As electronic readers gain popularity, what happens to the personal library?

  Enlarge Photo    
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2010

A few years ago I spent a weekend at a gaudy trophy home in the Hamptons where, to paraphrase an English pop song, the crowd was blond and beautiful and the conversation dull and dutiful. I escaped to a room that was called the library, not because anyone ever read there but because it was quiet and filled with books.

From its shelves I took a copy of a Shakespeare play that I had mostly forgotten, and sat down in one of the comfortable-looking red-leather armchairs. It was like descending into a low-slung sports car. Down and down you went and when you finally hit bottom, your knees were higher than your backside.

Later I learned that this was because the bottom of the chair legs had been sawed off, as had the legs on all the coffee tables, so that when the room was photographed from certain angles, the walls of books looked even higher by contrast. This deceitful bit of interior design could stand for the whole house. It was all about display.

Not many of us can afford a library like that one, a designated room entirely full of books, arranged floor to ceiling on custom-made, built-in shelves capped by ornate molding. But while most of us would never claim to have a home library -- too pretentious -- we secretly think of some room in the house as . . . the library. A place to read, to store books, to confront the past and future of our own limited knowledge, staring down at us in all its complicated categories: books you will read, books you should read, books you read and remember, books you read and forgot, lousy books your aunt gave you and you can't throw away because she still comes to visit from time to time.

The architecture of our lives is constantly changing, and the library may be next on the list of rooms that grow vestigial and then vanish from our floor plans. Where it survives, it has merged with the "office" or the "den," and the language of the contemporary home, which stresses flow and openness, doesn't bode well for the survival of a room that should stand apart, a quiet eddy to the side of the busy torrent of modern life. The library, alas, may go the way of the separate dining room and the formal parlor, not because we won't read anymore, but because we won't read books anymore, at least not books printed on paper.

But what a loss to the ways books represent, bedevil and impeach us. They represent us, of course, as anyone knows who has made basic decisions about which books go in the living room and which get confined to less public places. That they bedevil us is clear if you have moved recently or live burdened with closets filled with books -- books under the bed, books in the attic -- or if you have ever saved a book for years or decades only to discover, upon desperately needing it, that it has been lost in the general deluge of too many books.

But they also impeach us, and it is that function that electronic readers can never replicate. A wall of books is mortality made geometric, a pattern of hope and loss, ambition and failure. There's so much fraud lurking on our shelves, fraudulent books such as "My Sister and I." Purported to be by Nietzsche, it is suspiciously more readable, lurid and fun than anything by Nietzsche. But there's also the record of our own fraud, the books we intend to read but never will, the books of which we remember no more than what is printed on the dust jacket -- yet claim to possess in some deeper way.

There are books we pretend to keep for reference, but in fact keep only because they look so damn fine on the shelf. And then there are the books where should-have-read blends with may-have-read, and we're too embarrassed to confess we can't remember which is the case ("Catcher in the Rye"). There are also the books of hollow triumph, the great tomes of philosophy read in college, which remain on the shelves like snapshots taken from the summit of Everest or like pants in the closet that will never again slide up our thighs without tearing.

Electronic book readers are a great invention for people who actually read books. But what do they offer those of us who have an even more complicated relationship with books unread? Sitting on a shelf, Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain" stares down as coldly and harshly as an alp in winter. Locked up in the digital ether of a Kindle or a Nook, it can never indict our miserable laziness.

The home library may live on in a few privileged homes as a purely fraudulent place, a room, like that one in the Hamptons, for displaying books that are entirely decorative. But all the lesser lies of reading, the smaller acts of fraud, the minor and more nuanced forms of self-deception that are manifest in a home library will lose their designated place, their little plot of space in the three-dimensional world. No one will ever look at an iPad icon that says "The Man Without Qualities," sitting on a high-definition digital picture of a bookshelf, and think, "After I'm dead."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company