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.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Ryan Cousineau (Apr 18 2009, at 22:06)

Bang on!

Somehow, it escaped my attention how much of my decor was constructed out of books, DVDs, and CD cases, until you pointed it out.

And you're also right that so much of that is liable to go away very soon.


From: Example (Apr 18 2009, at 22:08)

When I started college I started on the path of collecting lots of electronics, I had a VCR, an expensive tuner, a PS2 that could play DVDs, etc. But actually almost all of my media ended up being electronic files on my computer. The Tuner and VCR never get used. The DVD player I use once in a while, but I'm more likely to go out the theater then rent a movie.

I still ended up with a lot of books, and I love buying them off Amazon. I'm not too interested in the Kindle, given the DRM, and even if I was I'd still like to have paper copies of the books to line my shelves like trophies. :)


From: Dan Morrill (Apr 18 2009, at 22:33)

I 100% agree. I, too, am aggressively "deaccessioning" (an archivist's word, which I got from my wife the archivist and which is perfect here) stuff. I no longer have a desktop PC at home or work -- only laptops, which can be tucked away. I hide away the disk server as best I can, which in turn exists to hide away media in the same way that you're doing. And I am irritated by the game consoles that are too visible under the TV -- but not much I can do there.

And I still have stuff to get rid of!

Around 18 months ago we moved into an 800 sq ft apartment in San Francisco, from a 2500 sq ft house in Atlanta. We got rid of rooms and rooms of furniture; it was painful at the time, but today I feel much better for it, and I want to get rid of even more. The other day I (with some difficulty, in this case) got rid of the golf clubs I never use, and I'm sitting here in my living room with a critical eye toward some empty picture frames that hold little hope of being filled.

My parents have photo albums which are priceless to them. But my wife and I have flickr and Picasa accounts. My parents have filing cabinets; we have spreadsheets and PDFs of old tax returns. These days my big fear isn't fire burning this stuff up, but of a data catastrophe.

It's my goal to get down to a phone, a laptop, and data backed up to the cloud. Everything in my house, I want to be there for some reason: because I love it, or because I think it's beautiful, or because I use it frequently.

Anyway thanks, your post has reinvigorated me: tomorrow I am going to go through the kitchen on another deaccessioning pass.


From: Aurélien (Apr 19 2009, at 00:32)

Furniture & design catalogs, we got culprit there! They must be responsible for the fall of the record industry. All those clutter/cd free white walls. Why don't they sue design catalogs??

I've got rid of my cd collection long time ago and my local mp3s collection is going obsolete too. I use more and more deezer and the like. We are in the access age.


From: razmaspaz (Apr 19 2009, at 06:54)

I appreciate the opportunity to rid myself of cds, and mine have been tucked in boxes for years, though I still move them from apartment to apartment, and now to a home. Its funny though, I can't imagine a world not at least accented with books. not just books as decoration, but real readable ones. I just love the feel of a goo book and turning pages, and all that stuff. Then there is the coffee table photography book, that just isn't the same on a computer.


From: roman (Apr 19 2009, at 07:31)

Recently I had to move back into my old room after finishing my studies. And I have to admit it is freaking me out. Everything is full of ancient electronics, books and CD's. The world was better when I lived in my little monastery … studying. With nothing but a mattress and a laptop inside. In the last semesterss I really developed this Zen-attitude and getting ride of things.


From: Joe Gregorio (Apr 19 2009, at 08:40)

My wife and I have had a goal for the last year of throwing away/giving away/selling two lawn-and-leaf garbage bags worth of stuff every weekend. We aren't always successful, but we're moving in the right direction.

While I think technology is helping to make it possible, I think the real change here is a new attitude toward consumerism and materialism, and an increasing appreciation for the immaterial things like family, friends, and free time.


From: Matthew Artz (Apr 19 2009, at 08:59)

"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."

Hmm...been reading Anathem?

I applaud your effort to digitize. It was my Q1 goal this year (still not finished) to finish my digitization, which started back in 2003. Music has been more or less all digital since then. Photos spread across multiple computers, external drives, and DVD archives are now centralized onto a single network drive. And I'm about 90% finished with digitizing my favorite DVDs (212 down, 23 to go).

Books are a much more interesting question. A move a year ago led me to trim to only four 8'x4' book cases, but I think I could trim more. There are clearly some that don't fit any of your three requirements.

"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." - William Morris

And here are some similar decision rules (I think from 43Folders originally, adapted somewhat to my beliefs):

1. Is this primarily an aesthetic item? If so, do I find it to be beautiful?

2. If not, have I used this item recently?

3. Does this item help me in my life's goals?

4. Do I need to own this item? Is there a way I can borrow, rent, or improvise its function in a time of need?


From: David Magda (Apr 19 2009, at 09:38)

There was idea going around a little while ago on try to live with only 100 Things:,9171,1812048,00.html

Even if you don't get down to one hundred, the examination of what you need versus what you want is probably something that should be done by people once a decade or so. Especially in recent times with the amount of debt a lot of people have.

There is some research to suggest that clutter has a psychological impact on us:


From: Rudi Gens (Apr 19 2009, at 14:57)

I guess the transition from music media like LPs, CDs and such to an entirely digital world is already reality. I remember you writing about closing music shops a while ago. That is more than a sign.

Part of my world is writing articles of scientific journals. There are still printed but you wonder for how long that will continue. Writing a manuscript used to be an entirely printed matter endeavour, from sending it to the editor to the entire review progress. Even most of the figures were done in some manual fashion. Now everything is done using some online manuscript database system. A lot of new journals abolished printed editions alltogether. I can't remember when I last went to our library. Photocopies taking up shelf space are replaced by PDF files. Saves the environment and it searchable on top of that. Everybody wins.

I am not sure what to think about books disappearing out of our life. I still can't think of anything that would replace the joy of entering a book store or library and getting lost in the environment for a while.


From: Derek K. Miller (Apr 19 2009, at 17:02)

Years ago I recall seeing online a modernist "masterpiece" of a house for sale somewhere in the southern U.S. -- it was essentially a squashed concrete cube risen off the ground, with walls entirely of glass.

And I recall thinking, what would that look like if people actually lived in it? There'd be wires and toys and beat-up furniture and crap all over the place, and you'd see them all. The windows would get dirty. And how would there be any privacy? You could see right through the place, except for the wood-walled bathroom in the centre. (Ah, a concession to reality!) I couldn't see any blinds or curtains, though I suppose they must have been there somewhere.

And this was in humid, swamp country. Wouldn't the place get mildewy? What would it cost to keep it at a comfortable temperature with all that greenhouse glass around the edges?

The fine aesthetic of a designer interior, or a designer house, doesn't seem made for people who live real lives and make real messes, or have real stuff. Even if we purged all our books and CDs, looking around our living room there are still many pieces of random art on the walls and mantel, plants, board games, lamps and speakers and TV and fish tank and digital piano with all their wires, fireplace pokers, pens and art supplies, plates and glasses and beautiful tableware in cabinets, candles...

We're not packrats, at least not too much, but we have stuff. We're a hustle-bustle family, and we use the stuff, every day. That doesn't seem to fit with austerity.


From: Bill Moore (Apr 19 2009, at 17:38)

I know it's a lost battle, but I wish people would learn to use properly English :-)

What you meant to say was 'Fewer Disks' and 'Fewer Books'

Fewer people are correct these days and less and less often do I see the correct usage of less and fewer !!



From: Preston L. Bannister (Apr 19 2009, at 20:29)

Yes, when you go to someone's house and the only printed word is "People" magazine, and maybe a newspaper - there does seem to be something fundamentally wrong. That also illustrates our human tendency to assume other folk are like us, when the reality is very different.

As for media, the CDs were copied to hard disk, then moved to a box in a storage room, years ago. There are still DVDs hidden near the TV - mainly as I cannot readily run wired ethernet to that location.

There are a few books in nearly every room in the house (those I am now or might soon read), two 7x4 bookshelves in my study (mostly software-related), and the remainder in boxes in the storage room.

The kitchen is not quite Zen-ish, but everything you can see is used. (I like to cook.) A few years back I threw out a lot of junk, keeping only what I used and liked, replacing some tools with better (though nothing exotic).

Come to think of it, as a single common theme, you will see <i>tools</i> everywhere, in my house (counting some books as a sort of tool).

Still working on cutting down the clutter....


From: Andrew Walkingshaw (Apr 19 2009, at 23:13)

In a sense, you could say that (although minimalism's good politics in the economic end-times we're told we're in...) we're overdue a revival of the Arts and Crafts movement. No technology which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful...


From: len (Apr 20 2009, at 06:50)

I keep spaces judiciously full because if I clear them out, particularly flat spots, the dwarves of continuous acquirements will refill them with more stuff that then has to be moved to yet another closet cleared out into the garage.

Somewhere on earth there is a garage with infinite expansion possible because it is on the verge of tipping this universe into the next one that is full of car keys, rubber bands and abandoned roach clips next to lost driver's licenses.


From: max (Apr 20 2009, at 07:30)

The power of the monastic life is not derived from spare aesthetics, but the removal of such choices to begin with. Have a space and move on. The time we spend contemplating more efficient arrangements functions as a diversion from what we're trying to achieve.


From: Nate (Apr 20 2009, at 07:45)

Well said. You might like this line of thought:

“Frequently museums offer opprtunities for additional hyperactivity, which may attract some people, or many people on some occasions, but there are others who would appreciate or learn to appreciate a Silence Room…Are we as much concerned with the effects of noxious impressions on our minds as we are with air pollution?”

-by Alma Wittlin’s “A Twelve Point Program for Museum Renewal”.

I believe we are sharing a similar revelation about what we are surrounded by. I likened it more to how we like to clean off our desks to nothing.


From: WhoRay (Apr 20 2009, at 08:54)

I think it is true that people use media as a display piece, similar to the 'Coffee Table Book' idea, but end up having a dysfunctional living space. However, I shy away from many of the comments here seem to advocate: using someone else's aesthetic as your own. Try making a space YOU want to live in, not what someone else tells you to want, for down that path lies waste and dissatisfaction.


From: Sean O'Donnell (Apr 21 2009, at 02:16)

I've been slowly working on the same idea since I read a few months back (it only gets relevant about half way through). And initial progress was good, refuse sack after refuse sack of possessions sailed out the door. Its gotten slower though, and one thing I have not been able to bear to do is part with my books, but I can feel myself getting less attached to them as time goes on. My home is probably still cluttered to the casual visitor, but its a world of difference from where I was, and I am still slowly working at it.


From: JulesLt (Apr 21 2009, at 16:10)

I'm not convinced people want to live in monasteries - I'm sure we'll find other ways to fill up the blank spaces.

I need only think back to people I who have collections of toy frogs, dolls, porcelain, Star Wars figures, rather than books in their houses - I think there are relatively few people who could live in an environment of 4 bare walls and a MacBook.

The other question, of course, is how new forms will affect content. Will we develop a generation of 'web native' readers with the patience to read a novel? Or will be (perhaps) see a return to Dickensian episodic form?

There's never been a technological change that hasn't also affected content.


From: Phil (Apr 22 2009, at 05:33)

Glad you got stuff done in the Oxford study, but I doubt it was an Oxford thing or even an academic thing. I spent quite a lot of time in Cambridge studies while I was a student there - it's standard practice for lecturers to take seminars in their rooms, and they really are Their Rooms. In my experience they were all *crammed* with books; music equipment wasn't unknown, either. Cleared out for letting to visitors, they would have been pretty monastic, but so would any room anywhere. Next time you're in a hotel room, try unplugging the TV - instant monastic, no?


From: Michael (Apr 23 2009, at 09:04)

I understand the urge to pare down, but it's not necessarily advantageous. In one sense, getting rid of objects by digitizing doesn't lessen you're attachment to them. The anxieties of ownership don't go away. It might even be easier to change one's attitude toward objects, accept them and appreciate them, and save one's incredibly valuable time and use it for something else. I do have some experience in this. I'm a classical music record and CD collector (as well as lover of avant-garde jazz) and started to convert a collection of about 12,000 CDs and records to digital form. It hasn't been worth it. [1] A CD or record is a programmatic work. Most are well thought out and have a sense of a beginning, middle and end; most have a theme of some kind; and all have a sense of time and place. This has been lost, unfortunately, with iTunes, MediaMonkey and the rest. I'm not interested in playing music using a playlist, although it's fine for rock, r&b and pop. [2] There simply are no filing systems that take advantage of the brain's ability to remember colors and designs -- i.e., I can find the music I want to play among 12,000 recordings much more quickly just by scanning the spines of CDs and records, than I can by staring at a mind numbing list of titles on a screen. Not only that, filing systems are terrible. The meta data is horribly inaccurate and I can't see myself entering in all the detail into the system--the detail I like to reference just by reading the CD booklet or back of the record jacket. I wish the problem was merely to scale down. Sure. I'd love that. But the quality of the experience diminishes greatly. If I knew I'd be moving 8 more times in my life time, then yeah, maybe all this stuff would need to be digitized. Or if my collection was basically just rock -- then I'd have ripped it all at 192 kbps a long time ago. Hardly an issue there. IT folks nailed down the first "problem" by making it possible to digitize. Now the bigger one, retain or improve the actual engagement in the listening experience.


From: Geoff Arnold (Apr 26 2009, at 14:51)

You're also cited (and rebutted) (albeit with typo) in

Personally I don't see Nick Carr's argument. The opportunity for contemplation and solitude doesn't change if one exchanges a book for a Kindle. Both are personal, and unmediated.


From: Gary Frost (Apr 27 2009, at 18:54)

Print attributes of fixity, navigational and haptic refinement, materiality, and reliable re-access across time, all pair nicely with screen attributes of immediacy, automated search, electronic delivery, and live content.

Another crucial pair of print and screen attributes is revealed by the self-authenticating nature of the print book contrasted with the self-indexing nature of the screen book. The print book carries with it layers of physical evidence, overt content and bibliographic codes that persistently reveal the source and intent of its production. Such features of self-authentication, confirmed with ease of re-readings across time and cultures, give the material book its special role in transmission. But print books resist indexing and have been compiled into libraries only with great effort or with the help of on-line cataloging and finding aids.

By contrast the screen book is self-indexing because the encoding or production process that renders books to the screen also enables their keyword search routines. This attribute is really amazing. It is as if printing ink on paper inherently tabulated the letters and remembered them. However, the effervescent screen books resist authentication. Screen books, like touch screen voting or 3rd party financial derivatives, remain un-trusted with ease of unmonitored deletions or revisions and uncertain provenance. And expectations are very different with screen based research. The content is served quickly while the reader is induced to consume quickly as well.

These are eerie counterpoints. It is as if the screen is filling a transmission void of print and as if print is founding its own more essential, less ramified, role. Simple competition between the print book and screen book is an illusion; each has different function, there are exclusive attributes of each and super-cession is a minor factor. Mirror attributes, rather than contrasts of advantages and disadvantages, have emerged and mutual redefinition is at work.


From: Saul Caganoff (Apr 28 2009, at 19:58)

The benefits go beyond aesthetic. I recently ripped my entire cd collection onto an iPod. Most of it unlistened to disks from the 80's and 90's when I had a lot more time for music. Now I have such easy access to my collection. I've listened to more in the last few months than in the previous 10 years.


From: Keith Johnson (May 19 2009, at 19:07)

I wonder...

Had a music collection, but life too full to listen to any of it. Ripped collection to ipod, listen all the time, can't hear anything else.

Try this.

Pick a really great recording, put it on your old player, listen with friends, discuss.

Then go for a walk on a wild and windy day in solitary places - no ipod.


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