The End Of The Bookshelf

It’s been a habit of mine since birth and I’m sure you share it: I try to check out bookshelves whenever I can. During dinner parties I gravitate to the host’s stacks in an effort to suss out their taste and opinions. Homes without bookshelves are as sterile as Intel clean rooms. They show that either the host is an insufferable bore or they are one of those weirdos who gave up all possessions. Either way, as John Waters said, “if you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ‘em!”

What’s the point? The point is that we are fast approaching an era when books will be as cumbersome and unnecessary as vinyl. The olds among us will remember the days of packing your vinyl into THOU SHALT NOT STEAL milk crates and driving them cross country next to bulging boxes of paperbacks. These days my music is in my phone alongside my books. I have one crate of vinyl that I haven’t listened to since I was 21 and I have shelves of books that I rarely look at except in quiet reverie.

And printed books are in trouble. Don’t let the publishers tell you otherwise. They’re falling rapidly at a rate that will put them equal ebook sales in 2017. It’s bad news for folks who love slipcovers.


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Media discovery without physical objects is difficult. It’s not impossible — Apple Music and Spotify introduces me to new stuff daily and friends recommend books all the time that I put onto my Kindle — but I’m worried about what happens when every room becomes a barren VR den with nothing on the walls. What can we borrow from dinner hosts in order to embed ourselves into their lives? What can we sign and hand over when the mood strikes?

“A house without books is like a room without windows. No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them,” said Horace Mann. I agree. Kids don’t need ebooks. They need the joy of sliding a finger across the spine of an old paperback you saved from college and cracking open a new world. Sure in about ten years we’ll all be piping books directly into our brains but there is something about the endorphin rush of a stack of fresh books from the library that makes kids want to read. Try that with e-ink and bits.

I saw one product that had some promise called Qleek. It was basically a media playback service that used wooden disks to “signal” when it was time to play an album or playlist. You put these coasters into the machine and the MP3s queued up and played. It sort of brought the physical back to music. Maybe we can put stacks of wooden books on our shelves that will come to life when we put them next to our phones. It’s clumsy but it beats the alternative.

If the medium is the message what does an empty bookshelf say? Does it say that we are hurtling endlessly into the future? Does it say we don’t want to have dusty paper lying around? Does it say we don’t care about the permanence of culture? Or does it say that we don’t value to the old things enough to keep them around?

All of those are valid reasons for getting rid of books. I just hope we all cling to the invalid reason — the love of the thing for its thing-ness — for a little longer. It kind of makes us human.

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