Building a Better Library

(Originally published in Silicon Hutong, April 23, 2009.)

As I was reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s superb book The Black Swan when I came across a passage that captured with precision the way I think about personal libraries:

“The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with ‘Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of those books have you read?’ and the others – a very small minority – who get the point that a private library is not an ego boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there.”

That quote did much to soothe my mind about the fact that my library is growing faster than I am reading, and for that Professor Taleb has my lasting gratitude.

But it did little to help me figure out how ebooks fit into all of this.

The Stone Age of the Electronic Library

I have been reading electronic books since Barnes & Noble’s eReader eBook store was called PalmBooks, selling recent releases in a proprietary format for reading on Palm devices. PalmBooks was a life saver for a China-based bibliophile, giving me instant access to books that I could not wait for Amazon to get to me. Even better, I could read them in bed with the lights out while my wife was sleeping.

I had managed to get through over 100 books in the eReader format and had even managed to make a few of my own by the time I sidelined my last Treo three years ago. While I’d had a good nine-year run with Palm, I couldn’t see myself just buying the Palm devices just to keep reading eBooks.

So over the last three years, I managed to get pretty worked up about those books, sitting there locked on my hard drive when they should be on my bookshelf, ready for me to access and refer to in my work. So when Amazon first introduced the Kindle, I pretty much dismissed it. Call me when they offer the eBook and the hard copy for a package price, I thought.

The Return of the eBook

Then a few things happened.

First, I picked up an iPod Touch, which has become a great PDA, game device, and entertainment center. Then I discovered eReader’s app for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Suddenly, all of those books that I feared had been relegated to a laptop reading experience were now available on my iPod Touch, and I was able to buy and read books on a mobile device again from eReader and Fictionwise. Still proprietary, still electronic, but at least readable.

Then Amazon released the Kindle app for the iPod Touch, and a penny dropped. For all of the virtues of eReader and Fictionwise, Amazon has managed to put together a much better overall eBook experience on the same device. Browse Amazon. Find interesting book. Send free sample to iPod via Amazon’s WhisperNet and a WiFi network. Read sample. Click on link at the end. Automatically buy and download full version. Done.

Brilliant. But still not quite good enough. Because while I was getting an $18-plus-shipping book for $9.99, I still didn’t have any way to put those books on my shelves. So I continued to ponder.

There Are Books, and then there are BOOKS

Then last week, after reading two marketing books whose authors I will not embarrass by naming, I realized that all books are not created equal. Some are classics you want and will pass on to your kids. Some are worthy reads that hold value long after they are published. Other books are timely when published, but lose their relevance after a short time. And still others are a disappointment long before you finish them.

In short, not every book I read was worth killing a tree, spending the carbon to get it to me, and taking up the copious (but still finite) shelf space in my library. Some were just as well left in electronic format. And sometimes you don’t now which is which until you’re done reading them.

A Better Way to Build my Library

With that, my new system fell into place, one that works for me, the retailer, the author, the publisher, and the environment, all while limiting the pressure on my wife to find more places in the house to put books. Rather than talk you through it, I’ve diagrammed it below:

Book Tree 2

2 thoughts on “Building a Better Library

  1. Nice idea, but how can a used book only be an option under $1? A hardly-used used option cheaper than ebook but more expensive than $1 seems preferable. Then again, I live 10 blocks from the Strand.

    • Good point. The equation changes a bit when you have ready access to a decent used bookstore. I don’t, but when I move back to the US at some point, I will modify the chart accordingly.

      Meantime, let me think through how this changes for location. Thanks!

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