Mar 21 2010
In the Globe and Mail, Russell Smith lamented the effect of e-books on personal book collections, writing in part:
“So we lose forever the pleasure known to humanity for 500 years of taking a stroll up and down the aisles of someone else’s brain by perusing their bookshelves. Gone will be the guilty joy of spending a rainy afternoon at a cottage with the remnants of someone else’s childhood: their Nancy Drews, their 1970s National Geographics. Without bookshelves, you will never know the warning signs contained in the e-reader of your handsome date–you will not know for months that he is reading The Secret and Feng Shui for Dummies, even if you stay over. You will never be able to ask, as casually as you can, ‘Did you like this?’ as you pull down, as if fascinated, Patrick Swayze’s autobiography.”
I’ve seen this position expressed a number of times. Digital books and the loss of the public nature of the physical artifact will result in the loss of culture, the loss of something important, goes the argument.
This reminds me of this UK survey that says 65% of people have lied about reading a particular book. As if people haven’t placed books on their shelves that they’ve never read, just for the prestige of it.
I remember caring about what people knew I read and I read classics. Everything from Beowulf to Odyssey, from Anna Karenina to Vanity Fair. I’ve read everything written by Ayn Rand. I’ve read the Grapes of Wrath (and Lisa Valdez has nothing on Steinbeck’s breastfeeding scenes :shudder:). I used to be a big poetry fan, buying collections of Tennyson, Browning, Wordsworth.
And I still have these books but what do they tell people about me? Because all it really means is that I went through a phase where I wanted to appear well read and read and bought books that made me look erudite. Those books are but a tiny portion of my life. I don’t think I have been greatly influenced by the books of Ayn Rand. I do think that Homer’s plots and tropes have been ripped off for a millenium, but what of it?
The loss of a physical artifact doesn’t reduce one’s ability to get to know someone, to peak inside their brain. It doesn’t take away the ability to interact based on a common interest in a book. In fact, that’s the whole premise of social media sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing. Today’s free flow of information actually means that you know far more about a person than what is solely on their physical bookshelves. You can know who their friends are, what causes they are affiliated with, if they spend too much time building virtual farms.
Technology has always changed the way we interact with others, in some good ways and in some bad ways. The loss of a physical artifact merely means that we people have to find new ways of connecting. The loss of a physical artifact does not automatically result in a net cultural loss unless we allow it.