Digital bookshelves are harder to browse...
September 23, 2015 10:38 AM   Subscribe

I have many books. Now I have many ebooks. There is some overlap. I am hesitant to get rid of my hardcopies because I want other people (my kids, primarily) to be able to browse through them and find stuff that interests them. I think this is easier to do with physical objects. Please convince me I can get rid of my physical books if I have e-copies; or, tell me why keeping physical books is essential.
posted by OmieWise to Media & Arts (34 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Please convince me I can get rid of my physical books if I have e-copies; or, tell me why keeping physical books is essential.

Why the need to make everything As Efficient As Possible? I mean, what harm does it do to have a physical copy of something as well as an ebook? It sounds like you have no reason to get rid of the books except for some vague sense that you ought to, because you're asking us to 'convince you' to ditch them. So, I say don't ditch them.

Personally, a house does not feel like home to me unless it's full of books. I know that this is inefficient and materialistic; I also don't care, because I love owning books and seeing them every day right there in front of me. I'll buy books I've already read and don't own, without knowing if I'll ever read them again, just so that I have them. Books are great. Keep the books.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:42 AM on September 23, 2015 [17 favorites]

Calibre is acceptable for browsing ebooks. I search by tag or keyword. Pbooks, on the other hand, are ideal for loaning out or taking camping. I have both, but only books I love in paper.
posted by irisclara at 10:44 AM on September 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I really love books and love to own books but I stopped buying them after I moved across the country for the third time. Now I freely give mine away to friends and family if they want to read something, telling myself I can buy another copy if I ever, at any point, feel like I need to have one. And it turns out that on the rare occasion I've wanted to buy something again, I've bought the digital copy.

I get wanting to have books because you love them. But they take up a lot of space, and they're a pain to move, and you'll probably never open 90% of them again. Plus they're all available for free at your local library. There isn't really a rational reason to own a hard copy book. I know the emotional attachment is strong, but I kind of like the idea that I don't need to own a book: they're out there existing in the world and are easily available to me if I want them. They're everybody's books!
posted by something something at 10:54 AM on September 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have collected many books and have dumped them with each move I have made through many years professionally and now, long retired. Books. Yes. we love them. Want to reread this or that novel? get it from the local library. Why spend so much money to carry around hundreds of books that will not be reread or that your heirs will not care about. Some collect records (remember those?) or dolls or baseball cards , etc etc. They are all security blankets of a sort, giving we believe meaning to our lives. Thoreau noted that some American Indians tribes had a custom where each year they would burn their possessions. I read, therefore I am? I collect, therefore I still am?
What I have read is either retained in my head. Or not. Surrounding myself with that which I had read years ago is of no use or value to me if I do not turn to those books for weekly use, research, etc. Have I read Proust? Yes. Do I need to cling to those books? Not when I have to pack and move.
Yes, books make a nice display, announcing to visitors that Here Lives A Reader. But my EReader! Who will spot it and know I Am A Reader? I will know. That is what counts.
posted by Postroad at 10:56 AM on September 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: That damned cult of tidy. Do you move a lot? Are you cramped for space? Do you have insects eating your pages? I look at a good bookshelf the same way I look at a good painting or a good t-shirt. It has utility, it reminds me of things, it's an artifact of a larger thing that matters. I got a little severe with my books when I moved into a smaller space. If the book in question wasn't something I'd re-read or that reminded me of something or that looked cool, I might ditch it. Genre fiction that was easily replaceable, I'd get rid of. Books given to me by friends (or books by friends) or books that were on a topic that was still useful to me, I'd keep around. My house isn't spilling over with books. Most of them are on shelves. I love to look at those shelves. They inspire me. They make me remember where I came from. They tell other people useful things about me. Books are not just a container for information, they have design value. It's fine to get rid of ones that don't solve a problem or serve a purpose for you, but there's no reason you must.
posted by jessamyn at 10:57 AM on September 23, 2015 [45 favorites]

Jessamyn +1. I was interested in irisclara's reference to "pbooks" which was new to me. I found this delightful link. So yes, please keep the books. They have value in multiple ways.
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:01 AM on September 23, 2015

Here is my plea for keeping the physical books.

The books we love the most, we own both in hard and in "e." My libraries definitely DO NOT have copies of every book I've ever wanted to re-read. Not even in electronic version. And those libraries aren't slouches. They just seem to cycle through books very quickly. (Yes, I could do an interlibrary loan, but when I have an urge to re-read a book, I want to re-read it now.)

Plus, I'm old enough to remember file extensions that have gone by the wayside, and who's to say anything .epub will be able to be read in 10 years, or by the time your kids are old enough to browse Calibre?

Keep the books. Re-evaluate if you move cross-country.
posted by kimberussell at 11:06 AM on September 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

We got rid of a lot (nearly half of what we had) hard copy books as we move a lot, and move internationally. We still have around 2K+ but it seems like not many to us. I have to say that of the books we still have our son is continually discovering stuff on our shelves that he probably would not have found in our calibre shelves (where we have 10K+ ebooks).
I am fully evangelical about the awesomeness of ebooks. Totally. But if you are not moving around and you have kids who you hope will make serendipitous discoveries one day, my suggestion is hold on to the good stuff, whatever you consider that to be.
posted by Megami at 11:09 AM on September 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have some of the same issues. There's just something magical about browsing in a bookstore. But I have a small apartment. I keep books where I have a personal attachment to the physical copy: bought somewhere special, gift, much read. Others I'm happy to acquire the shelf space since I'm actually more likely to read the ecopy. What is most important to you?

I hate clutter, so keeping books/clothes/etc. because someone may want some day, drives me nuts. It either goes into their spaces or gets donated.
posted by TravellingCari at 11:19 AM on September 23, 2015

You could make a printed catalog of your ebooks with about 9 covers per page, put the pages in a page protector in a three ring binder and keep it on your bookshelves. I think that would work best for fiction, memoirs, biographies and the more narrative non-fiction.
posted by soelo at 11:21 AM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

For me, digital books are a chance to curate a physical library of physical books I really love and that are meaningful to me.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:24 AM on September 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think this really comes down to how much you move and how much space you have. I have moved a lot, and have kept a fair amount of books through that, but it's meant I've culled quite a lot -- I really go through and think about whether a book has sentimental value (i.e. I'm never going to get rid of the first book I helped edit which is signed by the author!) or I really think I will re-read the hard copy (I regularly re-read the Harry Potter series, and strongly prefer the hardback versions I got when they came out) or if I really prefer the hard copy (a large percentage of my hard copies is cookbooks, because I find e-cookbooks annoying and difficult to use).

Then again, if you don't have a move prompting the cull and you have plenty of shelf space, and you want to keep the books, I would just keep them! They aren't hurting anyone. If you do end up doing a big move or downsizing your space in the future or whatever, it's not like you can't cull then. I guess I'm just not of the belief that every possession has to be perfectly justified or efficient or whatever. Sometimes we keep stuff because we like it, and that is a fine enough reason as long as you're not becoming a hoarder or paying hundreds of dollars to store things every month or something on that level.
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:25 AM on September 23, 2015

If you purchase digital books with DRM, you are buying a license for a book, not the book itself. The license can be revoked, leading to remote deletion on some platforms. Short of confiscation and book burnings, it is difficult to revoke a physical object.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 11:27 AM on September 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

My moves in the last 6 years are in the double digits but I haven't gotten rid of any of my books. I never will, not matter how annoying they are. I hire movers. My house isn't a home without them. I think it's important to have physical books. They feel different.
posted by shesbenevolent at 11:29 AM on September 23, 2015

It almost seems like saying "why paint your walls, it costs money and takes time and it doesn't make them any more functional, and you can't take it with you when you leave! Just leave them white!" Like, on the one hand, yes, but on the other hand, no
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:31 AM on September 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

If you're renting and have to move, or have a small home, physical books can exert a significant cost on your life.

If you own your own home, you can use books to make a bookcase, which you can then build and hinge across an entrance-way to make a secret passage way.

Get a house. Keep the books. Build a secret passage. Never look back.
posted by anonymisc at 11:50 AM on September 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

There is evidence from this study (summarized here) that the number of books in the home correlates positively with children's academic achievement. The study does not state whether e-books were counted, and the effect may be attributable to a "scholarly culture" rather than the mere presence of the physical books, but who knows.
posted by bleston hamilton station at 11:51 AM on September 23, 2015

showbiz_liz: ""why paint your walls, it costs money and takes time and it doesn't make them any more functional, and you can't take it with you when you leave! Just leave them white!""

I think this is a very accurate metaphor, because just like painting your walls, there are situations where it is a no-brainer that you should (you own your home, you enjoy color, etc), but there are also situations where you shouldn't (you rent, your place already has beautiful brick walls, etc). It really depends on your individual circumstances.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:54 AM on September 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Last time the economy blew up, I had to put everything in storage and move back with my Mom. I sold almost all my books. I miss maybe 5% of them. I kept 1 bookcase worth of books, and now buy Kindle books. I'm tempted to look at the books I kept, and do another cull. Pretty much the only ones I want to keep are art books and a few sentimental favorites. Even those favorites, though, I'd probably rather read on my Kindle.

But I also ditched a good half of my possessions through the 08 disaster, and I'd like to cut what I have left down to just the stuff I actually want. Basically, I'm in a space where I see so much of my life as clutter, and want to only own the things that I really value. What do you really value? Those books? Keep em. Grateful to never move the damn things again? Drop em in a little free library somewhere.
posted by Ambient Echo at 11:57 AM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, I should add that the "missing 5% of them" is because I emptied the storage place (a friend's garage) in 2012, and got to see the few books I had kept. I'd guess I kept 150 out of 750 books, and that I only really want to have like 50 total printed on paper.
posted by Ambient Echo at 12:00 PM on September 23, 2015

For a clever idea if you wish to retain some sense of ownership of books that you give away or sell, I once had bookplates made up for books that I was getting rid of that said something to the effect of "This book belongs to the Distributed Library of Rock T. Steady. Please enjoy and disperse."
posted by Rock Steady at 12:17 PM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you purchase digital books with DRM, you are buying a license for a book, not the book itself. The license can be revoked, leading to remote deletion on some platforms. Short of confiscation and book burnings, it is difficult to revoke a physical object.
Furthermore, you say one reason you have the books is so your kids can browse them and find something interesting. DRM e-books have grave flaws for this use scenario. They are typically locked to a particular user or a particular device. With Kindle books, for example, you can only "lend" them under specific, limited terms.

If I think I will ever want to share a book, I do not buy a DRM e-book. You are trying to build a library for your family. DRM e-books are simply not suitable for this unless you want to research the various available means of DRM circumvention.
posted by massysett at 12:18 PM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

You know, thinking more about it, I've loved reading forever, but we didn't keep books in the house until I started getting my own. Mom read all the time, but she either sold them back to a used bookstore, or returned them to the library.

But we went to the library every few weeks, and spent a good long time there. I would wander the stacks and browse and browse. That worked so well for us as a way for me to do discovery, and libraries are still happy places for me. I know life gets busy, but the Saturday afternoon trip to the library was a habit, and in my case at least it kept a love of reading alive.
posted by Ambient Echo at 12:28 PM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers, everyone. Just for the record, this is not a question related to being tidy or efficient (I have a three year old and one year old twins, those two things are gone from my life forever). I simply have too many books to fit in my space, and a significant number of them are boxed up. But there are many good things to think about in this thread.
posted by OmieWise at 12:49 PM on September 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I used to have thousands of paper books. A few years ago, my apartment had reached the point where I couldn't fit other things that I wanted, because there were books everywhere -- and I had inherited some furniture that I really wanted to keep. I gritted my teeth and purged about half of the books, all ones I hadn't particularly liked, or had never re-read (or never read, and admitted to myself I never would). It was so hard to bag up all those books and bring them to a donation bin!

I didn't miss any of them for even a second once they were gone. A while later I did another purge and got rid of half of what was left, and felt very pleased that I'd gotten my collection down to a carefully curated set of books that I really loved or felt were somehow important. I didn't miss anything I'd donated.

This summer I realized I might have to move soon-ish, and looked around my apartment with "do I want to pack and lug these things?" eyes. I thought I would purge another half of the books. It's been more like 75%+ so far, which is just staggering to me, but... that's what it is. Part of it is how likely I am to re-read it, but most of it is that I open a book and realize that the print is really small, and the book is so thick it's unwieldy to hold, and I have an ebook copy that I would actually re-read. The books that are left make me really happy.

That said - I don't have kids, and my family and friends are already swimming in books. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, someone would have to go through and donate most of my books anyway. I'm okay with preemptively doing that job myself, since I'm not losing the words, just the paper. (I have a lot of ebooks.)

It is harder to just browse through my ebooks till something catches my eye. But honestly, I had so many books before that all my shelves were doubled up, and I never saw any of the ones in the back part of the shelves unless I specifically remembered them and dug around till I found them. At least with the ebook collection, I can do a search for the author or title in Calibre to see if I have it, rather than trying to remember which shelf I put what hidden things on.
posted by current resident at 1:06 PM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've been reading books primarily on an e-reader for the past three years and have been paring down my physical library in the meantime. Recently, I pared down from two big bookshelves (and some smaller ones elsewhere) to just one, and made a stack of books I had been holding onto because I hadn't read but that I wasn't likely to want to read again after I finally read them, then I read them and passed them on. I kept books that were part of a collection I have (I collect New Canadian Library books) or that were especially treasured, rather than keeping books just for the sake of keeping books. Almost anything that is available in the public domain is gone, unless it's very treasured/an all-time favourite formative book ; I can get those for free online whenever I want. The rest of the books that mean less to me get given to other people or to charity when I've finished reading them.

Now I'm surrounded by books that mean something to me and not just books and they make me happier to look at than did overflowing piles of books I hadn't read yet.
posted by urbanlenny at 1:22 PM on September 23, 2015

There's evidence that teens and adults engage with virtual text on a shallower level than they do when it's presented in printed form - they don't retain plots as well, have a less immersive experience, and don't seem to imaginatively project themselves into the narrative as deeply. (Am on phone, so linking and finding these studies is hard, but they're out there.)

One idea about it is that reading is really abstracted mapping of physical objects, and that when we read a physical book, we make multiple associations, including spatial ones relating to the placement of text on a particular page, within a given chapter, within the book, as object. (I think that research is summarized in a piece in either The Atlantic or Harper's (read it online, can't remember ;) )

Since you want your kids to access these works, and it's unclear how their developing cognition might be influenced by the form of the materials they're going to be reading, better to hedge your bets and give them both options. (Ie 2nd Jessamyn)
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:28 PM on September 23, 2015

Best answer: With the exception of particularly rare or expensive books, or especially fine or heirloom editions, books themselves, as objects, have very little intrinsic value. I understand the "cult of the book" and am perfectly willing to say that I was once a fierce subscriber to the idea, and to the idea that a person's library is in some way a definition and a validation of that person, but really:

- Millions upon millions of books are printed every year. You can go to certain bookstores and certain libraries and university campii and literally watch a book be printed and bound in front of you with your own eyeballs. Presumably you're doing this because you're after the content of the book, rather than a big pile of expensive, pre-filled scrap paper, so what's the big difference between a 3D book-object and a 2D book-representation?

- Books are extremely inefficient and wasteful. Along with the millions and millions printed every year, more millions and millions are dumped into landfill, or burned, or buried, or inefficiently recycled at great costs of energy and water. eReaders aren't exactly the most environmentally-friendly things on the planet, I know...but once you've got more than a few dozen books on there, they start to balance out pretty damn well, I reckon.

- eReaders are easier to transport, and easier to handle on e.g. the train. Plus you don't have to force yourself through some awful horrible bullshit novel written by an asshole just because you've only got one physical paper book on you - you just delete that shit off your little device, and move right on to something else. Ever been sitting on a train reading some bullshit, and said to yourself, man, I wish I was reading [INSERT ONE OF YOUR FAVOURITE NOVELS HERE] instead, because this is terrible? WELL NOW YOU CAN!

- You can download, for free and perfectly legally, more than you would ever be able to read in a hundred lifetimes from a single site such as Gutenberg. And it is good stuff!

- Shopping for books without pants, from the comfort of your lounge chair, can't be beat!

- It's a nice idea for your kids to look through your library, sure - but what if their interests are completely, 100% different to yours? What if you've been lugging all that shit around for ten years just for your kids and they end up looking at it like "ehhhh, no"? Let your kids buy their own books to love, from the infinite pool of possibilities, rather than from your tiny little puddle...don't risk the terrible disappointment you will feel when your kids grow up thinking that everything you like is stupid :-P

- Culling books is an excellent exercise in self-discipline and prioritisation. Yeah, we all liked Confederacy and Catcher and The Buk at one point in our lives, and maybe it even informs the person we are today, still, to some small extent...but really, are we ever honestly going to read it again? You're a different person now. You can be thankful for a book just as you can be thankful for the surgeon who sucked out your gallbladder - doesn't mean you want them living with you.

Tip: when culling, take the books OUT OF THE SHELVES and put them on the floor in piles and go through them one by one as if you were seeing them for the first time in a book shop and deciding if you wanted to pay thirty dollars for them. Would you pay thirty dollars for it again? Skimming along their spines with your fingers is only good for the initial prune of utter garbage, but when you want to get deeper, they have to come off the shelves.

Be free! Think of all the space! Think of all the dust-collectors that are now gone! Books are dead, long live books!
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:59 PM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree with Kimberussell -- don't rely on the library to have a book you want to read again. I don't want to re-read most books that I read, and I use the public library heavily. However, my local library allows me to see the books I've checked out in the past. And it shows which of those are no longer in the collection. Today I looked back at my previous check-outs. I scrolled past the last two years, assuming I'm not likely to want to re-read something I've read that recently. Of the next 400 items I'd checked out before that, 72 (18%) were not in the collection anymore. Some of those were good and I'd like to read them again. I don't know if the attrition was due to books being lost or to the librarians culling the collection.
posted by SandiBeech at 5:58 PM on September 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Living in a small space hasn't stopped me from accumulating books faster than I can read them. Having relocated several times in the past decade, I've had to do a number of culls to keep the work of transporting the books down to a level that allows for a "pizza and beer"-fueled move.

I haven't yet regretted donating or giving away any books. I also have made lists in the past of the ones I let go, thinking that one day I would replace them with ebooks; except for a couple, I haven't bothered. These culls showed that, in my case, many books are "aspirational"; I would LIKE to read them one day, or it'd be NEAT to learn about that, or wouldn't it be COOL if I had this on hand when a friend might need this. Again, with few exceptions, those things haven't happened too often.

Getting rid of the aspirational side of the library has simplified my buying decisions going forward. I now keep that tendency in mind, and when thinking about new books I ask if it's really just something I aspire to read. If so, I put it back, and promise myself to come get it when I'm really ready.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 7:55 PM on September 23, 2015

I just held my breath, closed my eyes, and got rid of 90 percent of my books. Momentary panic when I loaded them into the car which was repeated when I dropped them off at the charity shop. After that, I never not once missed any of them. For me, I just had to take the plunge. And this comes from someone who grew up in a house filled with books and who also has a child I desperately want to grow up a reader. But it's 2015: viva ebooks!
posted by whitewall at 8:48 PM on September 23, 2015

I live in a tiny apartment. I read now almost exclusively on an ereader.

So I did the purge: I concentrated on keeping books that were

a) relatively obscure or in copyright, such that it would be hard to get an e-copy on a whim, or

b) I love the physical volume (like the copy of The Blue Castle with the stupid cover that I still carried around for years and read and reread).

Still have too many books for my space - even after getting rid of the cheap Jane Austens, etc. But it was a start.
posted by jb at 9:18 PM on September 23, 2015

Best answer: Removing DRM from e-books is fun and easy.
posted by exogenous at 6:44 AM on September 24, 2015

Everything showbiz_liz said above. My heuristic about choosing a book format is as follows:

Will I reference or use this book later? Will I want my kids to read it when they grow up? (I'm still not married but I grew up in a house with a ton of books, and I want my kids to be surrounded by physical copies of books I've read). Is the subject matter dense enough that I might need to take notes?

If either of those questions meet with a resounding yes - get a physical book. If not, you can get an e-book.

In closing, I'd like to quote something that I really liked. It comes from Nassim Taleb from his book The Black Swan

“The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore, professore dottore Eco, what a library you have ! How many of these books have you read?” and the others - a very small minority - who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you don’t know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menancingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”
posted by rippersid at 7:27 AM on September 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

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