LPC’s Case for the Common Bookcase:
With the ever growing demand for digital alternatives to books, it is not the singular paper or hard back that’ll be missed the most, but the collection of books that live together on bookshelves and bookcases. Bookcases and bookshelves, as their fitting name suggests, are miniature individual libraries, personal museums, and a collection of memories belonging to an individual or household.
On visiting someone’s house, how many times have you looked over their bookshelves, reading the titles to assess the sort of people whom this collection of books belongs too? Nothing tells a perfect stranger more about a person then their collection of books. Books are easy to acquire but even easier to sell off or leave behind, so if it’s worthy of someone’s shelf space, our curiosity asks ‘why?’. Whether you live in a cramped flat in Manchester or a manor house in Cumbria, your bookshelves are the real clues to your history, interests and personality. In a world where extroverted social media shares too much of our shallow selves, the bookcase will always remain the introvert, a subtle but profound insight into one’s personality.
“I’ve wanted to read this book for ages” you say, fiddling with the spine of a particular book that caught your attention. “You can borrow it if you want” is the usual response, and within seconds a book has exchanged hands, and later, occupies a new bookshelf. The difference between seeing a book in the flesh that you want to read, and merely being told of a good book you should read, is that the call to action, i.e to read the book, is much stronger in the former. Mix in the social communication between the lender and the borrower, the sense of sharing something in common, and it’s easy to see why the bookcase is the idyllic way to pass on stories.
When you glance at your own bookcase, some spines stick out – you know the book without having to read the title. Memories are stirred, and then awakened; where were you when you first read that book, how you felt at the end of that book, and why you never managed to finish that book…Could you manifest these strong reminders via digital alternative?
One basic demand for keeping the art of book storing alive, is the right to keep one’s books as long as one lives, for then to be passed down like an heirloom, bookcase and all. This goes for all good pieces of furniture, not just the bookcase and its books. It is a basic right of ownership, to do as we please (short of harming others), mark them up to sell, damage them, and certainly we expect to be able to take them with us when we move. It all goes without saying but we may not realise it’s one of our basic needs until, (admittedly cliché) it’s taken away.
In 2009, Kindle (owned by Amazon), removed copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 from paying customers’ Kindles without warning or permission. The editions, it turned out, were illicit. After a predictable uproar, Amazon made an awkward apology, calling its behaviour ‘stupid and thoughtless’, but despite the books selected to be banned being so deliciously ironic, the real worry was the demonstrating power Amazon had over paying customers’ property. It’s the 21st century equivalent to the notorious ‘burning of books’. More scandalous still, was that this digital event was entirely legal, as the Kindle’s licence agreement states (and still states to this day) that it can be changed, without notice, at Amazon’s will.
Apple’s iPad has been eating into Kindle’s market share since its launch, but it isn’t much better. Like the iPhone, the iPad is a closed system that goes out of its way to prevent these kinds of ‘misuses’ by its customers; paying customers never ‘own’ these books in quite the same way as one owns a paperback. It only loads software and carries books that survive Apple’s strict censors. It would seem companies are less and less interested in helping us store information ourselves and more and more eager to do it for us. It’s only recently that the iPad has offered the option of selling books in non-propriety formats, which means when you want to switch to a different kind of reader, your books can come with you. In other words, they are finally allowing the most basic condition of ownership.
With the bookshelf you can order your books to whatever organised chaos suits you, and you can change/update collections as many or as little as you like. So far, digital alternatives, for all the marvels they offer, (and with the ironic rising sales of cover cases made to look like standard books) they still fail to provide the basic purposes of a perfectly ordinary, but soon to be uncommon, bookcase.