A Book Is a Book Is a Book (Or, on the Obsession With Print Books)

Over at Bits, the Business and Technology Blog at The New York Times, Nick Bilton blogged about his dilemma with throwing out books. He is moving across the country for a new job in San Francisco, and he wondered about whether he should spend money on moving all of his books or not. He points out that he has a big collection, for he is a voracious reader, but switched a few years ago to an e-reader. Now he does most of his reading electronically.

I know the feeling: I’ve done plenty of moving, and ever since I got to graduate school I’ve amassed even more books. However, I didn’t really think about my book collection when I moved from New York State to Kansas City; I had just given birth and really just wanted to pack up the whole apartment and go. It was when we moved into our latest apartment, just across the street from our other apartment, that I sat down and thought about what books I wanted to keep and what books I wanted to send off. It was a practical issue: I didn’t have space, and I didn’t want to pack books that I had no interest in or that were falling apart. That may make me a #badgradstudent or a #badenglishmajor, but I’ll live. (We ended up giving the books to our local public library, in case you’re wondering what to do in a situation like this.)

Bilton’s post made me think about the emotional attachment we develop to books. He thought about his book collection in practical terms: do I want to spend money on this? Should I have to bring books that are tattered, falling apart? Nothing wrong there. But the conversations he had with his co-workers shows how we attribute more to books than what we think. The reaction of one of his editors illustrates this: “You have to take your books with you! I mean, they are books. They are so important!”

Those of us whose careers/lives revolve around books have heard this before…possibly it’s your best friend from college or the little voice inside my head. (For me, it’s the little voice inside my head. It’s also the same little voice that reminds me that I should be working on my dissertation. Coincidence?) My theory is that books are not just important to have–which they are– but they also give the owner a kind of prestige. We are our books. We are our bookcases. Bookcases not only house but display our collections. Hey, we are allowed to be proud of our collections. It’s okay. But I think this emotional attachment we have to our books translates into books becoming a part of our identity–particularly for academics, the lot I’m more familiar with. Just think of the phrase “well-read.” Bookcases are the physical evidence that we are well-read. So giving away your books translates into not appreciating books.

This spills over to the e-reader/print book war: there’s a stereotype going around that if you own an e-reader then you must not like books–at least not print books. Ask any bookworm if they own an e-reader, and you will either get an enthusiastic explanation about how it makes their lives a little easier or you’ll get a groan and an explanation about how e-readers are just plain evil. Bilton’s post made me realize that the war is not because books are important to society, but because the physical book is important; we like to be seen with our books, we like to show our collections. It’s not about what I know, but the evidence of what I know: my books. (Never mind that there are plenty of books I’ve read, I own, and I don’t remember. But The Millions has that covered.) But how many of us read the newspaper online, for example?

I own an e-reader, and for the longest I felt a little weird about it. Almost guilty. After all, I love reading and I take pride in my bookcase. (Wanna know what’s nerdy? If you have two bookcases, one for fiction and one for non-fiction/literary and cultural criticism. Yup, that’s me.) I felt I shouldn’t have invested in the evil device. I would tell people again and again that I bought it so I could read journal articles for my dissertation on it and nothing else. And for a while that’s what I did. But then I noticed it wasn’t easy to take notes on the contraption. I also started reading *gasp!* newspaper/online articles and books on it.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that what we should defend is the text, not simply the print form. It’s okay if you need to give away your books. It’s also okay if you buy an e-reader. I still buy print books although I own an e-reader; I even splurge on hardcovers from time to time. I still read both the print kind and the electronic kind. As long as we don’t give up on reading, and don’t give up on buying texts (in whatever shape or form they might come in)…writers have to eat, you know.

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  1. The main reason I still go for printed books over an e-reader is that the results are far less tragic if I spill coffee on them or drop them in the bathtub. ^_^

  2. Ah yes. Replacing them is certainly cheaper! I like the fact that I can fold printed books. Same goes for magazines. I could read The New Yorker on my laptop, but I can’t curl up with my laptop. One of my tweeps mentioned that the smell of books might be why some people go for printed over electronic books, which made me think about the physicality of the printed version over the e-reader. You don’t get to hold it and feel the pages turning, or realize how far along you are.

  3. “We are our books. We are our bookcases. Bookcases not only house but display our collections.”

    You think it’s bad now? You should see what happens to an academic who has an office with free shelving. But it’s powerful stuff: about half the students (and parents) who walk into my office say “have you read all of these books?” with an air of wonder… well, freakish interest, anyway.

    The books are a synecdoche for the Ph.D., a symbol of academic authority. And which books go in the center sections, the most visible, aren’t accidental, either….

  4. This topic has been on my mind all summer, mostly because I’ve been shedding books as I (slowly) transition out of academia into something else. It’s been good to get rid of the baggage, but dang if I’m not still attached to a lot of those books, even the ones I have no intention of ever reading again. Lugging around moving boxes helps cut through the sentimentality, though!

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