Archive for February, 2014

The People of the Book vs The People of the Kindle

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Originally published January 14 2014 in Tablet Magazine:

The other day, my friend John said he was getting rid of almost all his books. By the time I visited his apartment, he’d already pruned his library by a quarter, dumping most of it in the garbage. “I read everything on Kindle now,” he explained, a trifle defensively. The immediate cause of his decision was his impending move to a starkly minimalist apartment with spectacular river views—and room for bookshelves, had he wanted them.

What led to John’s decision was a disgust at the accumulation of things that I partly understood. I had even recently told a non-Kindle-owning friend that I didn’t understand why one-fifth of my house was taken up by a library I rarely entered. And I find myself very impatient with people who say they refuse to get a Kindle because they love the physicality of books. These are people who don’t produce culture, I thought. It’s just a consumer preference. They’re the same people who go compulsively to the theater and see rubbish because it’s “theater.”

Of course, minimalism dates at least to Le Corbusier, and it was possible to purge one’s library before Kindle, but then it meant relying on public libraries. Now, if you have the money to re-purchase on Kindle everything you want to own, you can have those bare white walls and still read. My editor has suggested to me that book-purging is an essentially Protestant impulse, which solves a particularly Protestant problem, in which personal reading of the Bible must be reconciled with a ban on the worship of objects. There’s something to this, particularly when you think of the interiority of the Kindle, which is a personal space much as one’s Bible was for, say, a Puritan in Boston circa 1640. Jews and Muslims, meanwhile, both venerate the physical version of their holy books: We all know what an outcry Quran-burning causes, while Jews actually bury [1] Torahs that are deemed to be too damaged to use.

It is also true that the Kindle’s marketing emphasizes that your content isn’t attached to your Kindle, that it resides in the Cloud and that if you lose or break your Kindle, everything you’ve bought can be downloaded to your (new) Kindle or your PC or smartphone. Everything is designed to discourage the purchaser’s attachment to the Kindle itself (which is just as well as they can be fairly fragile [2]).

Still, it’s odd that the trend toward getting rid of one’s books co-exists with a valorization of collecting in almost every other sphere. Even in minimalist houses there are collections—small and carefully staged, perhaps, but still collections. And the art world! People who can afford to live in huge white modernist houses seem inevitably to fill them with costly art whether they are Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. This places them in an honorific category of “collectors,” and no one seems to advise them to get rid of their paintings. Being an art collector is the dream of many aspirational rich people while being a book collector is dusty and uncool. Perhaps this is because books aren’t very expensive unless one goes in for first editions and incunabula [3]. For the $20,000 or so it costs to buy into an “emerging” artist, you can have a first edition of an iconic hundred-year-old novel.

The truth is that books just aren’t something we covet very much anymore. We’ve come a long way from the days when Walter Benjamin could blithely write in his essay [4] “Unpacking My Library,” “You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire books become criminals.” That was 1931, nearly at the birth of minimalism in décor. I would venture to say that no one reading this article has heard of anyone like this; I haven’t.

Of course, part of the reason people coveted books in 1931 was their symbolic value as signs of cultivation, social prestige, and good character. And when I look within myself, I have to admit that’s part of why I was so shocked by John’s decision. How could a highly educated and cultured man, who’s been known to go to three Shakespeare plays in one week, get rid of his books? I had grown up assuming that book ownership was one of the signatures of an educated and cultivated person, a thoughtful person, a man or woman with concerns beyond getting and spending. When I go to someone’s home for the first time I still look at their bookcases as part of an assessment of their character. If there aren’t any bookcases, I wonder.

But with Kindle, the judgments I grew up with go out the window. And there isn’t any way to bring them back. Maybe it’s the apartment of someone with 300 books on physics on his Kindle. Asking to see someone’s Kindle is invasive. It’s also likely to be an inaccurate reflection of what one has read, unless one has replaced all of one’s books on Kindle. I have 59 books on my Kindle and perhaps 2,000 in my house. Apparently Kindles can hold up to 3,500 books, but the Kindle website comparing [5] models only gives memory size, not an estimate of how many each model holds. This suggests that most purchasers are using their Kindles as a convenient reading device rather than a replacement for a physical library.
Unread books force us to ask how we are spending our time and whether we are becoming the people we want to become

There’s at least one set of people who are unlikely to derive any benefit from replacing their books with a Kindle, and they are children. Horace Mann wrote, “No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them.” While the advantages of public libraries are obvious—larger selection of books, and one which better reflects the range of published works than anyone’s personal collection is likely to—among the virtues of a private library is the ability to make chance discoveries—including books that you’re too young for at the time, but which come within your awareness and which you remember later.

But for those of us without children, does not having a physical library matter? I’d say so. A library is a room or a portion of a room set aside for purposes higher than the everyday matter of life, just as a church or synagogue or museum or concert hall is. And having it out where everyone can see it imposes what may be a desirable self-consciousness, not only in terms of what you put into it but in terms of the physical reproach it offers if you do not use it. While Walter Benjamin joked about not having read many of his books (including those he borrowed from friends), his casualness is of a piece with his assumption that books are an arena for emotional engagement. Unread books force us to ask how we are spending our time and whether we are becoming the people we want to become.

What of the appeal of minimalism, of the room without books? I am wary of it. At bottom, the allure of big white rooms is the conspicuous advertisement of underconsumption, combined with the replacement of engagement with reality with engagement with fantasy. Few of us, at least few Westerners of my acquaintance, are capable of gazing at a solitary vase or plant for hours in a spiritually uplifting way. If we are not thinking about books, we are not likely to be thinking about something better. Or so it is with me. While writing this essay, I took down a few books from my own shelves for the first time in years and in the process discovered a few that I’d forgotten. My library happens to be in a room that doesn’t get sun at the times I want it and is often too cold. But I’ve resolved to spend at least a half hour there every day from now on.