A summer chore was to dust the book shelves in my home. As you can see, the shelves (There are two more bays of shelves to the right.) have an open design thus collecting their share of dust and incidentally also a thin film of cooking grease that wafts out of the kitchen. As I worked, I was struck by how much of what I touched is now obsolete.
The shelves hold other objects that just books. Some are artifacts from the past – pictures of my parents, a toy passenger rail car that my dad built, the odd gift or piece of art – not obsolete but providing mostly nostalgia value. There is a shelf of CD’s and DVD’s and video tapes all superseded by internet streaming services. There are board games. Do I really need three scrabble sets? The games are kept for possible interested visitors who never appear. The shelves also contain six or seven Go sets. I only need one. The others gather dust.
The books are arranged by type. There is a shelf of Go books, some in Japanese which I can’t read. I might dip into them in an idle moment but the totality is more than I could ever read and learn from for the rest of my life. There are reference books. We sent the Encyclopedia Britannica to the dump years ago but still there are dictionaries, atlases and the like – even the complete Shakespeare with print too small for old eyes. All these have been superseded by the internet. Speaking of atlases, part of a shelf has a pile of maps now made obsolete by their age and google maps. Nostalgic value only. There are how-to books – knitting, knotting, auto mechanics, hiking, carpentry, etc. Now if I want to know how-to, I search youtube.
We used to collect what I call idea books – The Black Swan or Consilience for example. These are good for lending without expectation of return but have not been and never will be reread. Valuable ideas sitting dormant. Other books – novels, popular science also lie fallow on the shelves.
Then there is the floor to ceiling collection of math books on the left. Many of them I have read but few have I mastered. My college notes are also there. These math books now exist as a reminder of knowledge I will never have – what I don’t have time to learn if I could. At this point if I need to know about a mathematical topic I go to the internet.
So what is the purpose of my book shelves. They provide wistful ambiance from my past life and a stab of regret for paths not taken. As my friend Barry the golfer remarked, his book shelves just provide a decorative background for his television set. Mine just adorn the north side of the living room.