Books are already historical artifacts

Books are really starting to feel archaic to me. Quaint artifacts. This was hammered home during a bookshelf-purging exercise last night.

Kim and I have been downsizing our book library for years now. It was already cut down to a just few shelves worth. Small as it is, we hacked into what remains of the collection and lightened it another 50%. Along the way, the obsolescence of several items was quite striking …

A dictionary — what’s the point? I now look up words in ebooks as I read them, with a dazzling convenience factor. And if the word isn’t in the built-in dictionary (which has only happened once), then I simply carry on with an internet search (which is how I recently learned all about “bucellarii”).

And why keep an atlas when I have astounding mapping apps in my pocket at all times? What good is that beast of a book when I can, in seconds, produce vivid geographic representations of any place on Earth, from (nearly) any place on Earth no less?

Another batch of books that finally me their doom was a set of treasured astronomical references, such as the beefy Burnham’s and a very serious star atlas, Uranometria. These bricks have been lugged through every move I’ve ever done, taken up shelf space in literally every home I’ve ever had. And they’re especially obsolete: there’s not one thing in them that I can’t get faster and better on my iPad. Covered with a red screen protector to preserve night vision, the iPad is a (much) better astronomy companion in every way than 100 pounds of books.

Looking at print editions of my favourite books, it was impossible not to start fantasizing about replacing them — all of them — with ebook editions: so much easier to find favourite passages and quote them! That’s the main reason I keep copies of my favourite books around, after all. Can’t tell you how often I’ve spent a half hour flipping madly through Demon-Haunted World (Sagan) or a massive, beautiful novel like A Soldier of the Great War (Helprin) looking for a passage that I just know is in there … at least half of these efforts fail, and it’s incredibly inefficient.

On my iPad in an ebook, I can almost always find such things in seconds. For instance …

Earlier this week Kim and I re-watched 300, about a few dozen extremely manly Greeks getting all up in the grill of Xerxes’ the Great, who is presented as pretty much the ultimate in ancient badassery. By coincidence, I found myself reading about Xerxes in a novel a few days later. Here’s a 6th Century Roman general, Belisarius, commenting on how Xerxes actually really had a crap army — a “lightly armored mob” — compared to the seriously upgraded Persians of his own era:

I’m always amazed at the way modern Greek scholars and courtiers don’t live in the real world. Their image of Persian armies is fixed a thousand years ago, in the ancient times. When a small number of disciplined and armored Greek and Macedonian hoplites could always scatter the lightly-armed Persian mobs of Xerxes and Darius. The glorious phalanx of the Hellenes against the motley hordes of despotic Asia.

An Oblique Approach, by David Drake & Eric Flint

Fascinating! Later on I wanted to share this with Kim. Old method: flipping for several minutes, high likelihood of coming up empty. New method: 5 seconds to find the passage searching for the highly distinctive “Xerxes.” And I just did the same thing again for this, and copied and pasted the quote … see how this works? So awesome.

So you can imagine why I am starting to drool about the idea of my entire library of favourite books all stored on my iPad and iPhone. This would enable highly productive rummaging through my collection even when away from the office, such as when I’m writing at a coffee shop, or on one of my writing retreats on Bowen Island. Wow.

Books will always be nostalgic for me, of course. But they are going to lose to ebooks in my life, starting now. And they will clearly be relegated to the history ebooks within a generation.