Consider three different rooms you’ve never visited.
The first is “tasteful” if judged by the sensibility of decor magazines and furniture catalogs. Judiciously-selected pictures occur on the walls, and judiciously-selected “coffee-table” books on horizontal surfaces.
The second is austere. The walls are empty, their space broken perhaps only by a clock or an occasional piece of art. An eye cast round the room encounters few if any instances of the printed word.
The third is media-intensive. Much of the wallspace is occupied by books, by disks in jewel or DVD-format cases, perhaps even by some old LP’s. In the natural order of things, more of these than you’d really like have migrated onto one surface or another. Most such rooms include visible apparatus: the big screen and speakers plus multiple rectangular electronic boxes with glowing LEDs on the front.
What do you think of the people who inhabit each room? Which of these surrounds you? My suspicion is that readers here tend to the media-intensive, some by choice or inheritance, but many by accident; our appetite for sounds and pictures and words having inexorably surrounded us with their carriers and playback gear.
How do we feel about this? I’ve long felt a conscious glow when surrounded by book-lined walls; for many years my vision of ideal peace included them, along with a comfy chair and music in the air.
Less Disks · But as I age I’ve started to feel increasingly crowded by possessions in general and media artifacts in particular. And in recent weeks, I’ve taken steps to remove about a thousand CDs from view, along with an FM tuner and a CD player. The replacement electronics are out of sight in a nice wooden cabinet. A couple of nights ago I finished ripping R.E.M., so my alphabetical march through the shelves will soon end.
I’ll be honest; I can’t wait to shovel the disks into boxes or binders or whatever, and regain a few square feet of wall. And the table that used to hold the record player, CD player, radio, and pre-amp looks much better with its electronics load halved.
Less Books · Why would you keep a book around, once you’d read it? I can think of three reasons: One, you might read it again. Two, others in the household might (a big one when you’ve got fast-growing kids). Three, because it’s beautiful. We try to use these criteria, but still have five walls in two rooms that are substantially covered by books.
How long till I do to the books what I’m now doing to the music? I have issues with the Kindle’s business model and control structure, but clearly it’s a signpost. As I wrote recently in On Paper, books, as we know them, are toast. Their future is as objets d’art and antiques, and this is a good thing.
A Monastic Cell · A decade or two ago I spent some days in a “study” in an old Oxford college: bed, desk, lamp, and a window with a view of the quadrangle; nothing else. It made an impression that hasn’t faded. Among other things, I made insane, immense progress on a difficult piece of writing at the front of my to-do list.
Here’s a prediction: Geek fashion in particular and intellectual fashion in general will swing hard over: from cluttered to ascetic, from high to low entropy, from library to monastery. Conventional good taste like you see in furniture catalogs? Well, it’s hard; takes more time and money than most of us can bring to bear. Historically my tribe has dodged the issue by making the furnishings of our rooms suggest those of our minds. The next best thing is the dogma of Less Is More. Easier to keep clean, to start with.
I’ll perhaps regret the old vision: the comfy clutter, the whisper of almost-white pages turning in silence after midnight, the rows of titles ascending into darkness. But now, I dream of a mostly-empty room, brilliantly lit, the outside visible from inside. The chief furnishings would be a few well-loved faces and voices because it’s about people not things. But of course there’d be handy tools there, to bring the universe of words and sounds and pictures to hand on demand. But not get dusty or pile up in corners.