Coffee heat rising


This morning a student sent over his latest paper, a response to an assignment in which I asked classmates to write a narrative describing their response to a tour of the campus library. This library, in addition to functioning as a busy learning center full of constant activity, houses a Southwestern art collection donated by an emeritus professor, and so there’s lots to see in there.

As he was charming me with his usual well-tuned authorial voice, he remarked in passing that although he had been attending the college off and on for the past three years, this was the first time he’d sent foot in the library.

Boink! Even dinosaurs have startle reflexes!

After an internal holy mackerel dialogue, I realized that even though the library is still the heart and brains of a college campus, there’s a reason my students seem to have set as their goal moving through two to four years of higher education without ever visiting a campus library: they can.

So much learning is available on-line, including full-text scholarly articles and books, that a good student quite reasonably can expect to get through most courses, writing creditable term papers and studying for challenging exams, without ever visiting a museum of books.

Frugalscholar, is that your hat in orbit overhead?

As I continued to read his essay and thought about his passing observation, I realized he was commenting, unconsciously, on something that has occurred to me, to at least one of my academic coconspirators, and probably to Frugalscholar: Why the heck are we keeping all these books in our houses?

Frugalscholar has shown the way to peddling scores of books online. Are we sitting on a small gold mine here, one whose financial proceeds would do us a lot more good than the decorator quality of a wallful of books?

Like many other academics, I have ceiling-to-floor bookcases in the living room and the family room, and of course the de rigueur six-foot shelf of reference works in the office (make that 18 feet). As a writer and then later as a younger editor, I used to have recourse to this library all the time. Even the most unlikely occupants of those shelves would occasionally be picked up, looked over, borrowed from. My library was an integral part of my work as a teacher, a thinker, and a writer. And I used one part of it or another every single day.

Recently, however, I’ve come to realize that I hardly ever open a book anymore. The only works I use at all are a few cookbooks…and half the time I get my recipes off the Internet—like everything else. When I write, when I grade papers, when I edit a client’s copy, when I check facts, I invariably use the Internet. The encyclopedias, the various dictionaries, the OED, the history and political science texts, the novels, the chronicles, the tomes of literary criticism and social history and science and mathematics: they just sit there gathering dust. Two walls filled with dust-catchers!

Truly, today I could get by with a computer and the following:

The Oxford Dictionary of French
La Petite Larousse
The Oxford Dictionary of Spanish
The Harper-Collins Dictionary of Italian
Collier’s Latin Dictionary
Cassel’s German Dictionary

The Compact OED
Random House Webster’s Dictionary
The Chicago Manual of Style
The MLA Style Manual
The APA Style Manual
The CSE Scientific Style and Format Manual
Roget’s Thesaurus

A couple of field guides to birds
A field guide to Southwestern flora
A few favorite cookbooks

And that’s it. None of these (except the recipe books, maybe) has an acceptable online equivalent. All the fiction? It could go. The classics are online at Project Gutenberg. Most of the contemporary fiction is eminently disposable stuff, occupying shelf space by default. The nonfiction tomes are largely out of date—maybe one in thirty is worth keeping.

Because Poisoned Pen Press keeps me supplied with light fiction (at the price, o’course, of having to edit the stuff), I hardly ever buy “airplane books” anymore—their detective novels supply all my bedtime and idle moment reading. Partly because I’m paid to read and don’t feel inclined to devote leisure time to reading and partly because I don’t have a helluva lot of leisure time, I almost never buy new books.

So…why is my house filled with books?

I asked La Maya the same question, and she responded with approximately my own sentiment: Books define our identity as academics. We keep them because they say something to others (and to ourselves) about us. Also, she remarked, a bookcase full of hefty tomes makes a nice decorator item.


I wonder what on earth I would do with those big walls in the absence of running foot after vertical and horizontal running foot of books.

Fine art? The sum total of every book I could sell wouldn’t buy one Ed Mell painting. Maybe some Navajo rugs? They’d cut the echo, though not as well as all those books. I haven’t been up to the rez to price any of those lately, but one thing’s for sure: if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

So, what we have here is a lifetime of learning—or the metaphor thereof—reduced to interior decoration. The truth is, everything I once used books for has been transferred to a computer monitor.

For individuals, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Our students, at least the ambitious among them, can access as much information in an hour as once took us half a semester to dig out. I can check a fact in 30 seconds, a chore that once could have taken me anywhere from 15 minutes (if a source was at hand) to a day or more (if I had to traipse to a library or archive to track it down).

But what about our culture, our society? Now, there I’m not at all convinced that the demise of the book and the rise of the Library of the Internet are happy developments. For one thing, paranoia tells us that censorship of online resources is even easier than censorship of print material. But the big repercussions, the scary ones, are economic.

Who will continue to produce “content” if all creative and scholarly work is available for free on the Web?
How many jobs will be lost when a print book is a rarity?
How many graphic artists, editors, circulation drones and managers, librarians, printers, paper manufacturers, ink makers, and booksellers will be stocking shelves at the Walmart?
How much more power will monied interests have over the intellectual and scientific direction of our country?
And when an entire generation has never known the pleasure of reading for the sheer joy of reading, what will that mean for the entire economy of the developed world?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But the fact that we have to ask them makes me itch.

Image: Interior of the British Library, with, behind smoked glass, the King’s Library. Andrew Dunn, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

8 thoughts on “Books”

  1. I constantly struggle with these issues myself. My life on the road reduced me to selling all my books and buying a Kindle, which I love. I believe e-readers are the future but when I think about the libraries and bookstores that will disappear, I’m sad. I had a couple of hours to kill the other day and spent it reading in Borders. Oh the feeling of a real book in my hands. Even the arguable environmental benefits to the end of printed reading material doesn’t put my troubled heart to rest on the matter.

  2. Wow. Too much to comment on here. I have senior English majors who have seldom if ever set foot in the library. They have poor research skills–they type in “Wordsworth Sonnet on Nature” and announce that there is nothing written on their topic!

    I have a house full of books still. I check on the value of what I have now and again. Anything valuable (well, $20 and up–not really valuable) is sold. Hearing about the sudden move of my book-collecting in-laws is making me try to get the quantities down.

    If you want to see if your books have value, start with art books and some of your lit crit.

  3. I also have to have several different editions of Scrabble dictionaries – they add acceptable words, but also, a few years ago “someone” decreed many words offensive, (including, but not limited to, certain 4-letter words) , so earlier editions are necessary.

    I don’t own many books, but I’m a voracious reader who couldn’t function without libraries.

  4. Last week in a Barnes & Noble bookstore, I overheard a boy about 10 years old asking his parents if he could buy the book he was holding. They said No – he could probably download it from somewhere. After going back and forth, the boy said – But I’m tired of reading everything on a computer, I want to feel the book in my hands.

  5. @ Jennifer: That’s a great story.

    @ Frugalscholar: Yeah, their research skills are weak, no matter what medium they’re working in. It takes some real skill to use Boolean terms if you’re trying to do anything more than, say, find a recipe for clam chowder.

    Yesterday one of the classmates, a 40-ish guy who has been left behind by the computer revolution because his job didn’t require him to use computers, was trying to figure out how to get material for a causal effect essay on the relationship between widespread diabetes among Native Americans and their acceptance of Western foodstuffs. There’s some material on this focusing on Southwestern tribes, because some tribes have astronomical rates of adult-onset diabetes thought to result from an evolutionary adaptation to the feast & famine conditions of the Southwest’s desert environment. However, because he’s Assiniboine, he was really more interested in what was going on with Plains and Southeastern tribes. Coming up with key words to bring up much credible information was a challenge.

  6. Maybe I shouldn’t be chiming in so early, seeing as I just discovered your blog 4 minutes ago and don’t know the protocol, but I couldn’t help myself.

    I bought my bibliophile girlfriend a Kindle last year. After a few days, the verdict came in: it’s the only good gift I’ve ever bought her. When I asked her how much she’d pay to have her entire paper library transferred to the Kindle, she didn’t blink: “$10,000.”

    That doleful sentiment about missing the tactile sensation of feeling a book’s pages will pass, and the sooner the better. No one complains anymore about missing the sensation of placing a needle on a phonograph record. And if anyone did, you’d have to ask him if he also misses being tied down to whichever room the record player happened to be in if he wanted to hear music. I’ll plug my iPod into my car, thanks. It’s where I go to think about the demise of the vinyl industry.

    Don’t fret. Highly illustrated books, such as coffee-table books, will still have some shelf life (as the idiom goes.) That also includes cookbooks, which need to be kept open and withstand an occasional splash of marinara sauce.

    The dystopia you envision in the final paragraph is a little dramatic. Let the ink makers stock shelves at Walmart. They’ll be good company for the soda jerks, lamp trimmers and people who used to run Linotype machines. “How many jobs will be lost when a print book is a rarity?” How many will be gained in ways we can’t foresee?

  7. @ Greg: That’s a very interesting commentary! Hmh. I’d probably take 10 grand and then cheerfully switch to Kindle if someone wanted to buy my library. 🙂 Bet you could buy a lot of Kindle books for ten grand.

    @ Anne: Isn’t it the truth that it’s hard to let go of those things! Well, I keep telling myself that someday all this electronic connectivity is gunna come disconnected, and when that day comes, we’ll need all the books we bookworms refused to send to the recyclers.

    When I look around at friends whose trades have been displaced by new developments in technology — typesetters and graphic artists come straight to mind — it doesn’t look to me like a lot of new jobs have come open that are any better than what they were doing…or even as good. The new jobs for the new versions of these trades are outsourced, underpaid, and low in prestige. So to say that the jobs that go away are replaced by new jobs is to state something that’s true, but that may hide an unfortunate — even dystopic — reality.

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