September 2010

Shelving It – why bookshelves have become outdated and obsolete

When I was a kid growing up, one of the most impressive things I could see when visiting someone’s house was floor to ceiling shelving, every inch packed full of books. This was before I could read, or before I remember being able to read so which books were on the shelves wasn’t nearly as important as there just being tons of them. I felt like this meant the people were important and smart. I may have I picked up that notion from hanging around my fathers office, he was a lawyer and had towers of law books and encyclopedias everywhere, though I don’t recall thinking that he, or *we* were exceptionally important so I’m not entirely sure from where that concept came. What I am sure of is that if I saw a massive book case at your house I was impressed. I also know I wasn’t the only one thinking that.

I didn’t really get into books myself until I was a bit older, but what I did get into was movies. Given that this was the mid 80’s – the day and age when you could rent a VHS player from Blockbuster and every respectable video tape rental location had a well stocked betamax section – the idea of having a home video library was gaining popularity. Hollywood had given up on the war against video tape, abandoned the idea that this technology was going to bankrupt every studio out there, and were now making cash by the pirate ship full from selling and renting videos. The advertising of the day played off the obviously understood notion that if you were at all cultured you were actively building out your own home video library. I know that my step father at the time once explained to me how it was smart to rent a movie first to see if you liked it, then if you did you could buy it to put on your shelf, but you shouldn’t buy movies before you’d seen them.

This concept made perfect sense to me because your video library was a representation of your tastes. You only wanted to have good stuff in it, but you wanted to have all the good stuff in it. I was young then and without any real refined cinematic taste, so “good” was synonymous with “big” for me, and thusly we ended up renting a lot of Jim Varney, Tom Hanks, and Nightmare on Elm Street movies. For some unknown reason, still a mystery to this day, my family decided many of these titles were not worth purchasing after viewing. This didn’t go over well with me and at the wise old age of 10 I decided I needed to get started putting together my own video library. Getting a head start on it at that point was clearly genius because by the time I was an adult I’d have the best library ever. Probably an exact duplicate of the Blockbuster stock if I had my way.

I convinced my family it was a good idea to rent a VCR each time we went to blockbuster so that I could hook it up the one we had at home and make copies of the movies we rented so that I could add them to my newly started video library. I drew the covers of all the movies I copied because I wanted them to look real when on the shelf and I distinctly remember spending an afternoon attempting to replicate the cover of “The Man With One Red Shoe.” No reason why that one sticks out to me but there you have it.

Oh, did I mention that our home VCR was betamax? Yep. So you know that library had staying power.

This mindset stuck with me all the way through college when I did get into real books, I’d hang out at peoples houses and see books and movies on their shelves and decide I also had to have those on my shelves. Its embarrassing but true, in those days I definitely had books I’d never read on my shelves just because I saw them on other friends shelves and assumed that meant I should have them too. I did go on to read most of them later, but that’s beside the point. I didn’t buy them to read them, I bought them to fit in.

I’m getting somewhere with all this nostalgia – I wanted well stocked shelves because I wanted people to be impressed the way I was when I saw that kind of thing at other people’s houses. The shelves weren’t for me, they were for them. They were for my ego certainly, but I wasn’t keeping those books around so that I could reread them at a later date, I was keeping them so that people who visited me would know I’d read them. I wasn’t doing this consciously, but I was doing it. And once I realized what I was doing I felt like a douche and stopped adding to the stacks I’d amassed.

As a graphic designer I could always justify buying design books which I could argue were for inspiration and reference. And I definitely put them to heavy use for many years. Until the web really started getting going and then I found it was easier to go there to reference things than to hunt through stacks of books.

Skip ahead a few years, I’ve moved from Florida to Chicago to Los Angeles, and often several places in each city. And I’ve moved tons of books and DVDs and things each time. I take them off the shelf, pack them in heavy boxes, struggle to move them, unpack the boxes and put them back on the shelves. Rinse. Repeat. Until finally I realized it just didn’t make any sense. I had books I’d read once and hadn’t touched other than to move in over 10 years. I had reference books that had never been opened after looking through them in the bookshop and bringing them home because Google has proven to be a more efficient reference source. I have movies that are easier to just watch on my laptop via Netflix streaming or download from somewhere else then to have to fumble with DVDs and sit through unskippable advertising and trailers and antipiracy warnings. Digital files replaced CDs for me as well a very long time ago. So how is it better to have these things on my bookshelf?

I stopped being able to come up with a good answer for that.

I can argue valid reasons to keep art books which are all about the visual and tactile, and aren’t the same as a single JPG, but very few people have houses full of art books. Even I, an ex-gallery owner and art collector had some stacks, but not piles. But fiction and non-fiction?

As I get older the less I care about people’s opinion of me, and feel that my actions should say more about me than what objects I decided to purchase. Once I realized that it was hard to justify keeping these things and I decided they’d be better off in the hands of someone who hadn’t read them and could actually benefit from possessing them. Am I the only one coming to this conclusion? Do you have shelves full of books and media? Do you still use them?