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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.