Over in the comments, Sean Fagan said (among other things):

I’ve been thinking about that for a while now. I generally have the same feeling — I’ll throw out lots of things easily, but books I have to work to do. … I specifically did so because of ebooks, and the ability to have hundreds of books on a device that takes up less space than a single hardcover … Related to the lack of clutter, the ability to actually find any of the books I want is a huge win for ebooks. Only two of the eight bookcases I have left are alphabetized; the rest are just bad organization.

When I culled my own physical-book collection, one of the criteria was: could this be found in a library? (Ebooks were not yet common — in fact, I don’t think the Kindle was invented yet!) That left me with the rare, the esoteric, the beloved, and the autographed. Oh, and reference volumes, which include things like all science and philosophy books, how-to books, and and classic literature.

But what you say about being able to find a specific book now that they’re automatically organized made me realize something: there are disadvantages to perfect organization — or rather, there are disadvantages to being constrained to approaching your collection solely by means of organizational tools.

You might be able to find any book — but can a book find you?

I’m not trying to be cute here. Has this ever happened to you? :

It’s, say, late Sunday morning; or it’s 1AM Tuesday. Everything’s right with the world, and you feel glad and at peace; or you can’t sleep, can’t settle, despite being exhausted and weary of absolutely everything. The cats are asleep in the sun on the windowsills; or they’re curled up tight, on towels on the floor, close to the radiator.

You want to dream.

You want to embark on a journey to somewhere grand; you want to be swept away from everything. You want to be delighted; you want to be comforted.

With your second cup of coffee/glass of whiskey in hand, you stand in front of one of your bookshelves and —

Do you know the title of the book you want to read?

Do you know the author’s name?

How about the year it was published?

Feel like scrolling down a sequential list on a screen?


You move your gaze across the shelves… up, down: all the shapes and colors, and the sight of each brings enough spark of memory for you to know, No, not that… not that… Perhaps you even put your hand out and run your fingers along the spines —


The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester. That’s the one you need.

You didn’t know it ahead of time, but you know it now.

You’ve been found.

9 Responses to “Physical/virtual”

  • Crystal Warren Says:

    This is so true, and so beautifully put. Sometimes I get found when I wasn’t even looking. I just walked past the shelf and a particular book called to me.

    • Rosemary Says:

      Crystal —

      And, you know …. it actually helps to be able to walk past the shelf. Something about the physical movement helps the process.

      Where I am now, most of my books are visible from a sitting position at my desk.

  • Sabine Says:

    Aww. Beautiful.

  • Jason Says:

    Just got my wife the Sony Touch Edition for her birthday. We travel lots and read even more. Getting thru the airport is a big enough pain without dealing with one (or five) books squeezed into the carry-on bag. We have a nice-sized library at home, close to a thousand books currently, and will continue to buy words printed on paper. But words printed on ePaper definitely fits in there too! Enjoy the fun new gadget Rosemary!


    • Rosemary Says:

      Jason —

      That’s definitely an issue I was considering when I said “Yes!” to Sabine’s question “Would you like one?” I’m usually carrying a book or two in my bag, for reading during lunch or when I’m in a waiting room or such. If I’m doing research for something I’m writing, I might be hauling a couple of non-fiction books everywhere, with a magazine tucked in there, too, since my time is limited, and I want to be able to snatch a moment here and there.

      Add my laptop and journal to the stack, and I end up with a huge backpack that I haul pretty much everywhere. It’ll be interesting to see how much I can cut that down, now.

  • Sabine Says:

    Of course, the physical book has to be available as an e-book. That doesn’t happen much for middle-aged books (not public domain, but not new, either).

  • Michael_gr Says:

    I like looking at my shelves, all full of colorful SF spines. My living room wouldn’t feel right without a couple hundred titles. And yet – you can read an e-book one handed, while lying in bed on your side, AND YOU DON’T HAVE TO APPLY PRESSURE TO KEEP IT OPEN. With the shape my hands are after 10+ years of working in IT (not yet at “requires surgery” level but I’m getting there fast – surely you can empathize!) that trumps every other concern.

    • Rosemary Says:

      Michael —

      Having reached the “requires surgery” level myself, I absolutely empathize!

      I’m very much enjoying that Kindle at the moment, finding plenty of cool free or cheap books that I would snatch up in a moment if I found them in a used bookstore. Just paid a couple of bucks for T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom — which I cannot help but read using SF “protocols”. I have to pretend he’s speaking of some other planet.