Old books in new places

Something that’s always struck me as a difficult reconciliation is my love for old books – you know, the ones with bent corners, the ones bound in leather 1, the scarred and the ancient – and my personal and professional commitment to their eventual obsoletion.

Seriously, I love books. I’m an awful stereotypical liberal arts student / Pacific Northwest implant in a lot of ways, and possibly the most grievous infraction is my irrational book collection. For instance, junior year, I spent a month’s worth of beer money on a first-edition Breakfast of Champions (which I spilled Keystone on the following month); last August, I spent $72 on a 1835 reprint of Williamsburg in Virginia just because I liked the binding and it mentioned my alma mater. 2

I’m enthralled with the idea that books have history; there’s something so innately magical about picking up a book and knowing that curious eyes have laid seige to the words just like I have, that thousands and thousands of overeager bibliophiles have read into the dilemmas of Amory Blaine 3 and the horrors of Cathy Ames, scribbling in the margins where necessary. Weathered books are a physical manifestation of that.

But here’s the thing: physical books are objectively awful, right? I don’t think there exists a rational argument in favor of physical books over their digital counterparts: they’re harder to publish, they take up space, and they cost more money (both to the producer and consumer.) You can make the argument that there’s no beating the ‘feel’ of flipping through the pages or stuff like that, but that’s habit and nostalgia more than anything else: the toddlers of 2014 are learning to read on iPads and Kindles.

But there are things that eBooks haven’t overcome yet: discovery is still a big issue (I have yet to find a suitable replacement for idly wandering a bookstore until something catches my eye), the social aspects haven’t been mastered (Goodreads is great, but it very much feels like a first step). Ultimately, eBooks have yet to replicate the casual serendipity of a physical book: there is no easy way I can quickly glance over my friend’s Kindle library and see if anything pops out, nor is it possible to leave a note for the next person who downloads a copy of Winesburg, Ohio.

Interestingly, music went through the same issues five years ago, as the rising ubiquity of streaming services and digital distribution slowly choked out the record stores and mixtapes of the world. 4 The arguments in defense of “music in the real world” were centered around the idea that there were no replacements for the feeling of burning a mix CD for your girlfriend or getting advice from your neighborhood DJ, but it was only a matter of time until we figured out how to move that online too.

Now we have Pandora, 8tracks, RapGenius, SoundCloud, Spotify, Last.fm, and so much more. Don’t get me wrong, I have fond memories of agonizing over a mix CD for a high school crush 5, but I vastly prefer the digital way of doing things.

Put another way: the Internet doesn’t replace one’s personal interactions with culture – it upgrades it. (Given sufficient time, that is.)

Which I guess brings me to my central argument: the key to migrating the beauty of a ‘used books culture’ into the digital age is capturing the indistinct community of the whole thing.

Interestingly, I think this is where things like Snapchat and Secret.ly come into play. I feel like the world has grown significantly less enamored with the idea of mass broadcast in the past twelve months, and the idea of sharing in an ephemeral, organic sense has made a comeback. It’s a battle between transience and intransience, but the winning play seems to be disguising the latter as the former: after all, Snapchat doesn’t actually delete those images after the ten seconds are up.

Put another way: what if we had a database with everybody’s thoughts on Vonnegut while they read it? What if we matched that database up with relevant snippets of Slaughterhouse Five? What kind of reading experience would that enable? How would your reaction to The Brothers Karamazov change if you knew that exactly 1944932 people had read it before you, and 10092 of them had read it in the past week? (And, more commercially relevant: how would you react if you knew 20% of those people went to go pick up some Tolstoy?)

It’s worth noting that the Kindle is approaching this: one of my favorite features of the device is Popular Highlights, which does exactly what it sounds like – highlights passages and sentences that a number of readers have also highlighted. On one hand, its somewhat silly and inconsequential – on the other hand, there’s something oddly visceral about knowing exactly 173 people 6 spent the effort to highlight and record the following sentence from Part 1 of This Side of Paradise:

The last light fades and drifts across the land—the low, long land, the sunny land of spires; the ghosts of evening tune again their lyres and wander singing in a plaintive band down the long corridors of trees; pale fires echo the night from tower top to tower: Oh, sleep that dreams, and dream that never tires, press from the petals of the lotus flower something of this to keep, the essence of an hour.

I think the ultimate endgame for this sort of behavior is being able to open any article, book, or random collection of words and see everybody’s comments, doodles, and notes in the margin: a virtual book club for every page, a powerful visualization of the eternity of the written word compared to the the unfortunate transience of the moments we spend reading.

One day, we’ll have this technology, I’m sure of it. I’m incredibly excited for it, and I get to spend the majority of my time working on making it a reality.

Until then, though, I’ll stick to my outdated methods.


  1. Unfortunately for me, the smell of rich mahogany is generally absent. [return]
  2. To be fair, though, the binding is really cool. [return]
  3. A 30 Rock reference that I only just now got: Jack Donaghy attended Princeton on the “Amory Blaine Handsomeness Scholarship”. [return]
  4. It’s hardly a perfect analogy, since music is so much more ingrained in pop culture than literature – not to mention the difference in average audience sizes. But the parallels are there. [return]
  5. Spoiler alert: unabashedly contained Death Cab for Cutie. Spoiler alert: I unabashedly still listen to Death Cab for Cutie. [return]
  6. It’s also worth noting that I work for Amazon, but I promise I’m not a corporate stooge and my feelings about this are entirely unrelated to my employment. [return]
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Justin Duke is a writer and developer in Seattle.
He likes good, practical things.
(And writing in the third person, I guess.)


@justinmduke
me@jmduke.com