Dead weight

by Carl Dyke

The other day I had a triumphal experience. My science fiction reading circle had decided to read Orwell’s 1984, which I had not read or had reason to consult since high school. Amazon wanted almost $10 for the Kindle edition, after covering themselves in ironic glory by vaporizing an earlier version, so access plan A was out. But maybe, just maybe I had it on a shelf somewhere?

And sure enough, I did! After a half-hour search, there it was, in with several hundred other books I’ve picked up over the years from thrift stores, yard sales and library clearances, all just in case maybe someday I might need them. A nasty, cheap, perfectly good used school edition of the book, with plenty of bent pages but no signs of actual previous reading.

Man, am I smart.

Yet, dimly I perceive that this one triumph may not entirely justify the general clutter that enabled it, or the attendant ‘need’ my wife and I have to pay for a two story, four bedroom house to store all those maybes, or all that weight to carry when we move. Wouldn’t it be smarter to let someone else’s walls and closets store my intellectual bric-a-brac? With a 1/300 hit rate over many years, I’m thinking I could pay Amazon a $10 ‘storage fee’ for that one book plus all the other ones I don’t need (yet?) and come out way ahead in quality of life.

Perhaps I ought to think of this cloud of ethereal whatsits out of which Amazon, E-bay and Craig’s List materialize things we need on demand in the same way I already think about non-prescription sunglasses and umbrellas, as things no one owns so much as rents from time to time for a small usage charge. Should I throw my clutter back into this magnificent vortex? Would this be more like communism, or maybe even Harry Potter?

UPDATE: Undine has a great post up reflecting in part on Warburg’s Library, now under threat, in which memory is represented by a perpetual flux of relationships. What would cloud storage of our books do to the connections we can make by sifting through a physical archive? How about the identities created and revealed by the more durable selections we make, as John discusses in the comments below?

7 Comments to “Dead weight”

  1. in with several hundred other books I’ve picked up over the years from thrift stores, yard sales and library clearances, all just in case maybe someday I might need them.

    I find myself remembering a friend we visited this summer, who also owns a house filled with books. Then I look up at the wall of books behind the desk where my laptop sits and note that this collection has, over the years, been repeatedly pruned. Living in a small apartment in Japan, we don’t have the room to keep every book we acquire and periodically have to decide which ones to get rid of. The result is an archeology of reading matter in which clumps of books survive because they are linked to important moments in our lives. Directly above my head are the Complete Greek Drama and Jowett’s Plato, acquired as a freshman philosophy major in college. On the next shelf down are a bunch of Chinese dictionaries and a smattering of novels in Chinese, souvenirs of a past when China and Chinese popular religion were my major preoccupations. Below them is a shelf of mainly political books, relics of the decade we spent involved with Democrats Abroad. Directly in front of me is a miscellany of more recently acquired or frequently referred to books, the Raw and the Cooked by Levi-Strauss, The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace, a fascinating history of the business of selling rare wine to people with obscene amounts of money, Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China, a biography of Joseph Needham, The Upside of Down by Thomas Homer-Dixon, Propaganda and the Public Mind by Noam Chomsky, the Ideology of the Aesthetic, the first book I ever read by Terry Eagleton, sitting next to Cultural Studies by Fred Inglis, Robert Byrd’s Losing America, Aihwa Ong’s Flexible Citizenship….I could rattle on, but this should be enough to demonstrate what I mean. A visitor attuned to such things could scan these shelves and learn a lot about what mattered at different points in their lives to a couple who met in graduate school, married and merged their undergraduate holdings, then acquired new interests as others receded. Glancing to the right, I see Ruth’s geology books and knitting magazines, a row of English literature (mainly Jane Austen and David Lodge), classic murder mysteries and classic science fiction.

    Mostly, I think about belonging to a subspecies of a generation that grew up with books and used them to define who we are, bookish people, members of what Robertson Davies calls the clerisy instead of the jocks or TV drones (yes, we are fiercely prejudiced when it comes to our our identity). I wonder what others see when they look at their libraries.

  2. My books have followed me, on many a move. But they are heavy baggage.

  3. John, that’s lovely. For me it gets worse. For example I have about 1000 lps that I’ve carried around through six or seven major moves, including two across country and one year of storage with friends while I was in Hawaii. They’re incredibly heavy and I never listen to them because it’s a pita way to get at music once cds and mp3s are available. But collecting them was a big chunk of the pleasure of my geeky young adulthood, sooooo….

    Oddly, I was carrying a big box of old student papers I cleaned out of my office for recycling to my car last night, thinking of native porters in old African safari movies and realizing what a luxury it is not to have to be selective with one’s stuff. Will I need the taxonomy of small thrushes, or the better teaset, while I’m deep in the bush? No matter, subject labor comes cheap so I’ll just add another crate to the expedition and take both.

  4. What is “a pita way”? If not a typo, it’s intriguing. The mind wanders in search of deep connections between pitiful and falafel.

  5. I was particularly struck by Undine’s observation that browsing the Web is

    not exactly research, because you’re not “searching” so much as “informing” yourself in a casual way, and it’s also not research because it’s not in depth. You skim information; you don’t take notes on it. But it’s a useful and important process, because it feeds your mind with pieces of information that may not seem useful at first but may arise at a later state in the project. It’s our own version of the picture atlas, maybe.

    It resonates nicely with what William Gibson has to say in this Dangerous Minds discussion, where he talks about how he no longer takes photographs when he travels. Why? Because by focusing his attention, the camera excludes the peripheral feed of ambient information where the new and novel resides.

  6. I agree. When I think about what the Web is doing for me, that’s it exactly; along with, at its best, a sort of informed salon sociability that can be pleasantly sustaining.

    Pita is a semi-common acronym for ‘pain in the ass’, so pitiful falafel would do the trick. I gestured at this once back in the day here, with links to a blog called The Pita Principle.

  7. By the way, a well maintained library, is really carbon storage with added value.

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