I am reasonably sure that i’ve only read about half the books on my bookshelf. ‘Awakenings’ by Oliver Sacks is a favourite, i’ve read that three times. ‘The Hobbit’ i won in an art prize at the age of about twelve. It’s got the original illustrations, a treasured copy. ‘Music and the Mind’ is an interesting exploration of the psychology of music. ‘Irish Traditional Crafts’, i couldn’t claim to have read, although all thirty nine Terry Pratchett ones are well thumbed.
Books are more than just stories, more than just paper and words. They are memories, statements about who we are, who we want to be, who we used to be and what we aspire to be.
The fact that i’ve not read them all doesn’t bother me at all. Some books i’m happy to just dip into, others, to be honest, it’s just nice to own. So it was no surprise to hear that a large number of the Kindles, Kobos and other eReaders that have ever been sold have never been used to read a single book. Purchase can be aspirational as well as educational. Stephen Hawking happily accepts that the vast majority of people who bought ‘A brief history of time’ never finished it. Sometimes it’s ok to be a better person by osmosis.
Or to climb one more rung of the social ladder (should i have admitted to being a lifelong Terry Pratchett fan? Mental note – edit this to say ‘ Charles Dickens’)
Formal learning tends to be focussed on results: passing an exam, getting a qualification, going for a better job (or sometimes keeping the one you’ve got). Informal learning is far less structured and is often done just for the sake of it. That’s why it’s ok that in the last year i’ve read a seven hundred page book on the Kalashnikov assault rifle and it’s role in political history, as well as a history of the Ordnance Survey and a book about a flying boat called Corsair.
Whilst social reading and learning are different from more formal activities, many of the motivators, drivers and blockers are similar. I happily buy ‘business’ books on the iPad (maybe ‘books’ should be in invested commas, not the business part?). I do this because i get no particular pleasure from having them on my shelf. The same social motivators that cause me to proudly display my hardback copy of ‘Wildwood’ by Roger Deakin in my lounge prevent me similarly showing off Donald Trump’s book on the ‘Midas Touch’. I’ve enjoyed both, but putting Donald on display would just embarrass me. It’s a functional book, not aligned to my core beliefs about myself.
And, of course, the very act of purchasing a book, especially from my beloved local bookshop, is part of the charm. I love the impulsive purchase of a newly discovered treasure, or the guilty pleasure of taking a recommendation.
I was discussing the changes in the world of learning at the weekend. After hundreds of years when things have been static, suddenly everything is changing. The iPad was only released in 2010, and yet it’s fundamentally shifted how we consume content, what we understand by the term ‘book’ or ‘magazine’, how we thing about publishing and how we touch things. I’m not the only person to constantly try to swipe the screen when i revert to my laptop, although i haven’t yet tried to swipe a piece of paper to scale the text… yet.
I think it’s good that things are in flux, this is the time to be trying out new models, to experiment, to take the best things that work and develop them further. Soon the new ‘normal’ will emerge. But, whilst change is good, familiarity is also important. I changed to buy nearly all my music online. But i know that i will never do that with books. Whilst i’ll relish and support the development of new content formats, and consider myself an early adopter of technology, i just know that nothing is ever going to displace my bookshelves and nothing is going to displace the joy of turning the first page and getting your nose stuck into a really good book.
A nice, if slightly heavyweight, article on why we buy books we don’t read:
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