10 January 2016

A Library of -isms

My local bookshop, the original Dillon's on Gower St, now sells a wide range of lefty -isms. I blame Corbyn.
Gower Street, London, 22nd October, 2015
2015 was notable for one book-based milestone, it was the first year where book purchases in eBook format outnumbered my dead-tree ones. I love books, not in a creepy bibliophile/borderline-deranged killer way, more in a wholesome "hey, there's something comforting about being in a room surrounded by bookshelves, perhaps with a lead pipe or a revolver, oh I'm doing it again, aren't I?" way.

There is something about the tactile nature of reading, holding a book in front of you, turning the pages, putting it down while you pause for thought. The physicality of the book becomes part of the memory of it, so that when you see its spine on the bookshelf the memory of reading it comes unbidden. None of this happens for me when reading an eBook, and research suggests that I am not alone in this, with those who read eBooks remembering less of what they read than with their dead-tree counterparts and, in some studies, experiencing poorer comprehension of what they are reading as they are actually reading it.

The one major advantage eBooks have over their dead-tree counterparts for me is weight, or lack thereof. Given that the a sizable portion of my reading over the last two years seems to have taken place in those moments of forced quiet while locked inside a metal box travelling from one location to another, the ability to load up a tablet that would be travelling with me anyway with a selection of books and keep the carry-on weight of my bag to a minimum was a siren's call that I could no longer resist.

However when I first jumped overboard and swam towards the electronic rocks I took the decision to limit my eBooks to fiction only. I read far less fiction and read it faster than non-fiction, so already it has an ephemeral quality to it. I regularly empty my bookshelves of fiction, donating them to charity shops to free up space for weightier tomes, books that I almost certainly won't get around to reading for a number of months, if not years, but know that they are there if I ever need to reach for them. In a very real way that is the whole point of building up a library, not to read it all but to remind me of how much I haven't read. There's a great quote by Nassim Nicolas Taleb at the start of The Black Swan that sums this up: 
“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 menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an anti-library.”
I have been carefully building up my anti-library for the last decade or more, and I am proud to say that it is a constant reminder of my ever-increasing ignorance. Ebooks, however, contribute nothing to this endeavour, hidden away on your tablet behind icons and log-ins, easy to overlook and easier to hide from.

So until last year I had been relatively successful in keeping a literary separation of church and state, my anti-library grew and my tablet-fueled train-journeys were full of indulgent junk-food that tasted oh-so-good but was instantly forgettable. Then, sadly, Verso had not one, but two, sales on their eBooks with 90% off the regular price, and my tablet exploded with downloaded righteous lefty indignation. While I worked my way through a good few fiction eBooks last year, so far all of the sale-bought Verso selection remain unread and I'm going to have to make a serious effort to overcome my inherent distrust of the format as one suitable for knowledge retention.

Either that or get comfortable with the notion of an anti-eLibrary. Maybe there's an app for that?

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