uniquely fulfilled by the bygone technology. Until I can purchase a solar power mp3 player, the pervasive fad of installing non-removable, rechargeable batteries into mp3 players is a hex to the necessity that AAA battery powered players generated in me for taking my music player on long backpacking trips where there are no 120 V outlets at my disposal. And despite the kitschy appeal of many digital watches, I've never desired one while working as an EMT when the large visual cues allowed by my analog watch provide a much easier tool for seeing a 30 second time interval while taking vital signs. Finally, despite my heaping preference for typing over scripting with my hands, the QWERTY keyboard is simply not an replacement for using handwriting when I need to discreetly write a note to myself in places where it would be inappropriate to brandish a computer or even a smartphone.
Books also uniquely lend themselves to fulfilling certain necessities that other technologies do not. While some of the more subjective necessities that they fulfill are not such great motivators for me to keep a bookshelf (I actually PREFER to read on a backlit screen, so the idea that they are a nicer interface for reading is moot for me), they do support a degree of information democratization that I value and is not only unavailable in Kindles and iPads, but actually undermined by those technologies. These traits are not so much inherent in the ontology of any of these three technologies as they are a posteriori realities of the presence of these technologies in our society 6. It is very meaningful to me that books are available all over the world in a format that does not require one to access their information through the expensive interface of a modal technology. They can be owned and shared in the traditional sense that gives autonomy to human agents, rather than the dependency on higher networks of power that information shared on computer interfaces nurtures.
As a brief note, I'd like to touch on the "environmental argument" against traditional print media, namely that it is unsustainable and wasteful. While this criticism is clearly predicated on the generally agreeable axiom that "conservation is good," it does not follow that other media are any less wasteful than books. On the contrary, while a book produces a finite carbon footprint on the world, those same data stored by electronic means require a limitless amount of energy to access. While the argument is a bit more compelling when considering the environmental impacts of newspaper media versus online news, even here the environmental differences are not as profound as you might think.
Whatever one's justification is for keeping the books, I'm glad that they still seem to enjoy a ubiquitous presence and value to many people. I wouldn't maintain a website like this if I didn't think that it was also a useful format for distributing information, but I hope we can work towards a dyadic consensus that books and electronic media each serve unique and complimentary purposes in our world.
Update9/20/2011 I had not read Italo Calvino's "If on a winter's night a traveler" before writing this, but having stumbled upon the first chapter, I think that he does a great job describing what I'm trying to get at about some people's feelings towards reading.
Published on July 30, 2011