On Book Collecting and a Digression on the Physical Book

Once I sold my 2004 Ford Taurus Station wagon, I thought I had no foreseeable milestone to achieve. You see, I had reached 280,000 miles (30-some thousand miles driven by me, the other 250,000 miles driven by the previous owner) in the car and I was going for 300,000. Alas, life intervened and I was foisted with the decision of obtaining a new car.

Yet, another marker is rapidly approaching: 2,000 books.

As any book collector worth their weight in musty smells will tell you, it is important to catalogue your book collection. This focuses the mind in the collection process and can assist in avoiding needless errors such as collecting more than one of a book (an error which has happened to me more times than I care to admit) and makes the consolidation process easier when consolidation is necessary. Moreover, it’s just plain fun. I can easily answer queries such as how many William F. Buckley books I own (46, including collections where he served as editor) with simple Excel functions (and without the assistance of that brutal mistress, Siri).  I have found the easiest way to do this with a simple spreadsheet that is updated every time my wife or I buy a book or sell/donate one. To ease the process, I catalogue information such as Author’s Name, Title, Fiction or Non-Fiction, Hardcover or Soft cover, and any pertinent notes (signed, first edition, et cetera). Since my inventory method is more perpetual than periodic, manual entry is more efficient than iPod applications which allow one to ‘scan’ the book and then export the collection file in a .csv file. Moreover, the quality of the information included in the scan is limited by the application’s design and implementation – while the application might be correct 98% of the time for a random distribution of entries, my book collection is not a Gaussian distribution and the error rate has tended higher than 5%.

Alas, with recent technological advancements, a collection like mine seems obsolete, at best, deranged, at worst.

                With the advent of the Kindle, the iPad, and other electronic devices, many people have predicted the demise of the physical book1. While I am a Kindle owner, I still have a preference for the physical book. I cannot articulate my preference other than naked prejudice: I prefer physical books because I just do. But, the question is legitimate why I should store my preference for reading in a physical book form when it is just as accessible in an electronic format. Storing a physical book has real costs – books are heavy, take up a significant amount of space, and they do not generally retain their value. But, to some degree, it is an effective manner in which to store experiences and memories. For example, a signed jersey is more than a signed jersey. It is an embodiment of allegiance and shared experience. In one sense, it is a means ordered to a greater end.

In a similar vein, the storage of physical books is ordered to the larger end of the owner’s preferences. If one were to take a random sample of my wife’s book collection, for example, they would likely find her ideals align with that of a romantic idealist (Charlaine Harris [of Sookie Stackhouse fame], Sophie Kinsella, Ian McEwan, and Nicholas Sparks abound!) Also, consider the book that is likeliest the most ubiquitous and at the same time, the less likely to have been read cover-to-cover: The Bible. Having a Bible in the home is more than having access to the magisterial Epistles of Paul, but it is a symbol of something larger. In some instances a profession of faith; other times an affirmation of shared heritage.

The aforementioned in the back of my mind, I am often troubled by the implicit utilitarian nature of the question: Are you ever really going to read those books again? Do books not stand for something other than the pulp of their pages, the glue of their binding, and the gloss of their covers? Do they not embody a shared memory like that of sports paraphernalia and a dirty old baseball?

Can you really tell anything about an owner’s preferences from the electronic bytes stored on the Kindle? Once an E-book is purchased, the marginal cost of storing that book is approximately zero, saying little about the owner’s preferences other than their initial interest to purchase the book (and possibly even read it to the end).

To illustrate my example, if you were to conduct elementary statistical analysis with the dependent variable being a book’s relative proportion in a Library book sale or a used bookstore’s clearance section and the independent variable being a twelve-month lagged variable of the New York Times Bestseller List, the correlation would likely be high. These books might be very entertaining – they might even be good – but they are not likely worth the storage costs imbued in a physical book, hence their placement in the donation bin at the library. Maybe that is why the physical book is in trouble. In the markets where publisher’s can afford to sell books at fairly low prices, people may not care to hold onto a physical book – they just care to read it. Hence, more of the “mass” market may drift to the electronic frontier as physical academic presses continue to find the attention of the lonely scribbler.


The collective fate of NYTimes Best Sellers

As well, the physical book will continue to allow those with modest means to access the Western Canon, and such sordid works that grace the New York Times’ Fiction Best Selling List. All it takes is a library card for a person to access great works or a few dollars to purchase the item at a used bookstore. With electronic books, you not only need to purchase the device which transmits the electronic book, but also then buy the book itself as a suitable means for ‘sharing’ among friends or strangers will likely not exist due to copyright concerns. This is an obvious impediment to poor individuals. Technological innovations often serve to have the greatest proportional benefit for the average household – I am not convinced electronic readers will prove to be beneficial for individuals at the lowest quintile of the income and wealth distribution.

All of this is not to say that book collection can go too far. My wife and I every now and then would watch the show “Hoarders”. One episode featured a couple in Chicago who claimed to have over one million – million – books in their relatively small home. The couple did not accommodate the books, the books accommodated the couple. The show depicted the struggle as the couple went through the challenge of consolidating their collection. Some of the books they had were inchoate – “SQL for Dummies”; Microsoft Paint owner manuals from the late nineties, and so on. There is a fine line between passion and obsession and it seemed this couple had clearly veered into the obsession lane. Consistent with my prior formulation, I would say their collection had become an end unto itself rather than a means to a rationally ordered end.

As I have grown older and demands upon my time have increased, I have become more selective in the books I read and subsequently acquire. I no longer read trashy political books – the Mark Levin’s of the world and so on. I try to stay away from books which address current events as much as possible (I subscribe to a healthy dose of news periodicals for that). Moreover, I have no qualms about ‘quitting’ a book I find unenlightening or fairly difficult to parse. Sometimes, I will go back to these books. Other times, I will not.

My book collecting will continue – ordered to rational ends – and I will mark the 2,000th book with pride and understanding that the task will not be complete as there will always be another book to read.

Images courtesy of Princeton University Press Blog and ericodoeringer.com. The use of these images does not constitute an endorsement of this article or Boompopmedia.com



1.              See, e,g., “Nicholas Negroponte: The Physical Book Is Dead In 5 Years” arguing that digital books will replace physical books as the dominant literary form.  http://techcrunch.com/2010/08/06/physical-book-dead/. For a counter point, see, e,g. “The Death of the Book Has been Greatly Exaggerated” arguing that E-Books will hit a saturation point and will see a decrease in their progression: http://www.technologyreview.com/view/420881/the-death-of-the-book-has-been-greatly-exaggerated/

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