Subscription services – adjusting our thinking

The rise of subscription services like Netflix and ComicsFix changes our relationship with the culture we consume. As I mentioned way back in the distant past of Monday, I think that this brings great benefits, but also some psychological challenges.

And by ‘psychological challenges’ I don’t just mean cutting through the hype to remember that Amazon aren’t offering the only, or necessarily even the best, subscription service for books (thanks again to Felipe for another useful link).

I don't care if the world of reading has been transformed, I'm still keeping my GGKs.
I don’t care if the world of reading has been transformed, I’m still keeping my GGKs.



Part of the appeal of owning our own copies of books is that we know that we can keep them, that we can access them whenever we want. We know that they won’t just disappear, and we’re the ones who control that.

With subscription services we have to trust someone else to keep those books available for us. That involves letting go of some control, which can be difficult and daunting.

Letting go

This isn’t just about letting go of control, it’s about letting go of the need for a sense of ownership. At the risk of revealing what a ridiculous hippy I am, I really do think that there’s value in letting go of a need to own things in favour of focusing on doing things. It’s about seeing life as a matter of experience rather than accumulation, and it runs counter to a lot of the habits we build up from very early on in life.

This isn’t a clear-cut issue. Accumulating and ownership can lead to some great experiences, and up until now they were the best way to ensure access to an experience like instant access to your favourite books. Disentangling the two is difficult, and I think that’s why the shift to using more subscriptions might become a generational one, as people grow up with different habits.

We’ll see.

Not being a dickhead about it

In the same way that some people are very attached to old patterns of collection and ownership, others are becoming very attached to the potential of our electronic future. I’ve seen a lot of this in debates over the merits of e-books, and particularly the on-going Amazon/Hachette squabble. Those in favour of new models start to attack those who cling to old ways of working, because they feel frustrated at the pace of change.

But attacking someone else’s choices just because they don’t match yours isn’t being right. It’s being a dickhead.

I love my growing collection of e-books. The writer of this article likes Scribd’s subscription service. My dad loves his shelves and shelves of cheap Penguin paperbacks. My friend Ben loves his collection of classic August Derlath printed editions, some of which are probably worth more as individual volumes than my whole Kindle collection.

All these different relationships with books are perfectly valid. I think that letting go of owning them, of disentangling reading from collecting, will be good for a lot of people, me included. But that doesn’t mean that it’s for everyone, or that people who still want publishers to create nice hardbacks are in the wrong.

We can all benefit from making some adjustments to this new age. And the hardest adjustment may be not trying to make everyone think the same way we do.

E-readers and the urge to control

Part of our desire to own and collect books stems from an instinct to control. As in many areas of our lives, we assert that control to feel more like agents of our own destiny, like masters of our world. In business, this manifests as managers setting strict rules. In politics it’s both the intellectual struggle to create orderly systems of thought and the ballot box battles for control of the country. And in reading it’s our book collections, knowing that you have a book to hand even if you’ll never read it again, that it’s there inside your sphere of influence. You own that story, just a little.

Yes, little man, it really is that awesome
Yes, little man, it really is that awesome

I got a new e-reader this week, having broken my last one in a moment of clumsiness at the gym, and it made me think about this issue of ownership again. Because in a digital age we can get hold of many books at a moment’s notice just by going on an e-reader and downloading them from the appropriate store. We can even access books instantly for free through the growing electronic collections of libraries. It can liberate us from the clutter of books, but involves a change of mindset, from one of control to one of flexibility, feeling safe that you can get what you want when you want it if you just let go of the need to own. The book is just as available as before, even more so as you don’t have to work out which shelf or box it’s in. But some of the romance is definitely gone.

I doubt many people of my generation, entrenched like me in thirty-something years of habit, will make the most of this liberation. But the shift from functioning by controlling to functioning through flexible networks is one that’s also emerging in other areas like business management. Maybe, as future generations give up paper pages in favour of networked e-readers, changing reading habits will be symbols of a wider social change.

And that’s enough intellectual posturing for today. I’m off to the gym with my new e-reader. And this time I’m going to be very careful.


Photo by Zhao ! via Flickr creative commons

The books I will always keep

Yesterday’s post, and people’s responses, got me thinking about the books that I would never let go. So, in no particular order, here are my top few.

The World of Pooh by A. A. Milne

Oh no, the bees found the honey! Also, I discovered PicMonkey.
Oh no, the bees found the honey!
Also, I discovered PicMonkey.

This hardback has been with me my whole life. I loved Pooh and his gentle adventures when I was a kid, then rediscovered them when I was in sixth-form. The soft, simple prose, the whimsical events, the sense that it was alright not to rush and worry but just to amble along singing a little song to yourself, it really struck a chord with teenage me. In fact, Pooh’s Tao-like simplicity remains an inspiration to me to this day, and I dip into the book to lift me up when I’m feeling blue.

I gave a copy of this to my godson on the occasion of his christening. He can’t follow the stories yet, never mind read them, but I hope it’ll provide him with comfort and inspiration down the years.

The Deptford Mice Trilogy by Robin Jarvis

Look out, Jupiter might get you
Look out, Jupiter might get you

I read the first of these when I was eleven. It was my first brush with anything like horror, and it had a huge impact. The thrill of being both terrified and exhilarated at the same time was something new and wonderful. They were packed with atmosphere, and with a balance of hope and darkness that made them feel incredibly real despite their fantasy animal content. Over twenty years later, I’m still planning to go back and read them, once I can build up the courage. And any time I see a corn dolly, a little shiver goes down my spine.

This is as close as I get to Tenabreme‘s wonderful habit of collecting books remembered from childhood. Of course, it’s easier when you’ve never let the books go.

The Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett

Just part of my pile of Pratchett
Just part of my pile of Pratchett

Of all the writers who have been active in my lifetime, Pratchett is the one whose wonderful work I most want to pass on to future generations. The tone of these stories may have shifted hugely over time, but I still love them all, from the weird satire of Colour of Magic to the heart-warming philosophising of his latest works. I’ve read half at least twice, Pyramids many more times than that, and Small Gods is one of my favourite reflections on religion. The man’s a treasure, and I treasure his books.

Unlike Ben, the Derleth collector I mentioned yesterday, I’m not a big keeper of books as objects. But if anyone harms my signed Pratchett there will be trouble.

So which books do you cling to, and why?

Keeping books, and learning to let go

I find our relationship with books as physical objects a little odd. Almost everyone I know, myself included, is in the habit of hanging on to them, accumulating them on shelves around their house. Getting rid of books becomes a big step, unthinkable to some, even though we know we’ll probably never read most of them again. It’s a little odd.

As a habit, I can see how it made sense at one time. Books used to be rare. They used to be things of fairly high value. They used to be hard to replace. These days, between libraries, Amazon, charity shops and e-readers, you can replace almost any book for a couple of quid, assuming all you care about is the writing inside.

Just the books I can reach  from bed
Just the books I can reach from bed

Of course, that’s quite a big assumption, and not true for some people. I know someone who collects signed August Derleth originals. For him, it’s as much about the collection, about the physical objects and the joy of discovering them, as it is about the contents. But most of us haven’t consciously turned book collection into a hobby, it’s more just a habit that spreads across our homes until every corner is full of paper.

I think this is one of those cases where our habits and emotional attachments haven’t caught up with our changing society. I suspect that, if I ditched most of my books, then the time and money I saved not keeping them in order, not moving them every time I moved house, being able to easily find the few I kept, would vastly outweigh the cost of buying one or two again when, years later, I decided that I wanted to re-read them. But can I bring myself to do that? Not quite. Not yet.

What about you? Do you keep all your books? Are some throw-aways? Are your habits changing? Leave a comment, let me know.