“Where Are the Books?”

Cross-posted from Concurring Opinions

Books have lined the shelves of the offices of all my colleagues at every school where I have worked.  In my early days of teaching, or when spending a term as a visitor, I’d wander into a learned neighbor’s office to get acquainted.  The titles and content of those books announced a persons’s intellectual background and interests. They were instantly and extensively a topic of earnest discussion.  If my interlocutor should be interrupted by a call or an assistant popping in, I’d amuse myself by grazing over the titles, scanning the shelves that added up to an inventory of knowledge.  On their shelves and mine, students attending office hours would likewise find easy ice breakers.

When visiting the homes of friends, especially new friends but longer-term friends as well, it has always interested me to see what books are stacked on their shelves, in the living room, the study, along hallways. At parties, these books have been great conversation starters, fountains of discourse and debate.  You could even pick them up and hand them over, citing the passage on a given page where you recalled a point being made particularly well.

My wife and I, when house hunting the last time around, inspected two dozen apartments before falling in love with the homey charm of the one where we live now.  As an anonymous broker showed us through the absent homeowners’ place, we’d scan the stacks of books that gave a sense of the people who lived there-lovers of art history, a denizen of Wall Street, devotees of history, biography, the Civil War.  Stephanie and I would joke, when viewing that rare apartment empty of books, that the absence of books was an absence of warmth and that we would not trust the people who lived there.  “Where are the books?,” we’d ask in bewilderment as we rode down the elevator, never to return.

Today, with reading so often done and “books” acquired digitally, stored in pixels on hand-held devices, we see fewer new titles gracing the offices of colleagues and teachers, the homes of friends.  No longer on display, they can no longer be conversation pieces.  The average age of books on shelves is rising steadily and even these becoming anachronistic.  Shelves are given over to decoration, clocks, cups, bells, photographs.   My wife and I wonder, “what will our kids think, 10 or 20 years from now, when they see an apartment without a single book in it?”  Maybe nothing.  We would be horrified.

But exactly what the future holds is uncertain.  One of my recent books,  The Essays of Warren Buffett, is selling briskly in both print and digital, though with vastly more sales in print than digital, yet it costs $35 in print and half that in digital.  Time will tell.


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