In Our Parents’ Bookshelves

February 25, 2010 | 4 books mentioned 38 3 min read

coverIn late 2001 among the people I knew, cellphones went from being a gadget of the technorati to something that everyone had.  I was living in a dorm with five roommates at the time and one consequence of the change was that we no longer ever spoke with each other’s parents.  Previously parents had called the room line and whoever was around would pick up.  I enjoyed shooting the breeze with my friends’ moms (it was mostly moms who called) and I regretted that there was no longer much opportunity to do that once cellphones allowed our parents to call each of us directly.

Ereaders today feel somewhat like cellphones just before 2001.  They are not yet ubiquitous, but they are well past the early-adopter stage and their growth seems poised to go geometric.  When the Kindle came out in 2007 I poopooed it as the future face of reading; the hyperactivity of the Internet just seemed like a bad match with the meditative experience of reading a book.  But the other day while watching my eight-month-old son knock around a pile of books, I knew suddenly and viscerally that I was wrong.  The clunky objects he was playing with seemed like relics.

The Millions has written previously about the externalities of e-readers.  Edan has commented on how they portend a drawing down of the public space in which we read—with the Kindle you don’t know what the person next to you is reading, or how far along in it they are, or whether their copy of the book is dog-eared or brand new (because it’s neither).

One of the most prominent losses in this regard stands to be the loss of bookshelves.  A chief virtue of digital books is said to be their economical size—they take up no space at all!—but even a megabyte seems bulky compared to what can be conveyed in the few cubic feet of a bookshelf.  What other vessel is able to hold with such precision, intricacy, and economy, all the facets of your life: that you bake bread, vacationed in China, fetishize Melville, aspire to read Shakespeare, have coped with loss, and still tote around a copy of The Missing Piece as a totem of your childhood.  And what by contrast can a Kindle tell you about yourself or say to those who visit your house?  All it offers is blithe reassurance that there is progress in the world, and that you are a part of it.

Of the bookshelves I’ve inspected in my life, two stand out as particularly consequential.  The first was my mother’s, which was built into the wall of the bedroom where she grew up.  When I would visit my grandparents in the summer I would spend hours inspecting that bookshelf.  The books were yellowed and jammed tightly together, as though my mother had known it was time to leave home once she no longer had any room left on her shelves.  In the 1960s novels, the Victorian classics, and the freshman year sociology textbooks fossilized on the bookshelf, I got the clearest glimpse I ever had of my mother as a person who existed before me and apart from me, and whose inner life was as bottomless as I knew my own to be.

And then there was my wife, whose bookshelves I first inspected in a humid DC summer, while her parents were away at work.  The shelves were stuffed full of novels—Little House on the Prairie, The Andromeda Strain, One Hundred Years of Solitude—that described an arc of discovery I had followed too.  At the time we met, her books still quivered from recent use and still radiated traces of the adolescent wonder they’d prompted.  In the years since, on visits home for the holidays and to celebrate engagements and births, I’ve watched her bookshelves dim and settle.  Lately they’ve begun to resemble a type of monument I recognize from my mother’s room.  They sit there waiting for the day when our son will be old enough to spend his own afternoons puzzling out a picture of his mother in the books she left behind.

It remains to be seen how many more generations will have the adventure of getting to know their parents in just this way.  One for sure, and maybe two, but not much beyond that I wouldn’t think.  To the extent that bookshelves persist, it will be in self-conscious form, as display cases filled with only the books we valued enough to acquire and preserve in hard copy.  The more interesting story, however, the open-ended, undirected progression of a life defined by books will surely be lost to a digital world in which there is no such thing as time at all.

[Image source: David Goehring]

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. Thank you for this lovely piece. Sometimes I worry that the way I sort of fetishize my books and bookshelves is rooted in some ignoble instinct to “furnish the room” a la Anthony Powell. Because although I am a frequent re-reader, there is a large element of self-presentation in bookshelves.

    In addition to providing the window into personality you describe, your parents’ books can be instrumental in creating your own personality. I so vividly remember the books I mined from my parents’ shelves as a child (some of which would probably have been forbidden if they had really thought about it); these books had a profound impact on my own development as a reader. I didn’t understand most of them (imagine a nine-year-old with furrowed brow picking her nose over Don Delillo), but the sense of excitement I felt as I approached their bookshelves, whereon I might find something exciting (or scandalous–like my secret reading of Reviving Ophelia) has stayed with me my whole life.

  2. This is a useful contribution to the discussion of e-readers – charming but worthwhile, anecdotal but entirely recognizable, a casual observation in some ways with huge implications. Thanks for posting. (I’m linking it, after seeing it linked in Shelf Awareness.)

  3. My father dropped out of high school in 10th grade. But he had a large room with nothing but wall sized book shelves full of novels. I spent hour after in that room reading and reading and reading.

    Greg Gutierrez
    Zen and the Art of Surfing

  4. I went through my parents’ books. When I go over to someone’s house for the first time, I always zero in on the bookshelf. So, I know exactly what you are feeling, though I’m a tad less gloomy about it. When something disappears, something else tends to gets sucked into the void. iPods are killing CD collections like eReaders eventually will books… and so, people trade over iPods, scour through each others musical collection — and it’s just as effective in getting to know each other. An eReader lets you potentially keep your entire bookshelf with you, friends can see every book you own without even visiting your house. Upload it to the Internet and it can never be lost in a fire… so, I feel we’ll make do. What will REALLY be lost is the feel, smell, and vibe of books read decades ago by people you know. Perhaps, if the quality goes up, we will be passing on eReaders to our kids. More likely, though, our children will simply inherit our data! The way of the future.

  5. Granted, I live in the middle of nowhere, but I have so far seen a grant total of ONE Kindle in the wild. If the sales numbers for Kindle were all that good, we’d know them. So Amazon said “millions” I suppose the SEC would be after them if the figure weren’t 2M, but I’ll bet that’s all it is and I’ll bet it doesn’t get terribly bigger. The device just isn’t that useful unless you have a special need (like if you are a lawyer who can read briefs on it, or a student who can read textbooks on it).

    And I don’t think a pile of books being kicked over by a baby affects that at all.

    This technology will take off when digital paper is incorporated into a multi-purpose notebook device.

  6. I always buy books because i think i’ll read them, and this becomes a problem with technical books (i mean like degree and masters level) i buy all these books convinced i’ve acquired the knowledge within them, and then leave them on the shelf procrastinating because they’re so heavyweight. It’s not in my brain until i’ve read it, i tell myself, but i’m somehow convinced it is.

    The bookshelves i remember and miss are the ones in the library. My mum says in america they don’t have libraries, not big ones, but it used to be full of classics and they never changed, there were even eighteenth century editions there, and loads of foreign novels and stuff. I always took them forgranted, i never bought books or i got rid of them because i could always reread from there, now they’ve torn down the bookshelves and filled it with computers. But computers and internet speeds have dated so much they’re already out of date, so instead of ‘being up to date and attracting a broad cross-section of the community’ they’re just empty at the price of entering a race they could never win (fashions in technology).

    Plus, i hear they have good Pakistani dvds, magazines etc now, but i miss my old russian translations and french language books. Especially, there was some massive saudi-arabian set trilogy written by an immigrant on the shelf by the column which i was always going to read but too big to start, and now it’s gone and that’s the only way in knew it:( They don’t buy hardbacks now, they’ve turfed all the old books and it’s just paperbacks of the tv bookclub selection, while psychology is full of NLP stuff! Some things are reliable pillars of existence, not shifting sands, and libraries should be one of those:)

  7. Fact is, books will be around longer than e-readers. Time will come when energy is precious and using it to store electronic books will seem like a waste, when for thousands of years human knowledge had been handed down on scrolls, on pages bound in books. Technology will not triumph over this. Because if you look at it with an accurate eye, we’re going backwards now.

  8. Kids will review archives of their parents’ blogs. They’ll have a greater insight into their parents as real people (i.e. petty and self-obsessed) than any prior generation. The number of electronic photographs stored away will outstrip any prior generation’s image of their forebearers.

    Sure, it can all be wiped out by a server crash or deleted in a moment of self-doubt and regret. But by an large, more information on the current generation will be stored in digital amber than any prior.

    Regarding eBooks versus printed and the energy issue: it is *vastly* lower energy to produce one low-power eReader and read hundreds of books on it than to produce hundreds of printed, bound books.

    Books will follow the same path that CDs are taking now: currently, the top CD sellers are those popular with older generations. In ten more years, CDs will be retro, special release items similar to LPs now. In twenty years, printed books will be a rarely-purchased, musty, paper-fetish product.

  9. The bookshelves in ones home are the equivalent of creating a giant mixtape for your kid that surrounds them every time they come home. You might think of the demise of the mixtape as a cousin to the demise of the bookshelf. Yes, our identities come through through our bookshelves, and many edit their bookshelves to accompish this very task, much like a writer edits her prose to create the effect she wants and or maybe it is more like how a curator shapes a gallery with the art of other people.

  10. I still have the copy of “The Count of Monte Cristo” I stole from my elementary school library. It has always been my favorite book….

  11. Go pick up a copy of “Leviathan” and see what books are becoming — they are beautiful once again. This is the future of printed books….

  12. I love books, but I hate moving them from house to house. With my e-reader I read a book, decide if I love it and if I’d read it again, then I buy a hard copy. I love books, but the stipulation to staying on my shelf is that I have to want to read the book again in the future.

  13. Nice piece. We love our books and bookshelves but I recently bought a Kindle for my younger son, a voracious reader, specifically for travel. I’ll continue to buy books for all of us, but now when I’m packing a suitcase for vacation, I don’t have to pack 6 books for my little guy. I was wondering if he would like it–I still have to print out anything more than 3 pages on the internet–but he loves it. He uses it now more than on vacations and I’ll admit, I find it a bit -sad.

  14. As I get older there’s one place in my house that really spins my nipples, and that’s the room in which are my two groaning-under-the-weight bookshelves. Quite regularly, most days in fact, I find myself staring at it and get butterflies in my stomach. iPads and the like will never do that. But I don’t have children so who will get my book collection? My nephews and nieces perhaps. I hope they’ll be interested in what I’ve collected…

  15. I like the idea of doing away with wasting paper, ink, and various other resources in this movement. My only hesitation comes with the fact that I get so much more out of the things I read, whether they be technical text books or coded works of literature, when I can underline and annotate the writings. Even if there were to be a comment function (ala MS Word) I think the connection fused to the reading by filling the margins would be lost. Just as I enjoy paper crosswords far more than digital ones, I think I’d much prefer to put the ink to the paper in my books.

  16. I love my books. I would like to have a room devoted to all my books because I have about 6 large boxes in my closet now, with one bookcase set up. There’s not enough room in our little apartment, so for now, they are boxed. Re: the Kindle, my eyes get blurry and pained when I look at the computer screen all day, so I can only imagine what would happen if I looked at a Kindle screen at night. I prefer the feel, smell, and sight of real books.

  17. Thank you for such a wonderful essay. I found it via Neatorama. I will only get an e-reader if I’m forced to at gunpoint.

    I love the act of holding a book (especially hardcover) in my hands. I love hearing the soft crack of the spine as you open it. It love the act of turning a page. And I adore the way books look as they sit on my shelf and whisper, “Pick me!” when I walk by.

  18. I have bought copies of books that I liked just so that my sons will see them on the shelf and wonder about them.

  19. I have moved my books from house to house and to me, it is like unearthing new discoveries of ones I forgot I had. My first move was delayed because I kept picking up the books to reread and remember what I loved about them. An ereader won’t make me pick it up and read a book – I need that heavy hardback with the musty smell. It just doesn’t feel like I am reading; I can’t highlight a beautiful passage in the text on an ereader.
    Our bookshelves at the college are sparse with everything going to the computers and it feels more like a coffee shop than a library.

  20. People a few years ago mourned the loss of the reading rooms at the library because they “lost” the ability to sit and read the newspapers. No one wants to give up their databases and return to those days of hunting through stacks of paper.

    People who were born in the 20th century will mourn books but those born in the 21st will wonder at look at them as curiosities like we currently do scrolls and illuminated handcrafted manuscripts.

    If a child in 2015 does not know how to search and understand the contents of digital storage they will be just like a child in 1915 who did not know how to read a broadsheet/newspaper to get their information.

    Just because it is a change happening in front of our eyes does not mean it is a bad or good thing. It is a change.

    I have not read a dead tree book sense 2001. I agree that there will always be physical books around because there will be a market for them. Just like there are still blacksmiths around because there is a market for them.

  21. I vastly prefer reading a dead tree book to anything on a screen. That said, I am currently in the process of considering purchasing an ebook reader. I read entirely too many books to BUY them all, so I don’t know what I’d do without Project Gutenberg,, Google Books or the like. But I’m very tired of being tied to a computer; I want to read books in other rooms and when out and about. So despite my preference for actual printed books, an ebook reader is currently a rather logical and economical choice (for me).

  22. Maw, now I’m sad. I’ve loved and coveted books my whole life. I own at least 10,000, if not twice that (and I’ve only read around half of those I own) but they are a wall-to-wall monument to my identity – my passion for knowledge, the paths I’ve taken through life, the subjects and events I’ve been interested in, and so on. If I didn’t have them, I wouldn’t feel like me, and I hope one day someone takes enough of an interest to piece back together some of my identity based on my books.

    I fear you’re right that the e-reader revolution will destroy this facet of our lives. Just as iPods and .mp3 players have made listening to music a private, secluded and soemtimes even anti-social affair, e-readers risk us turning books into something wholly intimate, that will be shared far less often. Very sad.

  23. I am an avid reader. On one hand I enjoy reading a paper book, something that is more substantial than a few megabytes but on the other hand I undertand the wish to be able to bring my library with me as I am away from home and devices such as the Kindle give that ability. If Im going away for long than a few days I want to be able to have a choice of what I read rather than the one or two books that will fit in an over night bag.

  24. For those saying it’s nice to bring their library with them, is it really that nice? When I’m travelling I relish the prospect of being outside of my comfort zone, finishing my book and having nothing to read.

    It forces me to explore my new surroundings and find things to read I otherwise may never have. From being in an airport and being forced to buy a new book off the shelves (Ben Elton’s “The First Casualty”), to holidaying in Vanuatu and buying Kipling’s “Kim” at a charity exchange, to finding the Buddhavacana in a drawer in a hotel in Thailand, not having my library with me has been one of the best parts of my reading experiences.

    E-readers threaten to ruin that too. :-/

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