Are My Bookcases Obsolete?

"Do I really need to keep so many books in the age of e-books and print on demand?"

By Darrell Delamaide

I’ve accumulated hundreds of books over the years, and most of them are proudly displayed in bookcases adorning several rooms in my house. I’ve read most of these books; others are waiting for that moment when they will be just what I need or want to read.

Periodically, I cull the collection and give some of my books away for a library sale. Sometimes I regret it, when something comes up that makes me want to look at one of the books again.

But in my last bout of book removal, a new question occurred to me: Do I really need to keep so many books in the age of e-books and print on demand? Increasingly, no book is really out of print. Even if I might someday want to look again at a book I’ve read, I could easily obtain a new copy.

The point was driven home to me as I mulled whether to give away my precious collection of Travis McGee books. I bought them in the U.K. mass paperback edition more than 30 years ago when I was living in Europe, and I’ve lovingly packed and unpacked them through several moves, along with other collections of mystery series.

In his new novel, Madman’s Thirst, Larry De Maria mentioned John D. MacDonald’s classy writing in the Travis McGee series, and I thought maybe I should pick up one of the old books and read it again. So I selected one at random and discovered, to my surprise and dismay, that the print was so small and the pages so yellowed it was virtually unreadable with my older eyes. Large print in mass paperbacks is a relatively new phenomenon, catering, I suppose, to the boomer audience.

But, it turns out, the Travis McGee series is readily available in a new mass paperback edition for $7.99 a novel — the price of two Starbucks cappuccinos. So I obtained a new copy of the first novel in the series, in much larger print and on much whiter paper, to see if I really did want to re-read these stories.

But what a disappointment that the book on my shelf was no good to me! It was like a wine aficionado discovering that a vintage bottle stored in the cellar for years had turned to vinegar.

My book collection consists of a lot of fiction, a large batch of nonfiction books, most of which I acquired in connection with my work as a journalist or for research on my own books, and a good many cookbooks.

Let’s say I keep the books I haven’t read yet and some of the cookbooks, but acknowledge the reality that I can let go of the rest, knowing that virtually any book is retrievable if I want to re-read or consult it again. I could empty my bookshelves and get rid of most of my bookcases.

But that would be a big change for me. My vision of an intellectual — an academic, a writer, any reader — is of bookcases stuffed with books, stacks of books on available flat spaces, books lining a wall and creating their own colorful patterns.

Now, however, my entire book collection could be easily held on a Kindle or an iPad, in a more accessible and often more readable format than the heavy, cumbersome print editions I’ve schlepped around for decades. Today’s intellectual has a sleek Mac on a bare desk.

Those shelves lined with books fulfill an additional function, though. In another sign of age, or perhaps just information overload, I have trouble sometimes remembering what books I’ve read. The passive knowledge is there. If someone mentions a book, I can usually remember whether I read it or not. But the active knowledge, the memory of knowing what titles I’ve read, which books I particularly liked or which, indeed, I may want to read again — that may or may not be there on any given day.

Then all I have to do is go to my bookcase, look along at the familiar titles, those volumes that I’ve packed, unpacked and shelved so often, and I remember that, yes, indeed, I liked those Travis McGee books the vicarious thrill of living on a houseboat in Florida, taking retirement in installments, fishing with a philosopher friend named Meyer, even though I don’t particularly like boats, Florida or fishing. It doesn’t matter if I don’t or can’t pick up that particular book and read it again. Just seeing it on the shelf is enough to bring it all back.

My bookshelves are an index to my life as a reader — something like an external hard drive, I guess. If they are obsolete, so am I.

Darrell Delamaide, the author of The Grand Mirage, recently republished his financial thriller Gold. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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