Monday, August 19, 2013

Fire Breathing Toaster: Books Be Gone

by Bill Adler

I'm in a bit of a conundrum. I love my books. I hate my books.

Let me explain. As a writer, I think books are great. Ever since I hid under a blanket in my bedroom as a child, reading books late at night with a flashlight, I've loved books.

I recently emptied out my office in an attempt to replace clutter with sanity. As part of that process I wiped my shelves clean and boxed my books. My office, virtually empty now, has an echo.

I'm not crazy about the echo (though it is interesting), but I do like the feel of open space that not having my shelves packed with books offers. Where there once was was end to end paperbacks and hardcovers there's now an open vista.

I've started to put nice things where my books used to be: the locomotive that was part of my Lionel train set when I was a kid, beautiful wooden chopsticks and a chopstick rest, a wooden box with an attractive Bulova watch inside.

I haven't put my books back. Actually, some are back -- the ones I currently use and enjoy, such as a novel that I couldn't find as an ebook, and Japanese language textbooks. I haven't put back my collection of Stephen King novels or the multitude of nonfiction books on everything from meteorology to American history trivia. And I'm not sure that I will put even most of them back. Most are never going to be opened again. I don't get a warm and fuzzy feeling from seeing "A Brief History of Science" printed on the spine of a book on my shelf. Just about anything I need to look up I can find on my iPhone faster than I could by consulting a book's index. Why keep books like this that I'm never going to touch again?

In college I took a course on Middle English. My Middle English literature book has traveled with me for decades, but why? I haven't looked at it since just before my last final exam during my junior year.

John Gardner is among the best American writers. Yet, out went my copy of Gardner's "Grendel," which I read and loved, and Gardner's "The Sunlight Dialogs," which I haven't read. I won't read "Grendel" again, I'm sure, and if I haven't read "The Sunlight Dialogs" by now, I have to be honest with myself: I won't ever read it.

Over the past year I've been expanding my collection of ebooks, mostly Kindle's, though I've dabbled in Apple's ebooks. It's an extraordinary thing to have all your books with you wherever you go -- and not take up any physical space. If I want to reread parts of a Stephen King novel because I have to stay wide awake, "The Shining" is just a couple of clicks away. And I don't have to blow a layer of dust off it before I start reading.

Technology in the way of ebooks lets you decide which physical books to keep, and which to discard. Technology lets you have more space.

My office is like a national park now. Well, not really. Actually not at all. But what I mean is that would you ever clutter up a open space like a national park with office buildings? There's beauty in open space. Open space is serene, it's calming, it's pretty. Why fill shelves with books, just because they're called "bookshelves?"

This may be one of the digital age's beneficial side effects. Those things that we kept because we couldn't think of a good reason not to, no longer need clutter our lives. I like it.


Bill Adler is a writer. He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets," , "Outwitting Squirrels," , and a mess of other books. He tweets at @billadler. Fire Breathing Toaster is published on Mondays.

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