Packing My Library

I am packing my library.  Tomorrow morning, these books will be packed inside ten cardboard boxes, loaded onto a van, and shipped to another country.  Were it not for these several hundred books, the question of moving would be trivial: a couple of suitcases would carry all my clothes, and everything else I possess would   happily  fit into a large box. The rest—all the other things that are important to me, all that I have acquired in my life, and the little I have produced—would fit invisibly on my laptop, my phone, or wait behind a password on rented memory.

Or rather: I am packing half my library.  Books are heavy, and transporting them will mean having to pay, in one lump sum, almost half what they had cost me to buy over the years. I have decided to keep only half of my books; the rest I will sell or give away.  Right now, I am sitting on the floor between two sets of shelves.  1  On one side are the shelves with those books that will make it onto the removals van, on the other those with a more uncertain future. The two piles are roughly equal in size.

My library is by no means large. These shelves ranged around me contain altogether around 700 volumes but it was already a burden the last time I moved house, even though I had just relocated a couple of streets away. I had considered reducing its size at the time but somehow it seemed impossible.  Then, in these last few years, something else happened: electronic books became much more widely available. I now possess far more   electronic  books than I have ever had on these shelves. Some of them, indeed, are the very “same” books, except in fluid bits, ever-ready to appear on this screen or that, in whatever typeface and point-size I choose, rearranged across pages sized and re-flown and re-proportioned according to my every whim. In most cases, when I pick up a book to read all the way through, it will be in this, its electronic format—because it’s portable and because, more likely than not, I will have it about my person, on my Kindle or my phone or my laptop.

As I sit here on the floor, in the canyon formed by the two sets of shelves,   I resist leafing through any of the books— the usual pleasure of packing and unpacking a library— since I know that almost any one I pick up will have to stay. Instead, my eyes travel along the spines and every now and then, upon closer inspection, or a sudden revision of criteria, a book crosses the floor.

Why keep these books

Why, then, keep these lumbering kilograms of paper at all? Why put myself through the inconvenience and expense of retaining these books, even if only a half of them? After all, I do not especially prefer reading a book off paper—I can read almost as comfortably off the screen as off the printed page.

There are some perfectly straightforward reasons for holding on to books. Our books contain physical traces, the detritus of our life, little hints of material culture, flyers, bookmarks, travel tickets from wherever we were when we were reading them. Sometimes we leave evidence that we stopped half way through. A brief holiday interrupted by a new romance that left little time for reading, a Metro ticket slipped between two pages, marking the beginning of our erotic desublimation. Sometimes the book is itself part of the detritus of our life; as when it has been given to us as a gift, perhaps with a thoughtful dedication, perhaps we won the book in a competition, or found it. Maybe it was signed for us by the author at a public reading.

These, however, are the very same reasons for which we would hold on to anything. We hold on to physical objects, we acquire and retain them even when it is not clear of what use they are to us, to extend ourselves through space and time, to live inside them—to possess them. 2

Our books may also contain physical evidence of the very process of our reading of that particular book. Marginalia, perhaps, if we’re that way inclined: underlined passages, hurried reactions and evocative exclamation marks on the side of the page. But in my case, I never write in the margins nor underline any passages. In fact, books I’ve read in their entirety often show no trace of having ever been opened. I have sometimes thought that this can make my books look unread, turning my bookshelf even more into a display cabinet.

But even if we don’t mark the pages, these books serve as an eidetic resource of references, lines which we remember by their exact position within the book, on the page, say a third of the way down on the verso, somewhere towards the end of the book. (More often than not, these memories are false.)

Given the expense of carriage and the oversupply of used books, it would probably be cheaper to dispose of all of my books here and then buy them all over again when I get there. I can imagine myself doing this time and again whenever I move country in the future; it would be like paying a subscription for my books, like renting my library from the market.

But this would never do, of course. Books are not fungible like that. After a few days in our possession, the book acquires an identity separate from all other copies. Even in the absence of any distinguishing marks, a book we have read, or one that we are planning to read, or one that we want to have ready to hand, occupies a particular set of co-ordinates in our three-dimensional universe.

How did the book, the printed volume, this most eminently reproducible object—mass-produced long before any other of our everyday products—this object defined by its very lack of uniqueness 3 come to be so fetishised for being uniquely ours? The act of buying a paper book is the act of taking one of thousands of identical items and turning it into something we possess. It suddenly becomes intimately ours: when we lend a book—as promissory notes that we will see each other again, and we use books for this far more than anything else—we expect the same copy to be returned. There is something almost cheap if the borrower loses the book and replaces it with an identical copy. Despite being perfectly interchangeable as they emerge from the press, despite being printed like money, as soon as they spend a little time in our possession, they cease to be fungible. It is more intimate to lend someone a book, and somehow more generous, than it is to buy them their own copy.

How to justify a private library

Anyone in possession of more than a handful of books, who is in the habit of standing them up side by side on a shelf, must be prepared for one particular question. Every time we have a guest over, or a man comes in to fix the heating, a quick glance at the shelves is enough to provoke the question: “Have you read all these books?”

We never have to justify our books to ourselves. We never have to justify having an unfeasible number of books and we never have to justify the specific volumes on our shelves. The only time we hear ourselves explaining why we have so many books is when we are asked that particular question.

The question is, of course, laden with all the baggage that comes with our literary culture, tinged with defensiveness on the side of the one who puts it. What, after all, would happen if you said yes? Would they be impressed, would they doubt you, would they flatter themselves that you were trying to impress them? The questioner seems at once chastised by the impressive bulk of printed paper.

If we were to consult the pages of our own library, we would find many witty retorts to this exasperating question.  4 But those answers themselves tend to sound defensive. We know, of course, that we have far too few books, and that we have read far too few of them, and that the bookshelves are there neither to impress nor intimidate anyone.

But it would be churlish of me to pretend that when I come to choose which books to part with, this question—the display value of my library— will not play some part. Books are supposed to give a snapshot of our interior life. Naturally, our YouTube and Spotify playlists would probably do just as well, but we retain sufficient Humanist baggage to flatter ourselves that books give a more complete account of our interior life. And this is one of the very qualities that electronic books, contained in anonymous devices, no longer afford us.

Any answer we give the plumber, or the misjudged guest, is likely to provoke the retort, But you can’t realistically hope you will ever find the time to read them all! Or, if you were to say you have already read them, Then why do you hold on to them?

My little library is neither a trophy case nor a syllabus, and it should go without saying that I do not plan to decide which books to keep based on whether I’ve read them or not. 5

How to justify a public library

In the last few years, there has been a distinct fashion for cities and universities to construct extravagant libraries, palaces to the printed word. Nothing says “civilised” like an enormous building known to hold hundreds of thousands of printed volumes in the middle of your city. As the era of the printed book becomes ever more tenuous, these libraries become bigger, more expensive, and more ostentatious. As more and more people in these cities, and students in these universities, abandon paper in favour of the electronic book, these libraries play the role of the museum, if not the mausoleum.

As “real” books look less and less like the thick, hardbound volumes held in these libraries, these expensive signifiers in the middle of our cities begin to resemble those fluted glass bottles filled with mysterious green and purple liquids that some pharmacies still display on their counters to show that—despite the fact that their wares are tiny, synthetic and practically anonymous—they are part of that noble lineage of alchemists and back-room boffins that once described the world’s humours.

The city has the library so that visitors may ask of its burghers, Have you read all these books?

The shifting definition of the “real” book

When Gutenberg’s books started rolling off his presses, some fashionable households would have scribes produce hand-written copies of these printed books  6. As though they wanted to eschew all the marks of commercial production and would only serve their books out of a crystal decanter.

Books, as objects, have long been the signifiers of the social climber. The codex was initially closely associated with the coarse Christians, while the scroll was still in use for the finer works of pagan antiquity 7. When paperbacks first came out they had an air of unreality about them. They lived in subordination to the “real” book, which was in hardback, of course. The ritual of an initial, almost symbolic, hardback publication remains, partly, it is said, because books that appear as trade paperbacks are still less likely to get reviewed in the books pages. 8

A new format, like a new medium, is always underwritten by an older one. Just as “the “content” of any medium is always another medium” 9, a new format serves as a cheaper or more convenient wrapper for an earlier one. But not forever; only until it has created its own economic model, and then its own “native” content. Until this happens, there is the distracting tendency to consider the real book to be  the latest-innovation-but-one, the way things have always been.

Stop-gap door-stops

It has now been possible for several decades to read a book off a screen but before the electronic book could join the fray, it had to come shielded inside something that could plausibly push our beloved codex off the shelf. Something that could physically displace it. It is only since we have had dedicated devices that electronic books have become a topic of conversation. Of course, many other kinds of books such as encyclopaedias and telephone directories have long been challenged by the electronic format.

These electronic devices we use for reading, the Kindles 10 and Kobos and Nooks, have come to be called “readers”. Previously a reader was, first and foremost, someone—a cognitive agent who has assimilated, or is in the process of assimilating, the book. 11 But in what sense is an e-reader a reader? Surely it doesn’t e-read in the same way that a computer computes, or a dishwasher dishwashes? 12 (In the simple sense of reading from an electronic memory, that holds true for nearly any electronic device.)

Perhaps the problem of understanding what an e-reader is doing comes from the very inertness of text—we can call an iPod a player because it’s obviously doing something, reproducing something, but an e-reader does not seem to be doing anything, it simply has to help the text to be. 13

The word “reader”, of course has long had the secondary meaning of a redacted selection of works on a given topic or by a given author 14. But this other sense of reader, implies a cognitive agent who has read much more for your benefit. Is there the temptation, then, to think that our Kindle has already read these books and is merely passing them on to us?

Possesion (commercial and mental)

The e-reader already seems to have served its historic function; to dislodge the book from printed matter.  15 The Kindle, and its ilk, conveniently seemed to straddle both meanings of the word “book”—that is, the physical book itself, made of paper and ink and binding materials, and the book as a work of prose, a particular sequence of words, the book as it exists “in the mind of God”. 16

It is tempting to think of the electronic book as being radically different from the paper book, as being closer to this latter book, the immaterial, eternal work itself. The fact that it can flow and appear in all our devices simultaneously, on different screens, in different character sizes, its bookmarks and marginalia carried across the ether.  17

If we acquired the book commercially, the Terms & Conditions as well as the various—half-successful—DRM methods encourage us to think of the electronic book in this way since they create a commercial relationship not of the physical ownership of a book but one of access to the writer’s specific work.   18 Our contract seems to give us direct access to the ephemeral book itself.

Is this a fallacy, a distraction, or is it precisely what makes the electronic book so different? Is there a radical ontological difference between the two? An e-book occupies real physical space, extending into the three-dimensional universe. Two copies of an electronic book occupy twice as much space as one. The fact that this is disguised by the great efficiency in their storage, the massive redundancy of our electronic memories, disguises these facts.

That the book sits in the electronic brain in the same way that it will sit in ours once we’ve read it, suspended in physical matter like a disembodied thought, simply aligning electronic switches in the way our neurons are put in a particular state. That reading it will be no different than plugging in the cable into our e-reader. That it will slip as easily into our brain as it is delivered silently through the ether.

The differences are phenomenological. The e-book does not leave an after-image; any photographic memories we might have are irrelevant, mere glimpses of one of its many manifestations, the next time we see it the pages may be arranged differently, the typeface larger, the screen bigger or smaller, newer, brighter, its black blacker and its white whiter. We may choose to instruct a robotic voice to read it out to us. What remains in our head is snapshots from a stake-out, a reconaissance mission. The words become more like visual hearsay, always coming back to us in different forms. The e-book can reproduces itself, even in the hands of the most god-fearing reader, it is copied from device to device via “the cloud,” and then to different parts of the e-reader’s memory, from storage to RAM via buffers and caches. Although, as we have said, the book is ‘somewhere’ 19.

The Mental Congeniality of ASCII

We still refer to the “electronic version” of a book, as though it were an afterthought, an affectation of the Marketing Department, but in reality, it has been the case for quite some time that nearly all books are, first and foremost, electronic. A printed book is now almost like one of those showy manuscripts copied from a printed book. Even a book that starts out as a hand-written manuscript goes through this electronic phase before it is committed to print. 20. As the writer taps each key, day after day, they are preparing an electronic file. Even in the most conventional circumstances, they are preparing a set of electronic instructions for the printing press. In this sense, all paper books are a mere print-out, an instance. Print-on-demand only makes this more obvious; all print is print-on-demand now.

Those letters that the writer has chosen to put in their file may be used as instructions to tell a laptop or a phone or an e-reader what to display on a screen. Or they may instruct machinery to transfer ink onto paper but the “master,” the authoritative version, what would once perhaps have been the typeset metal, is that electronic file and its many copies. When a new edition of a book is being prepared, it is to those electronic files that the author and the editors will return.

It is easy to think dualistically when it comes to the book as a work of “literature” versus the book as a printed physical object. When the book-hating regime in Fahrenheit 451 set out to burn all books, the bookmen escaped into the forests and each memorised a book. 21 The books themselves were destroyed, of course, but we are asked to believe that as long as at least one person had memorised the sequence of words, then the books survived. Presumably, the intention was that the books, under more favourable circumstances, would once again be committed to paper. 22

But it becomes somewhat harder to think in this way when it comes to electronic texts. After all, what we call the “eternal” book is the book as it exists in electro-chemical states in our brains. Once the book has been committed to electronic memory, it is as internalised, as indestructible, as free of physical and mundane laws, as the book became in the minds of the Bookmen. (Even the unintelligent memorisation of a book fulfilled the Bookmen’s function. It was their memory, their brain as a physical medium, more than as a cognitive organ, their “mind,” that made them useful as Bookmen.)

This is how it can become hard for us to distinguish between an abstract idea and its existence in our electronic memories. Only the strictest Idealists would hold that ideas can exist independently of their presence in our brains, that the books exist independently of any instance.

It is convenient to think dualistically between language as an abstract idea and its physical manifestations. We speak of words and things and we theorise about the various possible relationships between the two. But between the word and the thing, we often have yet another thing, another physical layer; that of the printed word, or of sound.

But it is still possible to think of language unconnected to these physical manifestations, to think of it as internal dialogue (although it would be harder to imagine it, or indeed its need or usefulness, except as an echo or a rehearsal of its physical manifestation. 23 However, we are certainly capable of holding language in our heads. Language is the radical technology that abstracts, that digitises, ideas into portable, storable, units that can subsequently be expressed in several ways. As speech, or as text.

Whether our own memory is passive like that of a computer is beside the point here. Whatever theory is most productive to understand our mind and our brain, language serves the function of preserving irrespective of mind, or brain, or even consciousness.

It is not the expression of text that is exciting about electronic text. Not the fact that it’s on a screen rather than on a printed page. That is, ultimately, a trivial distinction. It is that it can sit in an electronic memory, seemingly so close to the abstract idea itself. After all, when we say an idea exists, we mean it exists, at the very least, in one person’s mind (pace Strict idealists). What is the difference between sitting in a person’s mind and sitting in an electronic memory? (A mind may be conscious. 24. Books were not dead as long as they were inside at least one person’s head. 25 Language is precisely that technology that allows an idea to sit inside the mind independently of consciousness. We can memorise a (text) we don’t understand, even in a language we don’t understand, and transport it effectively.)

These are not new frontiers brought about by the electronic book. The differences are mostly superficial. When we say that an electronic book is nothing other than some physical matter that has been put into a particular electronic state, magnetic or electrochemical 26

Bisecting my library

This still leaves me in the plastic canyon between two sets of shelves, trying to establish some criteria for which books stay and which books go.

One policy I may adopt is to get rid of books which would be easy to replace. Of course, I would probably never go out and replace them. 27

I try to convince myself that once I’m through with this process, I will have a tighter, better collection. But any criteria I come up with seem tacky. I’ve had the book, it had its time, it had overcome some sort of resistance to find a place on my shelves. Maybe I don’t remember what I liked, maybe I even fancy myself having refined my taste—possibly through reading that very book. Any post-hoc restriction seems to smack of aspiration, of those uniform leather-bound volumes, The Library of America, etc. It would be to deny my library one of its functions, that of a repository of former taste, of former journeys of the mind.

No, there will be no great dichotomy. My criteria are almost random. The Naked Lunch goes while Junky stays. As I choose each book that I will let go, I scan in its bar-code. Ostensibly, this is to be able to obtain them again one day. Of course, I will probably do no such thing. It is more likely that this is important because the ISBN number is the very distillation of those books, their checksum. 28 A bar-code is the factory label certifying that a viable route has been found through the entropic miasma of letters.

And it is precisely this comforting proof of viability that earns the books in my library their place. In this age of graphomania, it seems untoward, far too precious to betray any difficulty in writing. As writing becomes as primary a mode of language as speaking and reading, the image of the dumbstruck writer at his keyboard—transfixed by the white emptiness of their paper or screen—becomes increasingly ridiculous. When I’m at my keyboard trying to write, I want to be surrounded with these palpable monuments of viability. This is how I justify my private library. I need to be surrounded by books because they reassure me that words can be made to stick together.

When we say book we mean novel

There has been much agonising about whether reading an electronic book is “the same” as reading a printed book. When we say book, we really mean the novel. After all, we surrendered the telephone directory without much anguish. The novel is the fulfillment of the book, the codex, it is the physical object turned in on itself, its apotheosis. Media, and even their various formats, produce new art forms that fulfill and explore their full possibilities, both artistic and commercial.

There was no clamour from recording artists in the : The Divine Comedy 29s for recording companies to manufacture bigger records so that they could accommodate their artistic ambitions. Nor did  anyone produce a series of conceptually related songs which were released as a set of singles. The medium came before the art form. 12” vinyl at first produced compilations, later the “rock” band, and later, the album. Now, in its electronic form, the album makes far less sense. The conceptual unity is no longer matched by the unity of its physical form. The analogy from television is not the “Golden Age” series such as The Sopranos, The Wire or Breaking Bad, but Big Brother. The Golden Age is not really of television, but post-television. 30

We will get used to reading our novels electronically but they will never be at home there, they will always have been transposed, rehoused, long after we have forgotten what it’s like to read off printed paper.

The novel, as we have known it, has been a plastic art. There has never been an oral tradition of stream-of-consciousness literature. On the contrary, when texts were transmitted orally they needed to be wrapped around robust mnemonic devices to make sure that they kept their shape, that they didn’t get mixed up with all the other words in our heads. Verse was a preferred method, its rhythms and stops ensuring that the message rode clearly above the murmur of our thoughts and overheard conversation and the incessant cacophony of everyday existence. But when words were committed to paper, they were set free, in this new sovereign realm realm of theirs, they were naked, free to do what they will, they could aristrocratically even attempt to mimic the very thoughts in our brain.

Now that words are losing their sovereign right to paper, they once again risk being re-absorbed into the entropic miasma of letters 31—the book’s unconscious, but it’s a common, shared unconscious, 32 In fact, it is the code that holds itself together strictly, as verse once did. The code is more self-aware than the content.

To think that e-books will always be simply a convenient way of carrying a large number of novels, that they will always be containers for other media, is unimaginative. The novels in our e-books are like the voice of Caruso on early gramophone records—they are only incidentally related to the medium. We may have to wait a very long time to discover what the fully exploited medium of the electronic texts looks like. Media often only reach this stage once they superficially appear to have been supplanted. (As photography did to painting, cinema to theatre, cinema to the novel, FM Radio to the gramophone record, the VCR to television.) A new form, probably impossible to see now 33 will emerge from this fragility of the electronic text, a new form that exploits this subtle dichotomy: that electronic text is getting closer to a third form of text. Somewhere between written and spoken. A new frontier delineated by the subtle dichotomy between the abstract, “eternal,” text, and the subtly different abstraction of the electronically recorded text.


  1. 1Some years ago, after a particularly onerous move hampered by box upon box of heavy books, I took the precaution of installing a makeshift sort of shelving system: sturdy plastic boxes that can be transported easily and, upon arrival in my new home, turned on their side one on top of the other to form an instant bookcase. As it turned out, the books were never moved again.
  2. 2cf. Genet—Querelle de Brest, or The Thief’s Journal?
  3. 3cf. Fortsas hoax.
  4. 4See blurb{“Have you read all these books?”}
  5. 5The best reason for having a large library is that you can filter out acquaintances from friends, based on whether they ask this question.
  6. 6citation needed
  7. 7citation needed
  8. 8When, in 2006, a “paperback original” made it to the front cover of the New York Times Books section,  it was news.
  9. 9McLuhan 1964, p. 15
  10. 10The Kindle is supposedly so-called because reading " lights a fire in the imagination". Unsurprisingly, many were reminded of Farenheit 451.
  11. 11Someone who has endured the book.
  12. 12I was going to say “a typewriter typewrites” but, of course, a typewriter only writes in the same mechanical way that a pencil or a pen writes. Yet we are swayed by its clattering animation to call it a writer. This is not the case in many other languages.
  13. 13blurb{“Electronic Ink”} Indeed, the breakthrough of electronic ink was that the page altered electronically but did not need to be maintained. This truly mimicked ink—material was changed permanently, the electronic page was “printed” at least until you turn to a new page.
  14. 14The OED gives  late 18th Century references for this sense
  15. 15In the flurry of commissioning famous writers to try out the Kindle, many reported that once they started using the Kindle, they quickly moved on to using anything to read their e-books. See: Slate review of reading book in various formats,  Nicholson Baker in the New Yorker, etc. After the first couple of years, sales of the e-reader nosedived, while sales of e-books continued to grow.
  16. 16sub specie aeternitatis
  17. 17Cf. Docetism. Cf. Scarry on some things, such as flowers being more naturally objects of the imagination.
  18. 18And, it can also  be revoked.
  19. 19“Is there.”] it can be in many places it once, and determining quite where it is would not be easy. The e-book is detached from its physical receptacle—we do not buy atoms but we buy information, we buy the right to put some physical matter that we possess—our devices, our brain—in a particular state [No wonder legislation regarding digital copyright can be so fickle. Cf. copyright and plagiarism—this is where we find a definition of information
  20. 20Cf. blurb on Mead book
  21. 21Cf. Haffiz; oral transmission of the Hebrew Bible, and then the Masoretes.
  22. 22Check this; get some video clips.
  23. 23Cf. tangentially, private language.
  24. 24But see re Bookmen above
  25. 25Once again, the paradox of Pantography. When a text is produced electronically but never read by a human being, it cannot be said to exist.
  26. 26This is the paradox of Pantography. It will “discover” every tweet but once we have the entire body of tweets, we would still have to go back and discover the ones that mean anything to us. Having all of them is exactly the same as having none of them.
  27. 27See Endowment Fallacy.
  28. 28checksum, Benjamin quote from Anatole France re catalogue details being the only knowledge... a book is that thing that answers a particular question
  29. 29 : The Divine Comedy , Penguin Classics : The Divine Comedy .
  30. 30It is the artform of the DVD box set, of time-shifting and streaming.
  31. 31cf {code} and hinterland
  32. 32See Kittler’s ideas of circuitry.
  33. 33I do think it is still impossible to see. The enthusiasm invested into hypertext in the early years of the century appears quaint ten years later. (See for example the 2016 20th-anniversary exhibition of Olia Lialina’s My Boyfriend Came Back From the War. Even the artist herself, who had meanwhile moved on to document early internet culture, relished the retro aspects of this presentation.) My bet would be for a more rhetorical, more mandarin, style of writing, perhaps even complex verse, that distinguishes “literary,” “professional” writing from civilian writing.