After recently moving house, and being confronted box by box with just how much stuff I seem to own, I found no trouble in joyfully throwing plenty of it away. But not my books. Though I threw out clothes, rugs, games, crockery, pictures, I couldn’t bring myself to throw away a single book. I hold onto my books. Even the ones I don’t like, haven’t read, or know I’ll never read again. Books feel important. They feel different. But why?
I’m not alone in this. Plenty of us understand that protective feeling we have for books – because they’re special. They have always been special. Throughout history they have been symbols of knowledge, wealth, and power. Through our childhoods they brought us joy, helping us to discover the world. In the same way, we feel damage to books particularly keenly. Destroying a book is something we associate with fascism, censorship, or propaganda.
Books also feel special because of the way we read. Reading is private, unique: it takes place entirely in our heads. It’s an imaginative act that allows us to bring whole worlds to life ourselves – speaking directly to something deep inside us. There is something fundamentally human about a book.
But books are having a rough time at the moment. With more ebooks than print books now being sold, and with no reversal of that trend in sight, printed books seem to be on their way out. They’re an outdated technology that’s been superseded by something lighter, faster, cheaper and more convenient. There’s more buzz about reviews of ereaders than there is about books. Books have become ‘content’. And today we value the curation of knowledge much more than the knowledge itself: why have an encyclopaedia when you can have Google? Why have a hardcover with one novel inside when you can have a Kindle with ten thousand? Books are old hat.
But they’re not dead. Publishers have responded to the rise in ebooks by making the printed book more and more appealing. The last few years have seen numerous efforts to make tremendously beautiful books – gorgeous things you can’t help but want to own. It’s wonderful to see a rejuvenated passion for the craft of bookmaking, but it’s not quite the fanfare for the glory of the printed word that it might seem. These beautiful books are objects of prestige – a glorification of your decision to make a purchase of a cultural product in an age where we’re able to access most things for free. This trend turns books into homeware. And I have plenty of homeware I’d be happy to throw away – homeware is clutter waiting to happen.
Of course, I say throw away. What we often mean when we talk about throwing out our possessions is donating them to a charity shop. But I worry that this might be a cop-out. A way of making it easier for you to rid yourself of something by pretending you are setting it free to live a new life. The sick dog that went to live on a farm with a nice family. No – the demand for books is much lower than we think. 40% of printed books are pulped unread. Any second hand shop is notable for its plentiful shelves of cast-offs people didn’t like enough to keep. Which is not to say that one can’t find anything there, or that I’m anti-second hand books. But go to a charity shop and you’ll see the books there very differently to your shelves at home. The books, turned out from our homes, have lost some of their magic.
Perhaps this is a clue. Books obviously have sentimental value, but they don’t exist in isolation. They are given meaning by their collection – by the fact that they are found, bought, read and shelved by you. That curatorial history isn’t present in the contents of a charity shop. The bookshelves we find so hard to break apart are footprints of our personality, our cultural identity, our soul. And who would throw away part of their soul?
Books have power because we give them power. And as we shift our attention to digital content, maybe that power is fading. Perhaps this emotional connection we have to our bookshelves is the tail of the comet, and over the net few years we will see our passion for print fading with time, disappearing like the mixtape or the record collection.
But perhaps not. Vinyl sales are on the rise – in a world where music can be free, people are choosing to make fewer, but more meaningful purchases. To download twenty albums, but to buy the one that really matters on a limited edition disk. Because it’s nice to own things; to hold them in your hands. With renewed effort being put into making beautiful, expensive books, I think our shelves might go the same way. They might be slimmer in the future, but they will still have meaning. After all, it’s a terribly dull person who can live a life truly free from clutter.
Originally published at: ELit Literaturhaus Europa