Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Losing your bookshelf

Via Alan Jacobs, this Nathan Schneider essay laments a certain loss as we move to digital books. Excerpt:

What concerns me about the literary apocalypse that everybody now expects–the at least partial elimination of paper books in favor of digital alternatives–is not chiefly the books themselves, but the bookshelf. My fear is for the eclectic, personal collections that we bookish people assemble over the course of our lives, as well as for their grander, public step-siblings. I fear for our memory theaters.


Lord, do I ever know what he means. Every time I’ve moved — and in the past 20 years, I’ve moved cities eight times, and within cities at least nine times — I’ve shed some books. Not many at first; I love books, and love being surrounded by books, even books I know I’ll never read, or never read again. I have never really had books that I wouldn’t read — unless they were gifts — though I must confess that most books on my shelves I have never read, or at least have never read all the way through. I have a bad habit of buying books on impulse, because I’ve read a good review, or I’ve heard something interesting about it somewhere, or I picked it up in the bookstore, read a passage, and decided I had to have it. I am not as discriminating in book-buying as prudence and thrift dictate. Still, I love to keep those books on my shelf, because hey, you never know, maybe I will read them someday. Even if I don’t, those books are souvenirs of where my mind was at a certain time in my life. I like to look at their spines and remember.
When you’re as bookish as my wife and I are, this gets impractical, fast. Before moving to Philadelphia, we made several big runs to Half Price Books to sell volumes from our many shelves at home. We knew the apartment we’d be moving into was smaller, and besides, we didn’t relish hauling all those cases up to the second floor, where we were to live. I shed books I’d had with me since college. I knew I’d never look at them again, and really, it was time to get rid of my pack-rat hoard. Recently, though, when we had my niece Hannah visiting, I caught her looking over all our bookshelves, and I could tell she was doing what I always do when I go to the homes of bookish people: reading the titles as a way to assess the sort of people who live there. It occurred to me that maybe we should stop shedding books. How am I to know if my children might not love books that I once did, but won’t ever read again? Besides which, I want my children to grow up surrounded by books, even if most of them they don’t read. These treasures stand like terra cotta Chinese soldiers, interred on the shelves in formation, ready to come alive to defend against darkness, or just plain boredom, at the touch of a curious hand.

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Caroline Nina in DC

posted July 17, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Beautiful ending to that post. I can totally relate–we are drowning in books around here, and that’s not even counting the 100s at my brother’s in Mississippi left over from when we sold my mother’s house. We have to go pick those up in August.

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posted July 17, 2010 at 8:56 pm

Ha, can I ever relate to this one. Even when I was a little squirt, when I tagged along when my parents went to visit adult friends, I always made a beeline for the bookcases to see what they had. If allowed to, I’d pull a book off the shelf and leaf through it, well occupied for the duration. I remember seeing some really cool books aboout architecture and art in some of my parents’ friends’ homes. I’ve always collected lots of books, mostly nonfiction. But moving that many books? Awful. I’ve had to shed some when I’ve moved, but not nearly enough. Some are double shelved in my basement den right now (yeah, right, how am I going to remember what is behind what, right?) Bookshelves fill every room in my house except for the kitchen (well, we do have some cookbooks) and the dining room. I have my work cut out for me in my older, retirement years — weeding through my collections. Fortunately, that’s well in the future yet.
Rod, I totally get what you’re doing with the new blog. But I have to say, I’m going to miss those photos of you in the kitchen or holding a bottle or wine or cheering on the Dutch in those orange hued images or whatever. And the references to the 1980s (ah youthy, New Wave still is my favorite music — after classical). And all the funny stuff you used to put up at the blog here from time to time.

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posted July 17, 2010 at 9:41 pm

oh boy does this ring true for me. today I picked up a beautiful color photo book of Slovakia for a dollar repeat one Geo. Washington. wherever I go on my business travels I seek out local bookstores (and I love towns that have a Half Price bookstore). always end up purchasing a few items, especially local history books.
I, too, peruse people’s bookshelves when i visit.
but the saddest thing is that 13 years ago, dozens of my books did not make the truck for the move from Houston to Richmond. And these were books that I had collected over the years since junior high

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posted July 17, 2010 at 10:17 pm

There’s one major reason for keeping books. Digital media are massively efficient, but also massively fragile. CDs and DVDs last 10 years at most; online storage gets deleted wholesale whenever the ISP feels the feral breath of a lawyer; hard disks fail randomly; at worst you can accidentally hit the wrong key and lose a book or a lifetime of work.
Books will last centuries with minimal maintenance, and can only be deleted by a highly deliberate action, nearly impossible to do accidentally.

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Captain Noble

posted July 17, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Thankfully I have not had to get of any of my books (1000+) and I can’t imagine ever having to. I’m always buying more and it’s what I always tell family to get me for my birthday or Christmas. I like being surrounded by books. There’s something about the ambiance, the smell, of a room full of books that brings me a certain feeling of peace. I read a lot on my computer, but it will never compare to reading a book I’m holding a book in my hands while leaning back in a soft chair.
Captcha: engraved create (I like it.)

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Rawlins Gilliland

posted July 17, 2010 at 10:23 pm

My mother was a book reviewer when I was growing up; for the Dallas Morning News,where she had a regular column. Then Random House’s Bennett Cerf would send her unbound galleys. So our house ultimately became a book repositiry since she never cullled. Dad just built more built-in bookshelves until the entire 30 ft. living room was shelving along the walls except for the mantle/fire place. Yet there were even shelves above IT! By the time that house burned, I was sick of being buried in books. Baricaded. To this day I rearely keep a book. It’s like they are on-fire hot, like burning coals. Too hot to hold on to.

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Caroline Nina in DC

posted July 17, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Oh, I second what Indy said. I’ll miss the occasional posting of things like “No Parking on the Dance Floor”!
We’re sharing a bottle of Veuve Clicquot from our recent 10th anniversary, so we’ll toast the blog marathon, too!

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Ethan C.

posted July 17, 2010 at 10:52 pm

One of the main things my fiancee and I are looking forward to when we marry and move in together is the pleasure of combining our book collections and getting everything onto shelves. I’ve got all the books I accumulated in college in boxes in my parents’ basement, where they’ve been for three years now. Rediscovering them will be a real treat!

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posted July 17, 2010 at 10:56 pm

My house would be naked without my books! It’s not that I bought them for decoration. No, I’ve read every single one, some of which I’ve had since the ’70’s. I’ve got my college texts, too.
I don’t re-read my books anymore, but I do like to grab one off the shelf and reread passages from time to time. There are several in which I’ve underlined and made notes.
I’ve never looked into whether or not I could mark up kindle books, but it doesn’t matter. I love to lie on my sofa and read, which is what I’ve been doing for most of the day, after vacuuming and washing dogs.
I’ve run out of room for my books. I have store bought shelves, shelves mounted on walls, and lots of built-ins. Now they’re stacking up on the coffee table – and I just bought four more Friday evening after work. One of them’s Empire of the Summer Moon about which you blogged the other day, Rod. I’m a student of Indian attacks, coming from a family whose dynamics are rooted in, among other things, Indian attacks of the Northern Plains – Nebraska.
I can’t see myself with a Kindle. I’m not even interested enough to investigate whether or not my mind could change.
In the meantime, ensconced in my large paneled den with the parquet floor, I lie next to a faux tiffany lamp casting light over my shoulder onto the pages into which I’m about to lose myself, again.

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Geoff G.

posted July 17, 2010 at 11:01 pm

polistra brings up an excellent point. As someone interested in lasting archives for the sake of future historians, this shift to digital media bodes very ill indeed.
Even the shift to paper was something of a disaster; while my own oldest book is from the 17th century, there are tons of records that got lost because paper is less durable than parchment.
Never mind the durability of a hard drive or DVD or CD. How do you know how to interpret what’s on it? With manuscripts, we frequently have to deal with parts of pages that are missing or that have developed holes. Paleographers get good at making educated guesses about filling in the blanks. What happens when those blanks are sequences of missing bits? How does anything get retrieved at all?
This is a serious, serious problem if things ever do go down the tubes (and they will, sooner or later, one day).
Couple this with the fact that our plastic crap in our landfills is likely to last for ages.
We have literally designed things so that the things of value we produce are ephemeral while our junk lasts forever.
I guess there’s a lesson for future historians in that.

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posted July 17, 2010 at 11:29 pm

We have literally designed things so that the things of value we produce are ephemeral while our junk lasts forever
quite an insight – lesson for us now I’d add.
I have books everywhere – a whole room lined with shelves, books piled on tables, books in piles in corners of bedrooms. While I do succumb to the on sale books and I love second hand stores – I read everything. When I have nothing new to read – I hit the piles and re-read older books. I deeply regret having disposed of books in the past – some of them are actually worth money now (my complete set of original Nancy Drews that went to a children’s library) and some cannot be replaced. I very much agree too that digital forms are not reliable – if nothing else – what if there are no batteries to run the devices? I do agree some day things will collapse – all civilizations ultimately have their crashes – and books will be very valuable then.
There is the smell too – no disc has the wonderful smell of a book.

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posted July 18, 2010 at 12:08 am

I too love my books, and the house is far too full of them, but I can also see some very interesting and valuable things about e-books. An online friend of mine recently posted about the future value of e-books to remote and poverty-stricken countries. She described libraries in Central Asia, where there are not many books and they must be rented by the day–an expensive proposition that most cannot afford. Books are valued, but scarce. She posited that if digital readers become as ubiquitous and cheap as cell phones are now, it will be much easier to get books into places like Central Asia. Since I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Central Asia (and she does), I really appreciated this new perspective on the potential for digital readers.
I do love my bookshelves, and I hope I will always be able to hang on to the books that hold so many of my memories. But I was reminded that not all of us can afford to be surrounded by our books.

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Bluegrass Up

posted July 18, 2010 at 8:51 am

I’ve always had a lot of books, kept acquiring more and more of them over the years. I forget how many bookcases I’ve got in the house, but I’ve got more than 3000 books– an entire room full of books downstairs, an entire room full of books upstairs, upstairs hallway filled with books, and several other bookcases scattered around the house.
I’ve read a lot of these books, though there are also a lot I haven’t read– I get a book because I think I’ll read it some day, or I think it would be good to have for reference, or “just in case”– living as I do in a remote rural location, far from any libraries.
Though admittedly some of those “just in case” books have become less important to me over the past 10 or 12 years, what with the Internet. I have to admit I have access to far more information online, and far more quickly and easily, than from all these books I’ve got here in the house. The only area where the printed book may still be superior in that regard is with some very specialized and obscure interests of mine, where I still can find only limited material online, but have managed over the years to collect the relevant (and mostly out of print) books on the subject. Even there, Google Books often surprises me, though I find it less convenient and far less satisfactory than a printed book.
Moving? God willing, I won’t be moving any time soon. I remember even 20 years ago, when I had many fewer books than I have now, I would sometimes box them all up and send them through the mail, book rate, when I moved. I probably have too many books now to move all of them, by whatever means. Oh well.

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Eric Altson

posted July 18, 2010 at 9:47 am

I know the publishing industry is hurting, and seem hell-bent of self destruction, but I have always wondered why they don’t include digital versions of books with the hardback versions they sell in stores. For most of us, we still would rather have a physical copy to hold and share, but there’s no denying the convenience of a digital library you can take with you on the go. I would willingly pay the higher price for a new hardback (as opposed to waiting for the reduced-price paperback version) if I knew it came with such a bonus. Of course, some marketing flunky would then say, “it’s a ‘bundle’ so we can raise the price yet again!”
Maybe it’s hopeless.

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posted July 18, 2010 at 11:53 am

I have several books lining one whole wall in my 1,000 sq ft house. I don’t see them going anywhere soon. Over 90% of the are non-fiction. There is the language reference shelf, the huge cook book shelf, the religious reference shelf, history, and the household fix-it/clean it reference shelf among many others. Considering the fact that my computer and sometimes my iphone can be as slow as molasses in winter, a electronic book version of the stuff I have isn’t faster. When I know I want to know why my toilet is running I go to the plumbing book and go to the index under toilets. The takes less than 30 seconds, to which my computer is still loading. Also the books do not require the preciseness that a Google search, particularly when I am at a loss for the exact terminology.
Several of my books are low run, out of print things where the audience is small. One is a middle school textbook on a very localized subject. Others are old college textbooks, with valuable notes written in the margins.
After the destruction of my TV remote and an olive oil spill I would be wary of taking anything electronic into the kitchen. All my cookbooks bear battle scars of drops, stains, buckling from big spills, and the odd scorch mark from sitting a little to close to the stove.
Basically, an electronic version of a book works well for some types of books, but other types, not so much. With the growth of the Internet we were told libraries would disappear. If you haven’t noticed they’re still around.

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Alan Chattaway

posted July 18, 2010 at 12:02 pm

The biggest danger is that publishers control the contents of many e-book readers even after you pay for the book. Last year Amazon “recalled” a book it had sold – the book simply disappeared from people’s readers. Amazon did it when they learned they did not have the right to distribute the book. Ironically, the book in question was Orwell’s “1984”!

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posted July 18, 2010 at 5:05 pm

@Caroline Nina in DC, thanks for seconding my comment about Rod’s more light hearted posts. This Rod Dreher blog really has been a nice mix of personal and professional items. That goes back to the Crunchy Con days. I don’t know how we’re going to be able to keep up with news about Ruthie and his family after he shuts down the blog. I guess we won’t be able to. That’s a shame but hey, it was a nice bonus for us. The number of people who are able to combine a personal and professional web presence at a single site is pretty small. Any job has it upside and its downside. Most of all, a job is a job, those of us who have them should be very, very grateful.
It would be nice if Rod could maintain a personal blog, too, but that would require a lot of extra effort. He would have to police the comments section for spam and for comments from the nasty people that the web inevitably draws. And any blog associated with Rod Dreher would reflect back on his employer, Templeton. He’d have to work out one of those disclaimers (“opinions expressed here are my own alonbe and should not be associated with my employer in any way”). So it looks as if our ability to keep up with the fun and poignant side of Rod is going to end soon. Not whining–I recognize it was a bonus for us and having that certainly is not an entitlement. It just was very nice while it lasted. Some of us will miss our fixes of Rod the zany and Rod the sentimental.
Rod, be well, dude.

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Rick Road Rager

posted July 18, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Our Thrift Store encourages people to donate their books, both hardback and paperback. We do a fairly good trade in books and will continue to do so as long as I am the “manager” of our “Book Nook”. It’s always a pleasure to review each and every book that comes into the shop!
One day, processing a big box of books, I found a complete DVD set of the “John Adams” series!!! So I took them home, watched them and returned them to the Nook. They were gone within a month!!!

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Steve Bodio

posted July 18, 2010 at 7:55 pm

“Some of us will miss our fixes of Rod the zany and Rod the sentimental.”
I’ll second that, though I will be reading the new one.

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posted July 18, 2010 at 9:04 pm

Up until I moved from Boston to NYC, I kept hauling my books with me everywhere. And of course, the collection grew between moves, even though I regularly cull books I didn’t enjoy, etc. When I got ready to move to NYC, I decided to drastically reduce my library. I measured the new apartment and decided I could take maybe 200 books with me. I spent 2 weeks culling. When I’d finally boxed up the books that were going with me, I invited all my friends and neighbors to come take the rest of ’em off my hands. It was actually nice seeing people’s eyes light up when they found a book that was ‘just right’ for them, and it made it easier for me knowing the books would be going to a ‘good home.’ In the end, only about 25% of my library went to NYC with me.
I think this would have been more traumatic several years – and several moves – ago. But so many of those books were gifts, or books that I’d outgrown, or that I’d enjoyed once but were clearly a ‘read it once’ book. In culling the bulk of my library out, I distilled my collection down to my essential interests, which is kind of cool, really, because I think this current library really represents me better.
Plus, I think the sheer weight of them had become a burden with regards to moving. It was hard enough schlepping 6 boxes up to a 4th floor walk up. I can’t even imagine schlepping what would have been close to 25 boxes. And, in the end, the full library just wouldn’t have fit in 350 square feet, not without making it way too crowded in that space, anyway.b

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Matthew from Alaska

posted July 19, 2010 at 1:05 am

A timely post for our household. We love books and while moving out of and back to Alaska has required us to shed a few here and there, it was mostly paperback fiction that we lost. I agree though that I love looking at people’s shelves and having people look at ours when they come to our house. It provides fodder for discussion and sharing.
However, I received a Nook for a combo grad school graduation and birthday and gave my wife one this weekend. I love it and it is great for when I travel for work which is frequent.
I agree with the others that this blog will be missed. I have been looking forward to the Templeton online magazine but never realized that it would extinguish this one. Unless as a condition of employment I hope you reconsider keeping this going if for no other reason than to share wine stories, recipes and the other fun, sweet everyday life items you share. when I talk about this blog I often find myself saying “my friend Rod posted this…” without even thinking about it.

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posted July 19, 2010 at 11:15 am

Can I ever relate to this post, Rod. I moved a little over a year ago and got rid of a third of my books then, mostly books that belonged to my father that I knew I would never read (while keeping many of his books on the off chance that I might someday). My father, speaking of him, had a library of thousands of books (he said 10,000 but might have been exaggerating this) although he got rid of a lot before he died. I probably have at least 800 or 900 books, overflowing my bookshelves. And, I keep buying more. Often, I feel if a book is worth reading it is probably worth owning, too.
Bibliophiles of the world, unite!

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