Never too many books? I have lots of books and it is becoming a problem because books are becoming nearly free and they are piling up. Here in Berkeley most of the famous old bookstores have closed and only the used bookstores are holding on. The easiest places to get books these days is at library sales of discarded books and at our local recycling center for abandoned books. It is incredible but books few people could afford to own ten years ago are being thrown away. Encyclopedia Britannicas were highly valued and yet in the last couple of months I have seen three complete sets, in perfect condition, set out for free. What is strange is that they sit there for weeks unclaimed. I even picked up for free the 1911 Britannica which was until recently coveted by scholars because of its outrageous honesty.
What are the reasons for this abandonment of books? Certainly it isn’t that people prefer to read off of a computer screen because books are much easier on the eyes and back. It isn’t because books cost too much, because computers cost much more than individual books and are even free if one goes to the library. It isn’t because they can’t get the books they want because through a local library one can go to the Inter Library Loan which will retrieve nearly any book that has been published.
There are several reasons for abandoning books and newspapers and while we’re at it TV news programming. Primarily they are being abandoned because people feel they have better access to what they want through other media, primarily TV and Internet connected computers with TV and movies on the skids. It takes a long memory to remember when a valued access to the news of the day was the 15 minute news program between double feature movies and the cartoon at the movie theater. That’s all gone now. Just before starting this blog I was watching near live videos being uploaded to the Internet of the election riots in Iran. Tonight on the evening news there might be clips of these videos with a local newscaster spin and tomorrow there might be some newspaper coverage with some photos of burning cars or tear gas cans rolling along or a bloody faced person, and in about a week TIME and other weeklies will be giving a longer and better overview of the whole thing in their perspective and to complete this line of thought in a year or two there will be some books on the subject with lots of analysis. However, by that time almost all of the people downloading the cell phone videos will be long gone and moved on to something else. Something which they feel has more relevance to their lives. It is the immediacy of the new medias and the more personal involvement of the creators of the media and the viewers of that media which makes it so attractive. It’s hot and an old book is not. Twitter is hot, TV is not.
Now comes the problem of finding what information you want. If you have a house full of thousands of books it requires a librarian to keep the things sorted out. Fortunately, I have one, but most people don’t. Nowadays, there are online computer programs like LibraryThing which allows you to keep track of your books but it requires a lot of work to upload all of your titles and where you have shelved them. That is beyond most people’s energy level and need but the effort does put you into a community of like minded people, which can be very helpful. But nowadays it really isn’t usually needed to actually possess the books because they can be viewed in so many other ways. If you just need a few pages of many newer books you just go to Amazon and search the pages you have been informed that you need. Or if it is an older book you can go to Google Books and view many (soon to be all) books both in a text format and a photo format. A fine example of this ability is a great old book, which was Conan Doyle’s favorite childhood book, Scalp Hunters by Mayne Reid. In the 1856 copy you see on page 22 not only the text but the fine old 1856 engraving. You can get a modern printing of the book but for an aesthetic experience of the old west the period piece is better if you can get one. With access to this exact book online why look further or keep one cluttering up your shelf? Unless you have a particular need for this book, as I do, it makes sense to sell it on Amazon. Also you can get many books and soon all books on a more portable reader such as Amazon’s Kindle. With the Kindle you don’t even need a computer or wifi you need only to be within range of a cell phone tower and that is almost anywhere.
Another class of information which is better retrieved online is definitions of words. I have relied on my Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary for years and actually have a full size Oxford Dictionary of the English language. But why? It is much quicker to access an on-line dictionary such as The Free Dictionary for most things and one of the more scholarly online dictionaries if necessary. The Free Dictionary site also has a Thesaurus and Dictionary of Synonyms. I love these old books but they occupy shelf space and are not used anymore so I take them to my coffee shop and people who think they need them steal them. Soon they will probably find they aren’t using them and if they have any sense will bring them back where they can be used to end arguments about definitions of words.
There is lots more to be said about what books should be gotten rid of but there is a real and potentially very important use for these books and that is to put them into the EarthArk repository. There may come a time in the distant future when the Internet is ancient history and even electricity for powering computers is gone but there are still people. If these people of the distant future could find these books in cold storage they might be able to reconstitute civilization. That would mean that putting these books into cold storage wasn’t destroying them but bringing them to life at a time when they were desperately needed and more appreciated than they are at present. This EarthArk would become a choice World Heritage Site.