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.
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