Out with the bookcase: More living space, even more books!

On: October 16, 2010
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About Hans Terpstra
I'm a 28 year old student who previously got his BA in filmstudies. The reason I chose to do a MA in new media is because I'm currently in the process of setting up a weblabel with the crew members of RSA, our drum 'n bass group. So indeed, in my spare time I produce electronic music and of course another passion of mine besides that is film.


Let me tell you a story about my sister. Isn’t that a good introduction to a blog, share a story with complete strangers online involving private family matters? Though she may not like it, I won’t give her name or anything, and more importantly, I have this feeling that a lot people these days resemble her situation and we’re still talking new media here and no drugs or sex scandals, so let’s get to it.

iTunesIt actually started at a day when I was at my folks’ some years ago. I was looking for some CD’s to borrow off them and while browsing their fairly large music collection I couldn’t help notice titles which seemed alien to the musical taste buds of my parents. So out of the blue I asked them why they suddenly started purchasing music like Massive Attack, girly Dutch pop music and Erykah Badu. A reaction in terms of what the hell I was on about resulted in some short thinking and then a surprising answer; ‘Oh, they’re your sister’s. She converted all her CD’s to iTunes and gave them all to us.’ I was paralyzed. Someone gives all their CD’s away? That was the most stupendous thing I ever heard. Not only can they be expensive, but they are you; they tell you what kind of person you are and that helps other people defining you. If you really love the music, aren’t you proud to own that music and showcase it in your house so people can identify with you, or not? The response I got back was that I didn’t really get it. ‘ITunes puts all your music into this handy library where you can find them without any problem, you know. In that way you won’t have to worry about changing CD’s, those things getting damaged or lost, and last but not least, she said it really saved a lot of space in her apartment.’ Aha. The only thing I wondered about was what she filled that space with. A vase? A birth card? Nothing? Maybe people like clinical emptiness now opposed to the backs of CD’s contrasting heavily in colours creating a daze for the eye. In the end, I found a CD I gave to her for a present years ago and decided to have it back. After all, I paid twenty euro’s for it then and I doubted my folks ever listening to it.

What you are, apart from what you say…

Cd's in the garbageThe issue here is not CD’s being sold less, being replaced by MP3’s being sold online or people getting rid of their physical music collections when they replaced it for a digital one. The issue is the whole digitization of music, art, books, films, and other media in someone’s home which defines, at least to me, a big part of their level of mental competence. Although this may sound farfetched, or even short-sighted, I think that getting to know a person depends much less on their clothing or how or what they speak, but really on what inspires them in daily life and makes them what they are. Therefore, what I really try to pay attention to when I get invited into someone’s home for the first time is not their furniture, the colour of the walls or the motive on the cushions lying on the sofa, but things like their paintings, posters, and what their CD and book collections hold. Things that have a cultural value which tell so much more about what a person is like than their clothing or their phone model. They are very important key points in broadening one’s horizon and even fusing them with another, sometimes resulting in sharing passions and becoming friends. I for one, find it a great indicator when I think I met an interesting person I can spend time with, especially when I find out when I get invited into his or her home, that the bookshelf holds nothing more than 20 volumes of Garfield pockets and a book on general household tips. This is not prejudice. It matters when I find between one’s CD collection not just a incidental album with Fun Fair Tunes, but find the whole collection in the range of unspecified, light hearted music which hold no real reference to another. Of course, there are people who couldn’t care less what these collections hold, and frankly these people scare me a little. These people are mostly the first ones to throw out what they digitized.

Digital music is becoming the norm. Physical music is on its way out. The convergence of new media is continuing to digitalize your household, whatever can be translated to this medium. Music, with the introduction of mp3’s in the late nineties, has done its job. The iTunes and an iPod are the simple solutions for getting your music quick without making a mess. So what’s next?

The need for space, to urge to digitize

E-readerAfter half consciously accepting people trading in their CD collection showing their musical tastes for an iPod which is standing in its ‘dock’ as a sterile, cold device, the media is viewing the next trend in clearing up space in your house; e-readers! Sites like Amazon sell more e-books than hardcovers now, according to Wire this summer. Although on a worldwide scale the selling of e-books is still marginal compared to its physical daddy, the launch of Apple’s iPad could do the very same thing the iPod started to do five years ago; give a simple solution for storing all your books on one device, and bring them up with the click of a button. Looking for a certain page? Type it in the search box and let your e-reader look for that passage which could take you hours with a physical book, flipping through the pages trying to remember whereabouts the twist of a story unfolds. No more crooked, yellow pages or them sticking together because coffee got poured over them. No more remembering where you put the book down, just flip off your e-reader, turn it on and it shows the very last page you were reading. Isn’t that reading comfort? And hear how the e-reader makes this cosy papery flipping sound when you skip to the next page, just like a real book. Doesn’t that bring a tear to your eye, just like you hear an analogue pre-recorded flashing sound on your digital camera to give one the virtual sensation of a photo roll being spun inside the device flat as a pancake? It seems that our affinity with the analogue and physical still must take some time before the sentiment of their practicality has faded into the ongoing era of digitization.

Isn't this interesting?But once again, the issue is not an electronic device trying to simulate a bounded pile of paper. Just like with CD’s and records, a trend seems to emerge where all books are getting digitized, are for download for a much lower price than their physical counterparts, and with the growing ease of data capacity, a general collection of books in someone’s house can easily be held on a small device like an e-reader. Those big bookcases with all those pieces of bounded paper, collecting dust, maybe reeking, turning yellow and mostly not being touched no more after being read, can now make place for something that can’t be digitized yet, like another sofa or a smooth looking chair to comfortably sit in while reading your e-reader. Next to that a small table for holding your e-reader in a ‘dock’ so your digital bookcase won’t run out of juice, right next to your iPod’s. So look at that; those big immobile bookcases full of stuff you hardly ever touch get replaced by these two neat looking devices which sure are a bigger addition to making your house looking smooth, futuristic and tight. A much better sight and ease for the eye, attuned to the technology and comforts of today. Is this an issue?

Call me reactionary, but when I see this trend growing I think more and more of the CD’s of my sister. I hypothesize a day when I visit my folks, I see a bunch of cardboard boxes stacked in the hallway reeking of paper; ‘Oh yeah, your sister has all these books in those boxes now in digital form, so she decided to get that really big HD television in place of her bookcase.’ And that is an issue to me; walk into someone’s house, see some furniture and a very big flat screen television nailed to the wall, and hearing a remark such as; ‘That would have never fitted in here if I didn’t get an e-reader. You like books, I mean made out of paper? I might have some for you.’ Or maybe they were thrown on the street along with the other garbage. The point is that this convergence of what Bourdieu coined as objectified cultural capital is now being trapped into small digital devices and is seen as losing their value of physical commodity. This gives people no opportunity to induce someone’s tastes in culture. It would be too personal to just look around into someone’s e-reader to see what sorts of book one likes. And could we ask that in the first place? What people have in their house show their personality and accompanying interests. If someone has little books, we can say one could not be a big reader. But if one only has an iPad for storing books and has gotten rid of physical books, the iPad might just sit there for show without one book on it. Of course, a full bookcase alone doesn’t say whether its owner has ever read one book in there, but they are nonetheless there for others to see, and one gets closer to or further from someone when having the freedom to investigate their own accumulated objectified cultural capital. So if there’s nothing to see, what is there to induce? Will this digitizing of books and music, trapping them and making them invisible in small, slick designed gadgets, get rid of any reference a person is like which we won’t dare to ask but can see in someone’s surroundings?

Alienating media?

Sparse?I really hope it isn’t all that bad as I might make it sound. Some people tell me that books are still books, and CD’s can be easily converted to MP3. Your books can’t be converted to a digital format by stuffing them in your iPad; you have to buy them again, and download them online. But this must happen sooner or later; who didn’t buy their favourite films on DVD which we owned on video at one point or another? Most people I know got rid of all their videos in the last decade. It is not a process one finalizes in a day in most cases, but in time most books, like already happened to most music, will be digitized and be available for a low price online. The user comfort and standards of reading will also become an issue of environment; think of how much forests will be saved if we didn’t cut them down for the paper industry! This view could even discourage people when buying physical books, giving their book-free house a natural conscious reason. Some people could even argue that an e-reader can hold more books than they can hold in their house in a physical form. But the lack of reference for the unknowing visitor can give him or her a creepy feeling of sterility and inability to create an outline of a person. Should we just squeeze it all out of him or her or gradually discover what makes a person tick? Or leave persons who digitize most of their cultural capital beyond our eyesight alone, while they just follow the miracles of technology which only serves their comfort with its practicality?

I have to sadly conclude these thoughts with leaving most of these questions, once again, unanswered since only time will tell when books start to appear in cardboard boxes, thrown next to the bins in the street. So in the meantime, if you have any records, books or CD’s, now digitized in your fancy Pods and Pads, which are about to get tossed in the bin, give me a call. I’ll have a quick look through and might give some of it a second, treasured home. Some of it might still tell people a bit about me when they enter my God-fearing living room, isn’t that a thought?


Ball, Stephen J., ed. The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Social Education. New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2009.

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