Etcetera: How Digital Erodes Cultural Trophy-Wielding

August 12th, 2013 § 3 comments

This is not a cranky older guy post, whining about the way things used to be, but merely an observation about how the digital revolution has affected a behavior that was long taken for granted. I am referring, specifically to the habit of browsing bookshelves and record collections when visiting a home for the first time.

For me, this was a time-honored activity because, in moments when I might be left alone in the appropriate room, or during a party seek refuge from din, I would drift to bookshelves or record (later CD) racks to peruse the archive, as it were. Visiting a new friend, it would help me to quickly understand what more we might have in common; on an early date, it might provide fodder for conversation during a forthcoming lull. Even the manner in which the materials were kept was a indicator; as a compulsive alphabetizer, a jumbled collection might give me pause; my books are still divided between fiction and non-fiction and my CDs are broken down, by rock, jazz, classical, comedy and cast recordings.

Some of my fiction books, imperfectly organized

Some of my fiction books,
imperfectly organized

Long before we talked of online curation, one’s music or literary collections were a snapshot of a person just ripe for the examining. In The New York Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg has likened a book collection to being a personal reminder of one’s literary pursuits and achievements. I instead see them as somewhat more external, hunting trophies for the cultural adventurer, displays of prowess for others to marvel at. True, they’re hardly foolproof record. There was an era when nearly every self-respecting bookshelf held Stephen Hawking’s  A Brief History of Time, but I’ve never actually had a conversation with anyone who’s read it; it was the equivalent of buying a stag’s head in an antique shop rather than tracking wildlife through the Rockies (not that I’m advocating anyone running out to kill animals for display).

Mind you, the digital shift has been an enormous boon to many. One no longer need  enter someone’s home to check out their interests; the cavalcade of Facebook likes means you can surf the interests, if not ownership, of people you may have just met – or don’t yet know – allowing you to prejudge if you wish.  Trying that option with me online will prove vastly less fulfilling than a bookshelf crawl in my apartment; I tend to “like” very little on Facebook so that my news feed won’t be overrun with ads and “you may also like” suggestions. I’m not intentionally shielding my digital footprint or my enthusiasms from others, but only trying to limit marketer access to the degree that’s still possible.

Some of my music archive, alphabetized by artist

A portion of my music archive,
alphabetized by artist

The iPod and the Kindle (and their competitors) are responsible for stymieing this wholly acceptable form of social and cultural snooping. If you’re spotted gazing at a bookshelf, no one would think anything of it, and might even evince a certain amount of pride, while if you were to suddenly activate their tablet while they’re off getting you a drink, they might not be so sanguine. The digital survey, even if deemed acceptable, is also not so rewarding as to do so physically; there are no book flaps and author bios to read easily, or album art or liner notes to study.  To be sure, the digital devices allow us access to our collections constantly, thanks to portability and now even cloud storage, but it has hidden our interests from view, cutting off a line of communication.

Of course, as an avid theatergoer, that aspect of my interests has always been less accessible. There are only so many Playbills and programs one can artfully array on a coffee table before it comes clutter, and theatre programs don’t have spines with the names of shows visible if stored on shelves. Part of my CD collection is  misleading, because I often acquire cast recordings for reference, not necessarily personal enthusiasm; I have musicals on disc that I have never listened to, but they’re right at hand should the subject come up.

I am a creature of habit, and my attachment to the physical is deeply ingrained. I suppose on a vacation I might download a stray mystery to the Kindle rather than carry a book (hardcover is my preference, in almost all cases, with the attendant weight burden). The stray pop tune may warrant an iTunes impulse buy, rather than an album purchase, and the same holds true for some obscure material that is no longer in print but remains downloadable. But as someone who still dreams of a room in my home called the library, with comfortable reading chairs, a great sound system and walls filled with books, I can’t let go of my prizes, which even after periodic culls, have traveled from home to home with me, not least being my copies of published plays, in weathered paperback, some of which date back to my teen years.

It wouldn’t be cost effective for me to rebuy my books in digital form, even if it would free up precious apartment space; I could convert all of my recordings to digital, but I’d need a bigger iDevice. Doing either would deprive me of a portion of my trophies (the limited edition 5-CD Elvis Costello live set; the signed, numbered first edition of Vonnegut’s Slapstick) and of the display of my cultural plumage. I’m just not prepared to give that up. And like the owner of a home “under water,” I’ve invested a lot in this ephemera, only to find its physical value eroded by the march of technology, so it wouldn’t be close to an even trade if I opted to upgrade.  I am, at this point, rooted in my outdated pursuits, even if I ever choose not to be.

Mind you, I’m told that some people also like to check out bathroom medicine cabinets when they visit a home; that’s a line I’ve never been compelled to cross. But for aficionados of that level of intrusion, it’ll have to remain a physical pursuit, unless Facebook starts letting people “like” pharmaceuticals, which I hope never comes to pass.


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  • It’s one of my favorite things to do in a new place. And yes, perusing your shelves was highly amusing. “Got that, got that, read that, want that, got that, got that…” (This surprises no one.)

  • Jeanne McCafferty

    I’m in the process of reviewing/culling my books and CDs and this reminded me of why I keep so many of both. Thanks!

  • My younger son always liked to alphabetize his books when he felt stressed. And his rather small room is filled with books!

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