Thoughts on e-dead trees

November 25, 2007

My bookshelf wants to know what its fate will be five years from now. Will I even need a bookshelf then? Or will electronic books finally send the paperback to the same retirement home for technology that now houses the likes of the LP record, VHS tape and 8-track? While the environmentalist in me quietly pines for an e-book future, my inner scholar and designer secretly hope to maintain the status quo.

For me, a house without a personal library is not a home. Growing up in a house full of books has made me a bit ill-at-ease in homes that lack them. As if family photos and painted artwork are simply not enough to adorn a barren wall. As if shelves of long-dead trees are the only thing that can fill some unnamable void noticed only by the armchair scholar and insatiable bookworm.

I could easily accept the digitization of movies and music, partially because nobody decorates a room with a CD collection, and the home design elements of a cinephile typically comprise a surround sound system and a large screen television. But mostly I could accept the digitization of movies and music because these forms of media largely encompass and control the way in which you experience them … and they are not tactile.

Amazon’s Kindle gives me pause. Not because it is simply an electronic replacement for the book, or a replacement for the bookshelf, but because it is an electronic replacement for the entire experience of the enterprise of reading — from quietly browsing your local library or bookstore’s shelves, to touching the cover and feeling the weight of a book in your hands, to carrying the thing home, to dog-earing a page before heading off to bed. Everything is different. Electronically mediated. The physical experience has been largely removed. And, thanks to DRM, it’s also largely a rip-off.

I am not a neo-Luddite. In all likelihood, I’ll end up owning an e-book reader in the next 2-3 years. And I’ll probably end up learning to enjoy the experience that it has to offer (as soon as I can scribble on the electronic pages). But still I wonder if I’ll ever get rid of the large collection of books I already own, that ridiculous collection of dead weight that makes moving to a new place such a chore. I wonder what I would do with those barren walls and empty shelves once all the paper is gone. Maybe I will have to fill it with my collection of electronic gadgetry. But something tells me that just won’t feel the same.