In three weeks, I move across the country to a house near Kissimmee, Florida. My wife and I are starting over, and for the first time in my life, I’m not holding on to anything except the essentials for work and life. We’re hoping to take only what can fit in two cars.
This has meant we’ve had to sell or give away many nonessential stuff: old clothes, DVDs, CDs, and most importantly, our large book collection. We had collected over 500 books. Yesterday, we gave away the last box.
Preparing for this move has me thinking about all the stuff I’ve accumulated over the years and how much of it is meaningless to me. While those 500+ books looked nice on my shelf, I only returned to about a dozen of them regularly. So why keep all of this stuff?
At one point, I saw these books as a record of what I’ve read. They represented a part of me: first, through my time as an undergrad and later as a graduate student. Some of these books go back to my childhood. These books reminded me of the things I’d learned over the years. A lot of them had notes and marginalia in them that I wanted to keep.
I also bought a lot of books I never read. Those were on my shelves, waiting to be read, but I always told myself I’d get to them eventually. I had to realize that I won’t read most of them any time soon.
At first, I felt a sense of loss after getting rid of these books. But now I realize how little I needed them since I do a lot of my reading through digital devices. Access to books through my library and through my Kindle have meant I haven’t needed to keep books like I used to.
During this process, I realized that most of these books were bought over a year ago. I just don’t buy as many books as I used to. That’s not to say I don’t believe in the physical book any more. I don’t subscribe to the idea that ebooks and digital reading will completely replace the book — at least not for a while.
I just don’t need a lot of space for books any more. Many of the books I owned are available online, either through elibraries or through sites like Project Gutenberg. For newer books, I am OK with repurchasing them once I move to Florida and find a local bookshop.
What I will miss the most — at least, more than the books themselves — are the conversations over books with friends. Luckily this is something I can find anywhere I live, but it’s not as easily replaceable as the books themselves.
As I move toward a digital collection, I wonder about book discovery: I’ve always used my local library and bookshops to discover new books. I find out about books from close friends more than I do from online communities. Apps like Goodreads try to recreate discoverability, but they are far from complete. Finding a good book, reading the back cover blurbs, and asking your friends if they’ve heard of it can’t be replicated online.
The physical book is here to stay, and even though my personal library is gone, I will rebuild it over time. If sites like Bookshelf Porn [don’t worry, it’s safe for work] are any clue into book culture, I think it’s here to stay for a while. Digital books are convenient and work for me, but the physical book is still important to me. We’ll see what the future holds.