As a young twenty-something, I still find that death is a fleeting thought in the back of my mind. The idea of dying looms, flitting in and out of my consciousness, but I rarely give it too much thought. I’ve made a commitment to myself to live happily and fully, enjoying the little things in life–“Profitez des petits plaisirs de la vie, car un jour vous vous rendrez compte qu’ils étaient vraiment les grands plaisirs” or “Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you will realize they were really the big things.” But apart from this mission to enjoy life as I’m living it, I don’t often think about my impending death, whether it’s today, next week, or sixty years from now. But I recently read an article by Amanda Katz entitled “Will Your Children Inherit Your E-Books?” (full article here: http://www.npr.org/2012/06/21/155360197/will-your-children-inherit-your-e-books). Up until reading this article, I hadn’t fully considered the fact that you can’t inherit electronic files the same way you can inherit books, CDs, movies in hard copy. I’ve felt the obvious frustration when I wanted to loan a friend a book I’d read on my Kindle, but since I have no children and am still quite young, I hadn’t thought about it in terms of dying.
The problem of book inheritance is a relatively new one: mass printing of books didn’t become commonplace until the steam-powered press and cheap paper expanded book publication in the mid-19th century. Before that, the most prized book that was passed down from parent to child was probably the Bible. Now, however, as books are relatively cheap, avid readers can collect hundreds of books over the course of a lifetime. This problem is somewhat similar to the issue we face with sorting through a deceased loved one’s possessions in general: before the Industrial Revolution or even the Great Depression, families did not accumulate many worldly goods, at least apart from the necessities for life. Once mass manufacturing made goods cheaper and an exploding middle class started clamoring to spend, houses began to fill with the trappings of a conspicuous-consumption-based life. Possessions and items became a symbol of status (available suddenly to all rather than just the upper crust of society) and keeping up with the Joneses. Back in the day, cleaning out a parents’ house before was relatively simple: gathering up basic housewares and the few keepsakes the family had accumulated. Before this printing boom, few families could afford extensive libraries, and these libraries were treasured, so that a child’s inheritance of these books was cherished and highly valued.
Compare this paucity of possessions with my grandmother’s house, which my parents helped clean out in 2010: a closetful of muskets they didn’t even know existed, dozens of trinkets and art deco tchotchkes, drawers and drawers of random documents stretching back decades, a random shopping bag full of pistols in the basement, boxes of old photos, and so on. Unfortunately, my late grandmother was not much of a reader, so there were not many books to divide between her three sons. But what of those of us who are only too willing to buy a book and never sell it? What happens when we pass on and leave a houseful of books behind us?
According to Katz, the market is somewhat saturated with used books. Even The Strand bookstore in New York City refuses to buy back many copies nowadays, unless the book was owned/signed/annotated by an important/famous person or the book is a rare/collectible edition. Hopefully bookstores life Half Price or even libraries will take in these old books (if the child does not want to take them), and the books will enter back into circulation to be loved and enjoyed by a new audience. If not, a child (or grandchild) is faced with the daunting task of finding a home for possibly hundreds of books that may only be worth pennies at this point. Transporting books is difficult as they are heavy and can take up a lot of space, and selling back books online (such as at Amazon) individually is an arduous and time-consuming task. My greatest hope is that eventually any book will become rare and/or valuable (any book is eventually a “first edition” or will go out of print) and will someday be appreciated. If not, I can only pray that people still go hunting at garage sales for good books.
Katz thinks that e-books, which are unlikely to be passed on after the owner’s death (password protection and planned obsolescence for technology being major obstacles to inheritance), are an improvement over the old system–the 150-year print boom. According to Katz, “With e-books, there’s no need to fight over a single physical library copy; no trees need be cut down; unsold books need not be pulped; you don’t need to lug books from apartment to apartment; pages will never be dotted with mildew.” For one thing, I think that Katz is forgetting that many people, even those who own e-readers, still buy print books. The print age is far from over, even if much of it is going digital. Despite the move to a more digital age, the physical book is far from dead.
Also, I hope that we never go completely digital with books. As I’ve already mentioned before in a previous blog post, I keep buying physical books to prevent the possibility of a Fahrenehit 451-like society in which we burn books with little old ladies dying with their collections as the pages go up in flames. Although it’s possible my children (if I have them–a big if) will not treasure my books when I’m gone, I still imagine that they might fall into the hands of someone who will love and cherish them.
Fortunately, Katz does wonder what we will lose as the accumulation of print books slows (although I am not sure this is an actual trend as even those who own e-readers still buy many print books): “Among all the gifts of the electronic age, one of the most paradoxical might be to illuminate something we are beginning to trade away: the particular history, visible and invisible, that can be passed down through the vessel of an old book, inscribed by the hands and the minds of readers who are gone.” Many of the books I refuse to sell are those that have been given to me as gifts. My parents and grandparents have always inscribed a note along with the date when giving me the book. Maybe if my books fall into the hands of strangers, they will find these notes heartwarming and unique. After all, I love seeing an inscription at the beginning of used books I buy. It gives the book a soul beyond its words.
A book is more powerful than an Amazon password or a thumb drive of files. I doubt we will ever move into a truly digital age where no one buys print books anymore, and I’m sure that most parents will leave behind at least a few books. Maybe we can’t keep all of them, maybe they’ll get sold or trashed or mushed into pulp, but I cannot help but hope that a few are saved to survive the generations. After all, any new book printed today may be old and rare someday. And things are worth the value we ascribe to them. I’m attached to a virtually worthless collection of old magazines I cut up to make collages. Perhaps someone will find them and cherish the zeitgeist that these magazines have preserved. I still put faith in future generations to give value to books, both old and new.
An update: I just found this article at the NY Times about the used book industry: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/13/books/larry-mcmurtrys-book-auction-in-texas.html