Book Shelves

by Krishna on August 24, 2009

Rands has a great essay on why he loves books and about how he stalks the books in the house of a new acquaintance. It brought back some fond childhood memories when I would raid the comic books at the houses of my friends: Tintin, Asterix, Amar Chitra Katha, Archie and so on. Even today, it is nice to visit someone’s house and see a book that you can borrow, like the “Angels & Demons” a friend lent me recently.

But I don’t agree with Rands’ judgmental attitude towards those without book shelves. While I strongly advocate reading books, the universe of book readers is very small and those who read the same kind of books you read is even smaller. It is great to meet someone who has read the same books, but then you could also have good conversations with people on other shared interests (movies, food, traveling, etc.) It is also possible that book lovers have significantly different and incompatible attitudes in other areas.

Anyway, I wanted to talk about my personal book library. I don’t know if this is the norm, but these are the classes to which the books I have belong to:

  1. Books I have finished reading and either plan to keep or donate.
  2. Books I haven’t started reading.
  3. Reference books which I can never hope to finish.

The books I plan to keep after reading are usually some kind of collection, like the Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories, or a classic book like “Catch 22“. Few technology books belong in either category, but I suppose one exception would be Donald Knuth’s “The Art of Computer Programming” (which I don’t own).

The unread books I own are mostly ones I found in second-hand sales or handed from friends who no longer had a need for them. Sometimes, they also include collections of stories. The big problem with owning such books is that they tend to take lower priority over books I rent from libraries because there is no time pressure to finish reading them. And so they continue to remain unread.

I suppose Category 3 is less important today because you can do most research on the Internet. I gave away my dictionary: I have no use for it when Google is a few keystrokes away. But there are other books (cooking, photography) where it may still be more convenient to use a book by an expert than hit some random web page.

There are four shelves in my house. Two of them contain the bulk of my library and organized based on subject (fiction / non-fiction / reference) and size (paperback / hardcover). The third contains books on my active reading list, usually books I have borrowed and need to return. And the fourth contains notebooks and files filled with information I have collected, which probably should be digitized at some point.

It is indeed difficult to imagine a world without books. And I am not sure how entirely Kindle-like devices can replace them. When we compare this to music CDs being replaced by the iPod, it is not an accurate comparison. Part of the allure of books is because they come in different forms and shapes (unlike music in standard CDs). A book collection set looks and feels different. And it appeals to collectors in a different way.

But this is no going away from the overall trend. Soft-copy books are cheaper and more environmental-friendly. Most books don’t merit being published on paper. Reference collections, while an art form in themselves, have such a low read-to-printed ratio that they are better off online.

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