Sunday, August 10, 2008

Know Thy Shelf

Not so much by intent as by design, bookshelves are finite. Only so many books will fit in the formal reaches of shelf then it becomes a matter of your ingenuity to see how many more books can be stacked on the topmost surface before a) someone complains about the clutter, b) you have lost some book or non-book item in the clutter, and c) something has to give, such as one or more books being removed to another venue.

Brian Fagan claims to have solved the need for these steps by purchasing a Kindle, the wireless electronic book reader that stores a significant number of books, downloads new books within a matter of minutes, allows you to bookmark, check references on all your titles, and sashay about the warp and woof of your day without much concern for untidy stacks of literature. Brian even insists that the Kindle Reader has a slot for increased storage capacity and, should your Kindle Reader become as filled as, say, my bookshelves become, it is possible to download--don't like that word--titles to your own cybershelf whence you can retrieve them at a later date if they become necessary adjuncts of your life.

This has the sound of efficiency, mixed with the lure of gadgetry. I am fond of efficiency and gadgetry but my strong points are more in people skills than efficiency skills or gadget skills. (I am still coping with a new stove-top Bialetti cappuccino/latte maker I ordered in a moment of weakness from the Williams-Sonoma Catalog.)

The Kindle sells for about three hundred fifty dollars, downloads for most new books go for $9.95, or about one-third the price of a new hardcover book. Given the number of new titles I buy in a year, the Kindle would amortize itself in about six months. For reasons I'm not entirely clear about, Kindle does not at this time have the capacity to download titles in Alaska or Montana. Given my likelihood of travel to Alaska or Montana in the next while, I don't see this as a problem, and even if it were, I could still read books I'd already downloaded before going to Alaska or Montana as well as downloading to my computer then scooting them over to the Kindle.

The Kindle does not occasion the frequent battles of territoriality that rage through my bookshelves like a range war. These battles are better indications of self than self-testing or personality profiles. Shelves offer the prospect of some personal arrangement by subject, author, title. At one point in another venue, I had my books labeled according to Library of Congress classifications, which came after Dewey Decimal System, which came after chaos. Looking at my shelves now, I can still see a few dear old friends labeled thusly, but the fact is that may of them have been relegated to the garage, loaned to students and friends who in a kind of reciprocal karmic justice didn't return them. (They are no better than I there is still a shelf in the garage for Books Loaned by Others, the trouble being I'm not always sure who the others are.)

Thanks to the joys of digital camera, it is possible to do portraits of shelves, whose personalities reflect the same kinds of variety that portraits of family or friends or students reflect. I suppose you could keep a list of your Kindle titles as a way of marking your changing tastes and preference, but to me that somehow misses the carefree anarchy of Alley Oop and Terry and the Pirates in Big Little Book editions encroaching on John Gardner's The Life and Times of Chaucer, The Viking Portable Chaucer, The Norton Critical Editions Chaucer, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

I cannot recall a time in my life when I did not share space with at least one bookshelf. The thought of future generations weaning inevitably away from the real shelf to the cybershelf does not present a threat to me. As for me, I prefer those territorial wars, those bouts of strategy more profound than chess. As for instance, Where will The Golden Compass go when, alas, I finish with it, and will I need some complete revision of what started out to be the middle, reference-oriented shelf?

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